By Hannah Powell
Selfies: we’ve all heard of them, we’ve all complained about them, and most of us secretly love to take them. For those few who have not been exposed to the selfie—that is, the new age Henry David Thoreau’s, the “technology is the Devil’s handmaiden” types, and those who still see throwing computers and smartphones into the harbor as a relevant act of revolution—put simply, the selfie is the act of taking a picture of oneself. However, in the years since the first confused Yankee held his hulking Kodak backward, the reputation and role of the selfie in our society has radically changed. Their presence in the world can be a unifying force, but also a divisive one. They’re a technological and social hallmark of our generation up there with YouTube celebrities, mobile blogging, and Britney Spears.
Selfies, whether we like it or not, saturate our society and reveal much about our lifestyle and the modern condition. They’ve come to transcend culture, class, race, and creed. Likely a result of our sensationalized media and modern penchant for soap operas and reality television, people tend to speak of selfie culture in extremes. Some see it as a revolution; some see it as a plunge toward Armageddon. Selfie culture has been described by the great orators of our time in a myriad of ways; I turned to UrbanDictionary to gain access to the words of these critical thinkers. A few of the most beautifully articulated definitions include (rather predictably):
Proof that the human genome is gradually degrading. This Bieber generation term is used to describe a photo taken by a person wielding a smartphone, with their pre-teen friend twerking in the background –Chainsaw 0352
A form of mental illness in which a self-obsessed ego maniac takes a picture of themself. They make shitty faces in the camera and use crappy filters. Then they post it on Instagram or Twitter with #selfie or some other #. Or really these idiots can post it on any other damn site. A lot of times mentally ill people take a selfie of doing something bad. Watch the news. You’ll see. –RatchetTay
The taking of a picture of yourself and posting it on Facebook because you have extremely low self-esteem and you need people to comment to tell you how hot or pretty you look. In reality you just look desperate for attention. And no matter how attractive you might be, you still look pathetic. –Haterofdesperation
And getting straight to their point, my personal favorite:
The beginning of the end of intelligent civilization. –Future Sociologist
As made clear in the text above, selfie culture has proven a point of great contention among the scholars and academics of my generation. Understandably so: there are few subjects in this world so worthy of critique, so emblematic of an ethical crisis within developed society as teenage girls potentially feeling good about themselves. As RatchetTay so poignantly noted alongside their woeful misunderstanding of mental illness, selfies are not just about showing off your newest accessory; too often, selfies are the accessory to crime. Watch the news. You’ll see.
Of course, as an active participant in this selfie culture (for ample evidence regarding this statement, stalk any of my 235 social media accounts), I have my own thoughts regarding the subject. If my opinions seem to be influenced by how great my eyebrows look through the lens of an iPhone 6 camera, I can assure you that my finely honed narcissism is completely relevant to my analysis. It took me years to establish this shameless self-confidence, and selfie culture nourished and nannied this egotism when nobody else would. Selfie culture has raised me from my preteen years, and now I feel obligated to speak in its defense.
I will now go on to detail why, if you experience a sense of righteous fury or existential fear for the future of the human race when you think about selfies, you may want to reconsider your stance. Why is it that selfies get such a bad rap? Why is it that self-proclaimed bibliophiles and old souls everywhere feel forced to distance themselves from the selfie in order to validate their intellectual worth? Is it too 21st century? That may make sense, given the fact that nothing seems to piss off the baby boomers and aging Gen Xers more than a teenage girl pursing her lips for an indulgent photo (I don’t recommend ever uttering the word “selfie” within 20 feet of this population; I’ve never seen a 31 year old man sporting crocs and patchy facial hair get so heated), but I propose that there may be another reason we see such a backlash against this phenomenon; why people feel such a need to draw a divisive line between selfie-taking and maturity and intelligence.
Hear me out here: Who takes the most selfies? Teenage girls. Why? Ideally because it makes them feel good about themselves. But who profits off of teenage girls feeling good about themselves? Pretty much nobody. Actually, pop culture (and the avalanche of advertising and consumptive media that comes with it) is pretty much built on the backs of self-loathing teenage girls. Buy this diet pill to become skinnier! Buy this makeup to become more attractive! Buy this outfit to make you more desirable! Buy this bra to make your boobs bigger! Buy this curling iron and maybe you’ll stop hating yourself! The selfie is a miracle of this generation, given the outrageously unrealistic beauty standards and expectations for teenage girls that saturate our society. The last thing girls are supposed to feel is confident about their own appearance.
It’s not attractive for a woman to know how hot she is. But that’s what makes the unapologetic selfie so awesome: it’s a massive fuck you to a society that says you’re not allowed to love how you look without hours of Photoshop, signing your soul away to the gym, and forever forsaking banana pudding.
Think about the last time someone gave you a compliment. How many women would reply with a simple “thank you,” or even more heinous, an “I know”? It took me years to stop myself from humbly rebuking compliments: No, my hair looks really awful today! Thanks, I still have to lose five pounds though. What? No, these pants totally make my ass look fat. It’s not attractive for a woman to know how hot she is. But that’s what makes the unapologetic selfie so awesome: it’s a massive fuck you to a society that says you’re not allowed to love how you look without hours of Photoshop, signing your soul away to the gym, and forever forsaking banana pudding. The selfie is revolutionary simply because it is mundane: normal girls taking pictures of their normal faces, and normal girls feeling good enough about themselves to want to share their face with the world. After all, if we love ourselves, what can they sell us? Viva la selfie! Fight the system with duck lips and peace signs! Yes, on a large scale, self-love is a revolution. But then on a small scale, even revolutions have etiquette one must adhere to. Selfie culture is a complicated beast, and attempting to tame it is a daily minefield of potential social faux pas, misplaced filters, and bad lighting.
Like all great revolutions, selfie culture comes with its perils. There are many battles to be fought each day, many obstacles to surmount. The most daunting of these trials, the most ferocious of villains, is often hiding right in front of your eyes—quite literally. It’s your face. And thanks to the demons of modern technology, it can too easily catch you by surprise. On frequent occasion, opening the front camera mirror on your phone is the modern version of falling into the Labyrinth. It might happen quite accidentally, in your mission to blog a quick photo of your latest Starbucks Triple, Venti, Half Sweet, Non-Fat Caramel Macchiato, only to be confronted with a creature bearing a striking resemblance to the Minotaur staring back at you in horrified shock. You then spend countless minutes navigating a maze of newfound flyaway hairs and sweat-smudged eyeliner only to find yourself back at the beginning; slightly more frantic, perspiring, and just as taurine as before.
But this is not to belittle the liberatory potential of the selfie. While there may be a certain art to working one’s angles, the selfie is so much more than perfecting a carefree half-smirk. It’s no coincidence that the word doubles as a slang term for rubbing one off; the selfie is about self-love, about feeling so good about your face that you have to share it with the world. Of course, like the practice of polishing the pearl or taking a turn at the self-serve station, it should be noted that one can have too much of a good thing. For your own health and the sake of not turning your friends’ Instagram feeds into a one-woman self-exploratory contemporary portrait art exhibit, you may want to limit yourself to two a day, tops. A sprained wrist is no unlikely risk for the avid selfie enthusiast.
Then, of course, there remains the art of the advanced selfie—the selfies that take practice and commitment to execute successfully. Perhaps the most gratifying in this elite category is the toilet selfie. Now, this takes years of practice and finesse—it is not for the selfie amateur. Those who are new to the field may be shocked to hear of this practice, but I can assure you that among seasoned pros, it’s a common one. There’s no law that states that pooping and looking good are mutually exclusive. In fact, the post-poop glow is often the ideal time to snap a quick close range selfie. You’re relaxed and satisfied, and with the right cropping and filter, the toilet selfie can easily become a contender for the essential bi- or tri-daily social media update. My personal preference is to stage a small celebration of my post-poop-pic success through subtle allusions hidden within the caption: #hotshit and #hotpieceofass are just a couple of my favorites. Only the most experienced of veteran selfie takers will catch whiff (pun intended) of your game upon encountering this selfie, and even then, the toilet selfie retains an air of mystery and intrigue that is unparalleled by its more socially acceptable counterparts.
Finally, of course, is the selfie that must be addressed, the most fraught of them all, and perhaps the most important: the Bad Day selfie. Now, selfies have great power. While they have the potential to build you up, they also have the damning ability to tear you down. We all have those days: when your face seems to be so asymmetrical you could mistake the mirror for a Picasso; when your nose feels so big those things that once resembled nostrils could find a suitable home on the face of Mars. But this doesn’t mean you should avoid the selfie, absolutely not! This is the time when the selfie is most imperative; when one must return to its roots and truly embrace its namesake. The selfie is for you. It is not for the sake of a like-count or gaining a new follower; it is all about having the self-confidence to thrust your mug out into the world without fear of a negative reception. The easiest way to feel good about yourself is to tell yourself you look good. Project those feelings onto every social media platform you have access to. Scream your pretty face into existence. This is the true liberatory potential of the selfie. Nothing feels better than saying fuck it, I look good. Say it often enough and you’ll inevitably start to believe it.
I’ve often heard that revolution starts at home. I say this revolution started with the first flip phone camera. The selfie is about self-love, something that our society can’t profit off of, and that makes it dangerous. So hold your phone like a picket sign, don that crappy filter like a Vendetta mask, and just know that every selfie you post has an unwritten but ever-present caption: I am enough just the way I am. Viva la Selfie.