Much has been made, on this website and others, of the colossal amount of vanity it takes to constantly take and share “selfies.” Why, just last week, I used this platform to mock those who thought a fucking funeral was a good time to take one, because seriously people, that’s fucked up. But is there ever a time when the social media self-portrait can be a healthy mode of expression, particularly for the young women who make up the vast majority of its practitioners? One need only look at the selfie with which I have illustrated this article to know I must answer “yes” to that question or risk being a total hypocrite.
Throughout most of history, a woman’s beauty has been seen as something for male spectators to ogle, and never for the woman herself to enjoy. Nudes were always painted with a voyeuristic quality, because it’s okay for a guy to get off on watching Diana and her sprites bathing, but not for said naked ladies to get off on it themselves. While male sexuality was generally accepted as animalistic and difficult to tame—needing a woman’s influence, even—women were supposed to be innocent, sexy children who neither met nor actively invited the male gaze. They certainly had no gaze of their own.
When Manet disrupted this tradition in 1863 by painting a naked prostitute staring the viewer down with an expression hovering somewhere between bitchy judgment and bored acceptance (and called her “Olympia,” no less), French society was scandalized. Here was a woman who was not only aware of being looked at, but looking right back at you in a resigned acknowledgement of her body’s position and value within capitalist patriarchy. She knew all the bad things you were thinking, and she didn’t much care. This flew in the face of everything 19th century Christianity had taught people about female beauty as an expression of inner purity, etc. She acknowledged her own beauty, and was not afraid to use it to survive in an unfair world. I thought a lot about this when reading Molly Crabapple‘s great piece “The World Of A Professional Naked Girl“:
A woman’s beauty is supposed to be her grand project and constant insecurity. We’re meant to shellac our lips with five different glosses, but always think we’re fat. Beauty is Zeno’s paradox. We should endlessly strive for it, but it’s not socially acceptable to admit we’re there. We can’t perceive it in ourselves. It belongs to the guy screaming “nice tits.”
Saying “I’m beautiful,” let alone charging for it, breaks the rules.
From a very young age, girls are looked at by others. Unless you live on a remote desert island, you are going to be seen, seen, and seen. To take control of your own avatar by presenting yourself how you, yourself, see yourself can be a valuable step in a person’s development.
Once upon a time, unsolicited male attention almost drove me insane. Trapped in a body I hadn’t asked for, I walked around feeling like I got all of the bad stuff (leering, groping) and none of the good stuff (cute boyfriends, eternal love) that was supposed to happen as a result of having T, A, etc. Some girls go the route of hiding under masculine or baggy clothing, but that was never me. It wasn’t until I began doing photoshoots of my own design that I finally made what I had going on work in my favor. From these shoots, I received money, pleasure, and friendship with likeminded women. I also modeled for a lot of shady photographers off the internet, which was a darker sort of education, but a practical one. Sure, they creeped on me sometimes (though not all the time), and eventually, the ever looming possibility stressed me out so much that I quit. But do you want to know how many men have creeped on me for free? I don’t do much nude modeling anymore, but I really think it helped neutralize the threat of male sexual attention such that it no longer fazes me. “This is mine,” I can shrug as I walk away.
Self-portraits can help you figure out who you are. Some take the incessant posting of selfies as a sign this generation lacks interiority; I see it as an extension of the experimentation teens have always done with hair, makeup bad fashion choices, etc. It’s an attempt at figuring out who you are (and who you want to be) via easily decodable means. Taking a photo of those experiments makes them feel like legitimate milestones, and anyone who still has their high school yearbook knows it can be fun to look back on those later.
For both teens and adults, self-portraits are a document not just of how you look, but of a moment in time, how you felt in said moment, what you were doing, and who you were doing it with. (At least if you’re doing it right.) For instance, when I look at the photo at the top of this story, I remember how much fun I had on my trip to Chicago, how much I love the friends I was there with (I have pictures of them too, obvi) and the shallow thrill of buying a new dress that I know I’m going to wear and love and feel great in for a long time. Caveat: do not take so many photos that you forget to live in the moment, or your memories will not be so enjoyable, as they will primarily be of the taking of pictures.
Self-portraits are also a concerted effort to like the way you look, as most of us take them when we’re feeling good about ourselves. If you’re reading this site, I don’t need to tell you how many women struggle with this. While some selfies might be pure, self-aggrandizing vanity, yet others are steps on a pathway to self-acceptance that we’d be wise not to shit all over. As Emily at xoJane writes, “in a world where women spend decades just learning to fucking like ourselves, I consider succeeding an accomplishment, not an embarrassment.” (See, I do like some of the things on xoJane.) I co-sign this sentiment and believe documenting myself has helped me get over a lot of my body issues. It’s hard to feel like a fat, ugly monster all the time when you have loads of visual evidence to the contrary, and I’m not too proud to admit that I occasionally look back over my Instagram photos when I’m not feeling so hot. As both reminders of fun times with friends and good hair days, they help. I realize I have some privilege in this area (or maybe I’m just being COCKY AND DELUSIONAL!) but I still suffer from flagging self-esteem sometimes, as most people who aren’t supermodels and some who are do.
Of course, this breaks down if you are only posting selfies because you want other people to “like” them and make you feel good about yourself. And if all you post is selfies, I might encourage you to take a better look at the world around you and all of the wonderful non-you things in it. But as a means of sharing your life with your friends, whose lives you, in turn, follow and care about, the social media aspect does not have to be gross.
So, to conclude: yes, there are lots of awful people posting selfies at inappropriate times and/or way too much, and yes it is troubling when young people look to others for validation. But as an expression of young female subjectivity, self-expression, self-documentation and self-esteem, I hold that they aren’t all bad. Then again, I am clearly biased, as I post at least one selfie a week. You can judge me if you like, but I’m going to keep on doing it for all of the aforementioned reasons. #SorryNotSorry!