Like many people, I’ve often thought of selfies as artifacts of the immature or self-obsessed. Granted, we all have pictures of ourselves, including some taken at arms length. Similarly, we are all somewhat preoccupied with ourselves and our appearance. But those who complain of selfies are speaking of the daily posting of self-portraits to social media. I don’t get too upset about them; I’ve never been tempted to write a screed or shame anyone because of them. I agree with some of the articles in a recent IJoC that we seem to be in the midst of a media-generated moral panic. Ultimately, I find them relatively harmless; as people mature they seem to replace them with pictures of babies or pets! (That’s true of me.)
Recently, Val and Noah, two folks I respect and who often challenge my thinking, defended selfies as a type of self-acceptance. I’ve also been watching YouTube beauty videos from atypically beautiful people including Princess Joules, Stef Sanjati, and Lizzie Velasquez. I think “good for them,” even if I cringe a tiny bit at the cosmetically-dependent notions of femininity.
I am sympathetic to some of the selfie defenses. In my article on Fake Geek Girls, I followed Kristina Busse in noting how women’s and girls’ expressions of geekiness is often policed by men. I don’t know if empirically women are more likely to post selfies, but that seems to be the presumption. Accordingly, Se Smith argues that selfie policing is another example of the discounting of women’s activities. Similarly, some argue the selfies are often low tech, and those who criticize them do so from the privileged position of a high(er)-brow culture. I’m happy when more women are behind the lens, even if they remain in front of it too.
I’m especially sympathetic to calls for self-acceptance given my own manifold insecurities. I’ve never considered myself near the circle of the “beautiful people.” Even so, if we accept that selfie shaming is a gendered type of policing, does that mean we must condone all selfies? Aren’t some selfies still a reflection of a narcissistic or celebrity obsessed culture? Also, aren’t they still kind of annoying when they dominate our feeds? And aesthetically, many are blurry and dull. This led Aanand Prasad to argue we should “take better selfies”; “Also, take more of them. But better.” While I sometimes appreciate a selfie, I’ve never wished my feed had more of them. And to say we need more selfies only heightens the complaint most people have with them.
If I simply took my own portrait, people might think it odd, but that’s about it. Selfies are controversial because their posting is a social act. Maybe the poster is asking for some type of acceptance, validation, or support? But when does this cross the line into fishing for flattery? We should be cautious of selves built upon flattery. The poster also might be seeking to make others envious? I’m comfortable with the policing of nakedly vain or invidious displays. Another theory is that the poster seeks to transcend acceptance. In posting a selfie, they are saying: this is me, deal with it. I think my punk styling was a bit like that: I’m going to dress in a way that is comfortable for me but freaky to you, and I don’t care what you think anyway. However, I accepted the weakness of this argument when a friend asked me if I’d still have a mohawk if I lived on a deserted island. No, I probably wouldn’t. The palm trees wouldn’t care if I was different, so I doubt I’d bother. I do care what people think, even if it’s only to tell them I’m trying not to care.
In short, the self-acceptance argument could be understood as: we accept the importance of appearance, but we want to diversify or queer the standard of what is celebrated. The counter-argument is that we should move beyond appearance all-together.
I’m continuing to reconsider my (largely uninformed) view on selfies, but I’m not yet convinced that they are all wonderful manifestations of self-acceptance. As Senft and Baym wrote, “celebrating all selfies as empowering makes as little sense as denigrating them all as disempowering.”