The revolutionary potential of your own face, in seven chapters
- The one where a woman snaps a picture of herself, by herself.
- The one where we met three dead photographers who would have loved the iPhone.
- The one where we define selfies, as opposed to “ussies” or just “photos someone took of your face.”
- The one where selfie-haters threaten major-league sporting events, the capitalist system, the mass media, and the teens.
- The one where everyone takes a selfie.
- The one where I take a selfie.
- The one where we list who selfies are for and not for, and then we all die.
Shot One: Open on a woman snapping a picture of herself, by herself. Maybe she is sitting at an outdoor cafe, her phone held out in front of her like a gilded hand mirror, a looking glass linked to an Instagram account. Maybe she tilts her head one way and then another, smiling and smirking, pushing her hair around, defiantly staring into the lens, then coyly looking away. She takes one shot, then five, then 25. She flips through these images, appraising them, an editrix putting together the September issue of her face; she weighs each against the others, plays around with filters and lighting, and makes a final choice. She pushes send and it’s done. Her selfie is off to have adventures without her, to meet the gazes of strangers she will never know. She feels excited, maybe a little nervous. She has declared, in just a few clicks, that she deserves, in that moment, to be seen. The whole process takes less than five minutes.
Shot Two: Zoom in on a group of people watching this woman, one table over. They are snickering, rolling their eyes, whispering among themselves. Maybe they are older than she is, making jokes about Narcissus and the end of civilization as we know it. Maybe they are all men, deeply affronted by a woman looking at herself with longing, a woman who is both the see-er and the seen, the courier of her own message. Maybe they are a group of chattering women, who have internalized a societal shame about taking pleasure in one’s face in public, who have learned to be good girls, to never let their self-regard come off as a threat. Maybe they are lonesome and hungry for connection, projecting their own lack of community onto this woman’s solo show, believing her to be isolated rather than expansive. They don’t see where her image is headed, where it will take up space in the infinite. This is scary for them, this lack of control, this sense that her face could go anywhere, pop up anywhere. This is why they sneer at her like she is masturbating. This is why they believe that no selfie could ever mean anything other than vanity. This is why they think selfies are a phase, something they can wish away. Whoever they are, and for whatever reason they hate selfies, they are wrong.
Whenever I think about selfies, I think about the women who came before. I think about the ones who never got to use front-facing cameras, that technological ease and excess that we have so quickly taken for granted.
I think about Julia Margaret Cameron, who got her first camera as a gift, in 1863, when she was 48 years old. Her daughter gave it to her, a toy to stave off the solitude of aging. The machine must have felt electric in her hands. See, Julia wasn’t really a head-turner. We know this from her great-niece, Virginia Woolf, who wrote that Julia was an ugly duckling in a family full of cameo complexions; her nickname was “Talent,” where her sisters got to be called “Beauty.” Cameron became instantly obsessed with photography and dove into her second act. She made hundreds of silver albumen prints, practicing and practicing in a kind of fever dream until she had created a unique method of applying a soft, dewy focus to her portraits of British celebrities. In front of her lens, Cameron made everyone look gauzy, beautiful, ethereal. She copyrighted her technique, sold prints to museums, and wrote myth-making prose about her process in her memoirs:
“I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me, and at length the longing has been satisfied.”
Julia took only a few pictures of herself, and in them she looks far less imposing than her subjects, who were usually stoic, grizzled male intellectuals or creamy-cheeked actresses and debutantes. In her own portraits, she looks glum, dejected, staring at the ground or into the lens with a withering squint, as if she cannot believe she is doing this. Her self-portraits contain sighs. Vintage cameras had long exposure times, requiring the sitter to hold the same expression forever. I don’t know why Julia chose to glower, but if I had to guess, I would think she knew she could grimace for a full hour. It was an expression she was used to. The type of camera Julia used wasn’t made for experiments; each snap was a big commitment. We aren’t bound by her constraints now, with our ability flood our clouds with unlimited smirks, kissy pouts, tongue waggles, goofy winks, and come-hither stares. When we can take endless shots from endless angles, we start to discover dimensions of ourselves we never even knew were there. That girl in the park taking selfie after selfie after selfie? She’s investigating her own silhouette. She’s figuring out which parts of her face she loves; she’s doing confidence fact-finding. Sometimes it takes a hundred selfies to capture the one that rings out with recognition: this, this is who I am. Julia didn’t have the bandwidth to focus on herself until she felt like she could smile. But we do.
I think about Marian Hooper Adams, who went by Clover, the society doyenne of post-Civil War D.C. Clover and her husband, writer Henry Adams, lived across from the White House in a grand, creaky manse, where she played hostess to intellectuals and diplomats as they came through town. In their sitting room, Henry was king, while Clover played subservient wife, as women of the time were expected to do. No matter that she was extremely educated, the daughter of a prominent doctor and a Transcendental poetess. She was expected to stay quiet and erase herself, a smiling woman with a polished silver tray.
But upstairs, in her little room, she worked with colloidal silver, and there, Clover was queen of her domain. She started taking photographs as a side hobby in 1883 (Henry would never let her go pro with it), collecting pictures of her friends and family and the politicians that flowed through her house, the ones she wasn’t really supposed to talk to all that much. Instead, she used her photographs to communicate, to make some sense of her surroundings, to speak about her isolation. She wrote extremely technical notes about her work; her avocation became her calling. She took a devastating portrait of her in-laws, who barely spoke to her, their scowls barely concealing their grumpy disdain. Whenever she shot herself, she blocked out her face with a giant hat or some other prop; sometimes she was just a blurry smudge darting across the frame. I think even in these moments of silent communion with the camera, Clover was trying to grapple with how unseen she was, how little she felt she deserved to show herself. For a socialite, she didn’t have much of a social network of her own. She had no one to share her face with, and so she kept it to herself like a secret.
One day, two years after she started taking pictures, Clover killed herself in front of her bedroom fire. She was only 42. She swallowed potassium cyanide, the agent she used to develop her photographs.
After her death, Henry would destroy all of Clover’s letters and write her out of his autobiography; he almost managed to make her disappear. But somehow, her photographs survived. If I could go back and climb upstairs to her studio, I would tell her to show her face. If you ever feel scared to take your portrait and push it out to your feed, let me urge this: don’t focus on your anxiety, focus on all the Clovers, on all the women who felt the heat of a camera in their hands but were cut off from sharing with the world, who burned silently and alone for the chance to connect.
I think about Francesca Woodman; the lovely, doomed Francesca, the daughter of two bohemian artists, a plaintive blonde who spent summers in Italy and learned to take photographs of herself in an old farm house. She started noodling around with a camera when she was only 14 in 1972, fully committing herself to her work when she went off to study at RISD three years later. She sent her shots to fashion houses and magazines, but couldn’t really get much traction; she applied for grants and residencies with mixed results. She was in such a rush to become a success that any slowness in the process felt like a deep insult. Her depression rolled in like an unshakable fog. She tried to kill herself once, then again, and in 1981, when she was only 22, she succeeded by leaping out of a window of a building on the East Side of Manhattan.
What made Francesca different than Clover — give or take a hundred years — was that she actively inserted her own face and nakedness into her work, she made over 10,000 negatives demanding to be seen by someone, anyone. Looking at her work is like seeing someone discover and then delight in her own body, how far she could push it, how weird she could get, alone in a room with a roll of film. Sometimes Francesca shot herself as drowning in a river like a wet rat, or screaming, or holding a sharp knife while she bared one breast to the camera. Sometimes she showed herself disfigured by tight clothing, sometimes she bounced around in oversized dresses, exploring the space of a giant, empty, room. She played with exposure times — at the end of her life she was playing with such a slow shutter speed that she had to sit in front of her lens for hours — she was interested in her body as a vessel of both life and decay, of something vitally here and then suddenly gone. She sometimes referred to her work as “ghost pictures.”
Since her work came back in vogue — a documentary, a book, an exhibition, a feminist re-appraisal — many are quick to view Francesca’s work in light of her death, to say that she was actively trying to cancel herself out by isolating parts of her body in the frames, that her self-portraits were angry momento mori. This is likely a mistake: those who knew her described Francesca as extremely ambitious; she wrote in her journals in the third person, she saw herself from the outside as someone heading for greatness. She was doing that thing that makes women fearsome: she was trying to make art that mattered.
Consider this: maybe a woman — or really any person — who takes and publishes many pictures of herself is simply ambitious. She wants people to recognize her image-making ability, her aesthetic boldness, her bravery for stepping into the frame and clicking send. When you tell someone that they have sent too many images of themselves into their feeds, when you shame them with cries of narcissism and self-indulgence, when you tell them that they are taking up too much virtual space (space that is at present, basically limitless, save for the invented boundaries of taste): you need to question your motives. Are you afraid of a person’s ambition to be seen? Where does that come from?
If you take nothing else away from this historical detour, remember this: These women didn’t have the ability to take and post their own images to thousands of people at once. And they were still the lucky ones, the ones with cameras. So many women’s stories were erased (and will never be recovered) because they didn’t have access to private image-making. Virginia Woolf knew this: “[The history of most women is] hidden either by silence, or by flourishes and ornaments that amount to silence.” The same could be said for not just women but anyone living on the margins of race, gender, or class. The human longing to be seen and appraised has existed for centuries, but only a few had the technological power (and the distribution channels) to control it. Selfies are just one way of making up lost time, all of that yearning and desire that we never got to see because the powerless didn’t have their own cameras and printing presses. Types of people who never got to be looked at before are getting looked at, and are creating entire communities surrounding that looking, and these communities are getting stronger and stronger every day.
A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media.
Let me back up for a moment. This should be said: We are living in times of peak-selfie, and therefore, peak selfie-hatred. When a phenomenon leaks so completely and quickly into the cultural water supply, people are bound to get freaked out. Sure, men and women have been taking pictures of themselves for years, and they were painting themselves before that, and they were carving their faces onto rocks before that. But the selfie, a photograph of oneself with an immediate and distinct social component built into the process, that is something very new.
Selfies must be shared — or at least be taken as part of a series with the intention to share at least one — to be considered selfies. This is my working definition (and for purists, also the one listed in the Oxford Dictionaries) and there are no exceptions. If you take a picture of yourself never intending to post it or send it out, that is not a selfie. If you allow someone else to take your picture, and then put it on Instagram, that’s not a selfie (it is still valuable mythmaking-via-imagery, but with the disqualifying intervention of an outsider). If you take a picture with yourself and someone else and share it, that is called an “ussie,” and it technically counts, but is usually met with less disdain than a solo effort. I am interested in the selfie that is entirely autonomous, the type where a single person is the subject, the photographer, the editor, and the publisher. Participating in selfie dialogue is a two-part process: the private and then the public, the conception and then the release, and they work in a kind of electric tandem.
The hatred that goes along with selfie-taking might be traced back to the Oxford American dictionary itself, when it tried to grasp for relevance with that old reliable act of web trolling that is its “Word of the Year” selection. In 2013, Oxford picked “selfie,” a decision the organization described in a press release as unanimous, “with little if any argument,” a “runaway winner.” Whoever wrote the release exhibited elegant restraint: they tracked the origin of the word (legend dates it back to an Australian web forum in 2003), the rapid rise in usage in mainstream media (17,000 percent increase in a single year), and the potential explanation for the suffix (“It could be argued that the use of the -ie suffix helps to turn an essentially narcissistic enterprise into something rather more endearing”). There are slight jabs at narcissism and herd mentality in the entry, but it is mostly concerned with etymology. Dictionaries are never pure resources: what belongs and what doesn’t is reflective of a very specific ideology. But in this case, Oxford tried to explain its decision as merely reflective of an undeniable cultural force.
Other outlets were not so generous in their response to Oxford’s choice. Observe CNN:
“The most esteemed guardian of the English language has bestowed a prestigious honor upon debatably the most embarrassing phenomenon of the digital age: the selfie. So, grab a smartphone, put on your best duck face and celebrate.”
This tiny blurb set the mold for nearly all of the shame-laden language hurtled at selfie culture, for thousands of other op-eds, Facebook comments, hot takes, malicious RTs, so let’s unpack it:
- First, the tone-policing: the sneering outrage that a “classy” fortress of words like Oxford deigned to celebrate a word that primarily applies to a rising practice among young people. That such a venerable institution would validate an aesthetic trend that cannot be regulated by existing gatekeepers but instead blossoms on its own on “low” cultural channels like Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter.
- The word “embarrassing” as a superlative, as if the actual horrors of the digital age — cyberbullying, identity theft, child pornography, tech moguls who claim to disrupt the world but are really getting rich on the back of sketchy labor practices — are all small-scale hazards compared to a single teenage girl aiming the camera at her own face with the intention of sharing it with her friends.
- The sarcastic snarl at “duck face,” a way of posing for a selfie that involves pushing out the lips and is therefore coded as hyperfeminine, and, by misogynistic extension, also trivial and vain. Duckface snark is always aimed, even if indirectly, at shaming the person who made the practice popular: Kim Kardashian. Kardashian happens to be the most looked-at woman in the world right now, a modern Venus giving her body to the masses for consumption and deconstruction, an entire art history class distilled into one exaggerated, almost bionic body, the patron saint of the selfie and the symbol of the anti-selfie movement, so in control of producing her own image that she wrote (or rather, starred in) a coffee table book called Selfish. But sure, CNN, go ahead and distill her mighty iconography into a punchline. (For those interested: I have spent much time distilling my thoughts about Kim Kardashian and her undeniable power in this world. You can read them here).
Selfie politics are attention politics: it is all about who gets to be seen, who gets to occupy the visual field. Critics always talk about Kim and her family as taking up too much space, as clogging our DVRs, our Twitter feeds, our newsstands. At a micro-level, the ire leveled at Kim is aimed at everyone who takes selfies: who do you think you are and why should I have to keep up with you? They don’t realize that in posing this question they are proving their own ignorance. One should never have to ask anyone else why they are worthy of being seen. Every human is given a body and a face and then spends the rest of his or her life trying to feel at home there. Worthiness is part of the basic package.
No one posts a picture to social media without anticipating the mockery it will receive, either in the form of direct comments or indirect hatred from the wider media. And yet selfies continue to explode in number, reproducing exponentially, filling up server farms and data plans and camera rolls. It’s not just that a cultural faucet, once turned on, can never be turned off. It’s that everyone who posts a selfie must be getting something out of it, something so life-affirming that it makes the harshness endurable.
Consider a recent viral news story, a seminal cultural text of selfie shame.
During a Colorado Rockies game in September, a pair of male announcers fixated on a group of twenty-something gal pals sitting in the stands, a posse of Alpha Chi Omegas from Arizona State. The commentators had just asked the crowd to send in fan photos for a contest, but immediately began to dig into the women for taking part in the request. The cameras hovered on the women for at least a minute, and it felt like a long, predatory minute. The announcers mocked the women with dad jokes: “Every single woman in the picture is locked into her phone,” “These are the best 300 pictures I’ve taken of myself today!” “Welcome to parenting in 2015!” “Hold on, gotta take a selfie with a hot dog, with a churro, with a selfie of a selfie.” These jabs felt a thousand years old.
The announcers’ rant became a lightning rod for people on either side of the selfie debate. Haters trotted out the classic anti-selfie insults: Millennials are narcissists (no matter how old you are when you take a selfie, by the way, you are always, always a millennial), they don’t care about anything but themselves, they are ruining good old-fashioned American pastimes with their smartphones and their insatiable thirst for likes.
But those on the other side of the debate saw something much more toxic buried in the selfie-loathing, something gendered and ugly and terrified. The baseball incident proved, publicly, that selfies aren’t just irritating to people in positions of power, but downright dangerous.
Look at it this way: the men in power at the game, the ones sitting in the glass box above the stadium, they have access to a camera in the sky. It is able to focus on whoever it wants, to linger for as long as it wants. The jumbotron rubbernecks lasciviously, a phallic all-seeing eye that ignores women entirely until it chooses to ogle them. When these women decided to make their own fun, to bond and laugh with their friends instead of paying attention to the sports in front of them — a sport which, by the way, excludes women from the field and so will never feel all that inclusive to begin with — they were seen as committing a transgressive act. They are encouraged to watch men hit a ball with sticks for as many extra innings as it takes, but add a selfie stick into the mix, and minds explode.
The announcers’ disgust for that simple act, for a group of women looking at themselves instead of at the men on the field, continued the bait-and-switch that men have been pulling on women for eons: pretending they are madonnas until the moment it is convenient to call them whores. These young women were worth looking at when it suited the men in charge, but as it became clear that their love for each other trumped the love of the game, the men with microphones started to crumble. They did what any player does when their team is losing: they shook their fists and raged. And this rage sounded a bit like a death rattle.
The way these men mocked selfies settles them on the wrong side of history. Because they don’t recognize that an equally important game is currently being played out, this very minute, on the web. Selfies are becoming a sport. Instagram is a place where people can turn themselves into trading cards where they can win and become a hero. With every selfie, you can build your fan base, gain stats, pose for your own Wheaties box, and experience the thrill of a cheerleading squad. The reason Kim Kardashian gives for taking her butt selfies? “It’s fun!” The selfie game — posing, posting, interacting — is meant to be fun. But it is driving those who don’t know how to play to utter madness.
Of course, the enemies of the selfie game aren’t always male; women can shame the selfies of other women with such mean-girl vitriol that they make the announcers’ jabs feel minor league. I sometimes click back to article that Vogue published earlier this year about the evils of selfie-taking, and it makes me laugh. The writer called selfie sticks “the single most embarrassing invention of our generation” and had plenty of rules to offer:
A selfie is only acceptable on a few occasions: if you work in fashion and are showcasing an outfit or a specific part of an outfit for work purposes, if you are somewhere awesome and there is no one to take your picture (e.g., a chairlift on Mount Kilimanjaro or jury duty with Oprah). Any selfie that involves the “kissy” face is not acceptable. These pictures are not sexy. You look like an idiot.
This passage, which reads like a fascist Emily Post, comes from Vogue, that bastion of “taste” primarily staffed by slender, wealthy women who have more than a small stake in ensuring that capitalism perpetuates itself. Of course. Of course the glossy women’s media wants women to feel like nitwits, to hate their kissy faces, to feel like they cannot post an image of themselves online unless they “work in fashion” (or work at places like Vogue, where staffers Instagram themselves from their cubicles all the time). These narrow standards for who can and and cannot post selfies expose the values that currently keep most magazines in business. The land of selfies, where people who fall outside the narrow aesthetic guidelines set by the fashion industry can nonetheless dominate the medium, is terrifying to those who want to set consumer agendas. But that’s why you have to keep going: take your selfies, watch it all burn.
In 1973, the British feminist scholar Sheila Rowbotham wrote a dense little tome called Female Consciousness, Man’s World, about the ways societies perpetuate oppression. She was writing about selfies and just didn’t know it yet. One of the ways, she wrote, was by discouraging any forms of self-reproduction by individuals, and ways of seeing that were not regulated by the powers that be. In order to subvert this oppression, the individual needed to learn once again how to reproduce herself:
In order to create an alternative, an oppressed group must at once shatter the self-reflecting world which encircles it and, at the same time, project its own image onto history. In order to discover its own identity as distinct from that of the oppressor it has to become visible to itself. All revolutionary movements create their own ways of seeing.
Capitalism, as Rowbotham noted, loves to self-reflect. It needs to perpetuate itself, and one of the ways it does so is via imagery — i.e. advertising — that keeps people desirous, that makes people feel incomplete without whatever shiny new thing has just hit the market. Those at the top benefit, naturally, from creating these images. It is bad then for the lust-economy to have people reveling in pictures they take themselves; it is very difficult to control consumers who do not need to look at the media to know what to value, what to buy, who to honor and protect. Selfies are not inherently political acts, but these resonant, addictive, unregulated images are another manifestation of this growing distrust of the mainstream and the swelling desire by many individuals to reclaim their own narratives now that they have the virtual microphone.
But as selfies are so pervasive (and alluring to look at), the only solution for advertisers is to infiltrate the most popular selfie-takers and buy them off. The gods of capitalism offer teenage social media stars thousands of dollars just to be walking billboards for their goods; they buy their labor and their time and call it empowerment. And for some, it is empowering. The checks cash, and some teenagers’ lives change forever. If you could get the opportunity to travel around the world, get gobs of free stuff, and become an instant idol to millions of strangers with the click of a button, could you, at only 18, possibly say no?
In late October of this year, a bit of this darkness came to light in public. An 18-year-old Australian Instagram star named Essena O’Neill woke up one morning to discover both her privilege and exploitation in one heartbreaking wave (the kind of revelation that traditionally comes to most teens during their freshman philosophy seminars). She realized that being paid to model free swag and post perfect bikini shots wasn’t worth the capital gains anymore; she was starving herself, relying on double-taps to validate her self-worth, and crying herself to sleep feeling morally and spiritually bankrupt. So she deleted 2,000 Instagram posts, and on the pictures that remained, added new captions exposing the discrepancies between the fantasy and the real. She noted how much she was paid for each picture, how little she had eaten at the moment the flashbulbs illuminated her skinny abdomen. She launched a new website to encourage young girls to talk about how they really feel rather than mask their emotions with Pinterest-ready photo bait, and the effort went viral. From her bedroom, the Noxema-fresh blonde sparked a global conversation about how every selfie can be a lie disguised as a like.
Right away the backlash began (and continued to snowball, as all Internet ire does): Critics called her lament a hoax, argued that she was a hypocrite for using the very social media that made her unhappy to spread her message, that she was continuing to seek attention even as she talked about how the eyeballs of strangers made her so miserable. But what this cynicism around her story lacks is any kind of empathy: Essena is only 18. She is still figuring it all out. And in 2015, teens, at least those who leap into the social media battledome, must figure it all out in public. The criticism about Essena is misplaced because she isn’t the problem; she is a victim of the problem.
It is important to recognize this aspect of selfie-taking so that it can be fought against (and I celebrate those like Essena who are taking steps to do this, no matter how stumbling and callow her protest may be), but it is also important not to let this one test case stand for the whole. Yes, there are those who would want to exploit your selfie and use it for their own gain. There are bullies and harassers who make the lives of some women (and men) who take selfies unbearable. There are those who allow themselves to get caught up in the vortex of fame and money, who sell the rights to their faces and then feel deeply alienated from their own smiles. There are those who manipulate the selfies of innocent people for cruel media pranks — just last week, a Sikh man in Canada had to defend himself from viral hatred after someone doctored his selfie, adding a suicide vest and a Koran to suggest that he was involved in the Paris attacks. There are those who would screengrab sumptuous nudes and butt selfies and then use them to try to humiliate or shame women for celebrating the pleasures of the flesh. These are all real threats, real dangers.
But it is overblowing these fears — the endless concern trolling, the wondering what has become of our teen girls, the fretting that we are all feeding too many nudes into a ravenous maw — that obliterates the more revolutionary conversation about selfie culture, about what it can do for us.
Selfie-taking is often described by its detractors in terms of vulgarity: too much, too often, too desirous, too sensual, too much lip, too much body. Those who are deeply in touch with their body always get labeled obscene. Like most insults, these barbs rise from a place of insecurity: so many people are so afraid of themselves! Of their flesh, of their nooks and crannies, of how they might be found wanting. And the people who are most afraid of being scrutinized are those in control, who have held onto their positions thanks to hierarchical social structures that weren’t really questioned until recently (those that elevate white males over others, say). These powerful men and women are so scared that if anyone looked at them closely and dissected why they are in control that they might turn to dust. So they discourage anyone from looking at anyone else — even themselves — with intensity or tenderness.
This is why the crusaders talk about selfie sticks as if they were solipsism weaponized and use the word “narcissism,” which they hope conjures up strong enough revulsion to crush the army of selfies popping up like whack-a-moles. Surely, no one wants to be a narcissist, they say, no one wants to fall into their own reflection and drown. But narcissism is a flimsy charge. It doesn’t hold up in selfie court. Narcissus, Ovid wrote in verse, became enchanted by his own reflection, forming a closed feedback loop with himself. He loved only himself, desired only himself.
O I wish I could leave my own body! Strange prayer for a lover, I desire what I love to be distant from me.
At no point did Narcissus ever try to share this love with anyone else, to chat up any nymphs about it, to see which of the muses might also delight in his cherub cheeks. Instead, he dove deeper and deeper into his egoistic stupor, and choked to death because he couldn’t look away.
Selfies, though, are all about looking away. They are not a closed loop. They are a new and vibrant language. Selfies never exist in a vacuum. Once they go live, they have adventures, they go out and make friends. They are born by waves, digital driftwood: millions of faces washing up on various shores, launching various ships. They voyage ahead and probe new communities, and sometimes they bring back stories. Our selfies are weightless versions of ourselves, with wings. The men and women who are create these streams and streams of their own images do so to confirm their own bodies in space, and then to give those bodies flight — journeys into the cloud, a kind of stretching back towards a oneness with everything. This may be the most generous way to say that it can be a selfless — and defiantly not narcissistic — act to put your own dumb face all over the Internet.
Those who see selfies as signs of the end times are focusing on the outliers; the bad actors. The people who accidentally fall into a waterfall and die in the pursuit of the perfect shot. The kids who get addicted to the digital feedback loop and start relying on hearts to get up in the morning. The moms and dads who take selfies when they should be watching their babies; the seething loners who use their selfies as a way to spread hate (if this hate spills over into violence, then selfies will surely get the blame). But these types of delinquents have always existed: the teenagers who don’t pay attention in class, the bros who snooze through cultural events, the trolls who care about snark over compassion. There are always going to be tourists who shove themselves obnoxiously to the front of the line, people who put their needs over the needs of others, people who gawk at fires and funerals: these are not unique social problems created by the selfie or its accoutrement.
What the critics don’t focus on is how to decode the language of selfies when they are being used correctly: what the people in them are trying to do with their portraiture, what big message each individual’s self-representational practice all adds up to in the end. When a young woman takes a picture alone, in a museum, those who don’t take selfies will scowl, thinking that she is ignoring the art that surrounds her. They will wonder why she cannot stop and breathe in the high culture without the safety blanket of her phone. But maybe, just maybe, this youth is someone who feels less than welcome in this museum, finding it an institution that is cold and sterile and enforcing of a visual language that doesn’t always include faces that look like hers. Maybe it is a big deal to finally see herself there, standing in the same frame as the grand artistic canon. Maybe she is willfully putting herself in the context of the art, and then putting the other people who follow her feed in the context of the art. Maybe she is adding layers of context to the world, not flattening her own experience.
Those who cannot see this, who refuse to see this, are just not yet fluent in her visual language. If they want to reach her, and others like her, they will have to learn.
Here’s the secret: Nothing destabilizes power more than an individual that knows his or her own worth, and the campaign against selfies is ultimately a crusade against widespread self-esteem. What selfie-haters fear, deep down, is a growing army of faces they cannot monitor, an army who does not need their approval to march ahead. They fear the young, the technologically savvy, the connected. They fear a community they feel excludes them. The way that Henry wanted to silence and erase Clover, so these selfie-haters want to silence and erase the faces they don’t understand. It is that simple. Anyone who hates selfies outright is likely in the position of privilege to never have felt invisible. They fail to perceive the value that a new way of seeing can bring to so many lives.
It is not even necessary to decide whether or not selfies are ultimately good or bad for humanity; we can’t know that for decades or centuries (or maybe never; maybe good and bad are not words that will exist in future generations to describe personal aesthetic choices). They are an active conversation, one that millions of people are engaging with, taking on, wrestling with, falling for, and giving everything to, every minute of every day. Hop into the feed or fall behind.
For the past six months, I have been asking people to send me their faces. Every time I open my email, I have new selfies to look at, with new stories behind why they exist, what the impulse was when someone decided to join forces with their phone. These stories have kept me going, they have been my batteries.
Here are just a few. You can find more (and add your own!) here.
“This was from when I first got my braids. I took this right after I woke up. I take selfies when I don’t want to get out of bed yet. When I took this, I remember thinking, damn, I look so pretty. I hadn’t had long hair since I was 16, and I was super excited about it. I came out when I was 20 as trans, and my hair was super short; then I was living as a man for two years, and my hair was super short. Then I went off testosterone almost two years ago and started growing my hair out. I was super excited to get my braids. It was very gender-affirming for me, and I couldn’t really stop staring at myself and playing with it. I took this selfie and I was like, this is everything. I am killing it right now.
“I definitely take selfies for myself, but a big reason why I post them is that I want to be a visible agender person of color, and I want other young trans people to have someone to look at and see themselves reflected. I never had that growing up, and that is super important to me. I feel like my life would be very different if I had known anyone who was non-binary, or if I had known there were other genders than male and female. So my purpose with selfies is 1) I look cute as hell and 2) I want to be very out and accessible.”
“I took this on the day I was told that I would die if I removed the tube in my nose. I couldn’t keep my eyes open and forming the smile was the hardest thing I could do… I took the picture because I was determined to have a ‘before’ shot because I was adamant that that day was the beginning of my recovery ‘after.’”
“I took the first one in the bathroom of a fancy gala where I felt very out of place. In the other, I had bought this bikini online and when I put it on at home, I remember thinking: “How could I have ever hated all this?” and almost cried. For years, I thought that the size of my body and the fact that I am queer meant that any sort of femininity wasn’t available to me. Luckily I’ve since realized that femininity is a choose-your-own-adventure, and taking selfies like this remind me that I’m statuesque and gorgeous as hell.”
“Last year, a month after my mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I spent all of October in Los Angeles. My mom was really nervous about me going because she rightfully thought I’d fall in love with it and not want to come back to the East Coast. To ease the fear and tension around it, I would send her selfies to help erase the miles and show that I was happy and hadn’t like, done anything to my look that she’d missed. So I took this one in the bathroom of my office there and sent it with the text ‘getting that Cali glow but miss you lots’ then I tossed it through a filter and put it up on Instagram as my first selfie.”
“This selfie is one of my top 10 because I’m happy, the lighting is perfect, I’m radiant, and it’s also the first day of the pumpkin spice latte comeback this season. I don’t know if this sounds vain, but I love selfies. I love taking them and I love being a part of others. In a culture so centered around the reachability of technology and specifically our phones, it’s an exhilarating feeling seeing so many beautiful people embrace this, which is why I love retweeting these beautiful people. I’m enamored by all the women I encounter online and I love to uplift them. I’ll never understand people who aren’t for selfies. Then again, it takes a lot of courage, time, good lighting, energy, and a strong arm to get the right picture and to know your angles, which could be intimidating for these same people.”
“In late 2010, two years after I’d uprooted my life and moved from suburban Indianapolis to Memphis, Tennessee, to live with and then marry the girl from that long-distance thing, I experienced a severe depressive breakdown. I couldn’t seem to accomplish anything, no matter how I tried. Up to that point, I had thrived on the energy that writing and music gave me, but I just couldn’t do it any more.
“But — maybe by instinct, maybe by desperation — I kept taking selfies on my iPhone. Depression selfies definitely weren’t a thing then, but that seems to be what I was doing — documenting myself to remind myself that I was still there. One day, in late 2010, I stepped into the bathroom, looked in the mirror, decided I looked great, smiled as big as I could, and snapped a picture. The above was the result. I don’t know why I thought that was a smile, why I thought that a sweat-stained plain white tee was a great look, why I didn’t notice that my eyes were swollen from constant almost-crying, or that my eyes were almost completely vacant. Also my haircut was stupid, but my haircuts were always stupid until pretty recently. I do know why I thought I looked great, though: I wasn’t asleep or doubled over in the shower trying to convince myself to stop wanting to die. That ugly selfie was both a declaration of victory in that day’s battle and a rallying cry for the months to come. I could at least stand up. When my brain was screaming for me to kill myself, I could choose to do nothing.
“I lost a job to that depression. My marriage spoiled into an abusive dynamic. (Which is a total chicken/egg discussion. I don’t remember which came first. I suspect depression did, largely because I was in such a vulnerable position for manipulation — I wanted to die every second I was awake; why would I not also believe that I was unloveable, unworthy of eating, deserving of being hit?)
“New Year’s Eve, 2011, my wife insisted that she bring a friend over and didn’t allow me to invite anyone. It was the guy whose house she had been spending several nights a week at. By midnight, she had fallen asleep on his shoulder, after putting a pillow between us. I don’t know how I worked up the nerve to document that with a selfie:
“On showing that picture to my therapist, he rightly insisted I move out. Which I did, but not until she told me to. About a week later.
“It was weirdly magic. The difference happened almost immediately. This is from May 2012:
“It wasn’t a sudden, complete change, but very rapidly (and really, I’ve only noticed while collecting these selfies), the light came back to my eyes, I re-learned how to smile (if only slightly).”
“#SELFIEARMY is about radical self-love. I truly believe that for a woman, loving yourself is an act of social disobedience. We’re taught to critique ourselves constantly, ingrained to hate ourselves. We’re taught that anything less than perfection is not good enough, and we’re reminded damn well that we will never be perfect. We could always be thinner, prettier, have bigger boobs, a nicer ass, have clearer skin — and due to the Photoshopping epidemic we find ourselves in today, when we see women in the media, we compare ourselves to literally (literally) unattainable standards. Above all, we aren’t taught to define ourselves, but to instead see ourselves only through the eyes of the men around us. If we receive a compliment, we may say “thank you,” but we are never to compliment ourselves first. More than a virtue, modesty was invented to silence women. Historically, men have been the artist and women have been the muse. Taking a selfie is about reclaiming our right to be both — Yes, I agree that I am a beautiful, magnificent, one of a kind work of art, I just don’t understand why you think you deserve any credit for that. The selfie: a love story: I AM ART AND I AM AN ARTIST. YOU’VE held MY body for ransom for centuries and I am returning it to its rightful owner.”
“I think of selfies like a timeline-diary, a way to document my adventures. I get an overwhelming desire to make an image sometimes. Like my circumstances will be really curious or beautiful and it’ll be like an itch I have to scratch. I have to put the moment down. I was a very early proponent of the selfie, growing up with a camera and being on livejournal and MySpace as a teen. Making pictures of myself has always been a part of my regular art practice.
“After the worst breakup of my life, I took a picture of myself every day for SO LONG just to remind myself I was real. I have an old broken laptop with probably 1,000 photos of myself at age 23–24. In a weird way, I cherish the selfie practice I’ve adopted because now, being in a band, I have my picture taken all the time and I know my angles. When it comes time for me to be on camera, I don’t panic. I’ve gained a lot of weight in the last year and I’m getting older… but this is my face, and it’s the only one I’ve got. Ergo: selfies. This is me, regardless of how I or you feel about it. I exist.
“I have had such huge life changes between November 2013, when my band first started touring, and now, and I look back at my Instagram and I’m just shocked. My life has done three or four 180s, and there I am, surviving all of it, still getting on stage and smiling. Like whoa, little dude, there you are. Being as open as I have about my history with mental illness, maybe seeing a photo of my not only living but thriving might be important for someone.
“Selfies are giving me agency to show people there’s more to me than the incendiary parts focused on by the media. People definitely want me to be this violent angry person all the time. All screaming pictures. So like, me feeding boys donuts or holding a bunch of flowers or working on one of my cakes is important. I’m a very nice, mild mannered person. I don’t want people to be afraid of me. I’m a boring old lady!”
“I took this because I wanted to capture a time shortly after beginning a new treatment protocol for late-stage Lyme disease. I was feeling better than I had in years, and it seemed like being able to freeze that experience of hope could magically prolong it, or at least commemorate it.”
“I take selfies because I hated my appearance for so long that I avoided photos altogether for several years in early adulthood. I’m sad that there is no evidence of me during that time and so maybe I’m overcompensating now by taking selfies as often as I do. Most of the selfies I take include either my cat or my ass, though never at the same time. In the case of this selfie, I like that my semi-nakedness seems inconsequential to me. The electric blue is a nice touch but I think this would be a sexy photo even if I was clothed because my expression is so quintessentially me.”
“I don’t have a ton of selfies my phone because I take waaayyyyy too long setting them up, usually long enough to go “what’s the point” and not bother. I care just a little too much about the mise en scene, my office is kinda boring, and I’m self-conscious about taking pictures in public. I think selfies are awesome and I always want to see my friends’ beautiful faces but I draw the line when it comes to myself.
“Like, even writing this. Whenever people post stuff like ‘I want to hear from you, and yes I mean you’ I always think ‘Yeah but not. Like, ME though.’ All that empowering stuff on Twitter and Tumblr like ‘You look cute today’ or ‘Send me your address so I can send Christmas cards.’ I always think oh, that’s sweet but they don’t mean me. So that’s something I’m working on.
“Also getting acquainted with my own face. Like, I honestly have no idea what I look like. The picture I took is pretty close to what I see in the mirror but there are photos of me from a party this weekend and they made me want to stay inside with a blanket over my head. Have I been walking around that ugly all the time? (Really opening up the floodgates here.) So part of why I like the few selfies I take is I get to control the narrative.”
“First of all, it’s hard to focus on crying and holding a phone at the same time, so there is a degree of skill on display here.
“I took that picture right after a friendship-ending fight over my transition. Someone I really trusted turned their back on me. You can see it in my face that it’s not mere sadness — there’s some real fucking indignation there. How could someone do this to me?
“There are so many pictures out there, somewhere, of me and this person as childhood friends. This selfie was like the end of all that, like the final frame of one of those terrible coming-of-age movies. Except with an even suckier ending.
“You need to document yourself at your most vulnerable, because just having that memory isn’t enough anymore. Without the picture, you don’t really remember how your lips stung when you made that face or the shape of the lines on your face that your tears left. All you remember is that you were sad, and that’s not enough for me.”
“About two weeks before I took this photo, I was lying in bed naked and said to myself, “I’m tired of thinking of my body as a problem.” Every time I looked in the mirror, I had something awful to say (or think) about my body, and quite suddenly, the thought of going through that old emotional routine felt distinctly and profoundly boring. A week later I found this crop top on sale, and wore it proudly into a conversation with a group of thin white women who worked in fashion writing. On my way out of the meeting, I stopped in front of this mirror next to the elevator, and I posed like I was as fabulous and non-boring as I felt.”
“Usually, people take selfies of their most attractive/confident selves, but I am oddly only ever motivated to take selfies after something particularly awkward or memorable has happened (and this doesn’t seem to overlap with my feeling cute, unfortunately).
“This was taken at JFK, right after TSA officers publicly patted down my hair and boobs because my ‘ethnic’ hair (a term used by the TSA officers) set off the airport body scanner for the 9th time in four weeks. Apparently, thick hair blocks the scanner from working and conceals any area that the hair rests on. If you put your hair up in a bun, they’ll pat the bun and sometimes undo it, just in case you may be concealing a knife or tiny antique pistol within your locks.”
“I took 25 pictures of myself laying in different positions across my bed. Some funny, some blurry, and two or three I like. Taking all those pictures made me put my guard down. To do that I imagined my phone to be the face of a friend I admire.
“I feel strange sometimes, because selfies are about people declaring agency over how they are seen. Frankly, men who look like me are seen pretty positively by society. When women, trans, non-binary, and people of color post them it is a celebration and political statement: them taking control of their bodies and presentation is a radical move because it rewrites the narrative around their lives one snapshot at a time. I like selfies because they offer me control over my body.”
“Taking a selfie is the act of reflecting light I’ve already felt back to myself again and again. It’s an active attempt to remind myself I exist. I guess anytime I’m looking into a camera I’m facing my own mortality, then demanding there be a chance to last forever−but, with a selfie, it’s only in the way I want to be remembered. Like writing my name on some wall as a kid: I WAS HERE. That’s the thing, it’s this intimate promise to myself: I don’t have to be forgotten. There will always be this.”
Now let me take a selfie. Here is a short story about one of my own pictures, about what compels me to take them, about why I do this. My way of taking selfies may not be yours; this is not prescriptive. It is just a snapshot, one of many.
This particular selfie takes place somewhere in the hours between night and morning. I am up too late again, reading about Frida Kahlo, reading from her diary. There is this line in it that I keep returning to and mouthing silently as I chew off my cuticles. It is only half a sentence, a scribble out of context:
The one who gives birth to herself.
I flip the pages and try to distract my hands, but they keep crawling over to my phone, where they always want to go. My hands and my phone are in love. They finish each other’s 140-character sentences. Hello, old friend. Instinct kicks in: I click on the camera and stare into it. My late night face: waxy, bloated, a bit sunken in. But still, there’s something about the lamp light. I look wise in it. I look like someone who has stayed up late reading. I feel compelled to capture this someone, for others to know her, to remember her myself in the morning.
I think those words again as I try out different angles. Neck up, neck down, eyes open, eyes closed. The one who gives birth to herself. Along with Julia, Clover, and Francesca, Frida is someone I am always thinking about.
Scholars like to link this journal fragment to Kahlo’s love of the great myths, to her affinity for epic stories carved into stones. Kahlo studied ancient Egypt inside her blue house in Coyoacan, and there she must have encountered Nu, the primordial, gender-neutral watery chasm at the beginning of all things, and Atum, the first god, who created himself by rising out of it. Atum was known as the start of the world and also the logical end of it; his name roughly translates to completion, a perfect cycle. He bore himself, and then out of lonesomeness, sneezed out two children (some versions depict this productive sneeze as ejaculate; hieroglyphic porn turns out to be pretty vague); eventually his tears created man. Atum willed himself out of the darkness and then returned to it once his work was done, in his body he contained all pre-existence and post-existence, all the energy and matter in the universe.
Kahlo was an artist with a broken body after a horrific trolley accident, a woman who was often confined to her bed and who could not bear children. I can imagine that the story of Atum’s full generative powers was both soothing and painful to her. She could not give birth to any life, much less the world, but she could at least rise out of the mist by herself, flinging her image over and over and over out of the abyss before she returned to it. I see her self-portraits as ecstatic nativities: fertile, bloody, dangerous. I am overwhelmed by them.
I close the book and turn to fine-tuning my own face. It needs more saturation and bit of blurring around my smile lines. I scroll through filter after filter until one just feels right, the closest I will get to having aesthetic instinct at 3 a.m. And then, it’s gone. Off to Instagram, off to earn its first gold star. I have sliced off a little piece of myself that is also a piece of not myself, and the image no longer belongs to me. There is loss in this moment of separation: you wish your pic well, you hope it grows up to be a winner. You have hopes and expectations for what it will do long after you have returned to Nu’s primordial lake, the song of you it might sing. Goodbye, little nighttime selfie. I hope you outlive me, I hope you are a reminder that I once was a person who lived.
People have asked if I ever feel guilty about using tints or hazing out my imperfections, if I feel that I am somehow betraying truth by tossing an airbrushed idea of myself into the future. This is one of the major critiques leveled against selfies: that they deceive. That we can never really see ourselves clearly. But all self-construction is narrative, it’s all improvisation. Filters don’t always blur out the facts; they can work as storytellers, dramatic lighting for personal theater. Look at me crying in hypercolor washed over with a blue glaze; forcing you to hear my #feelings soliloquy. Look at me smiling softly alone in my room, bathed in light, pale as vapor, beatific as the pietá; bear witness to this joy, this stillness, this dreamy intermission between moments of anxiety. I am the director of this feed; and I am going to act like I am Orson Fucking Welles.
Right now, there are over 15 apps on the market devoted primarily to the act of taking selfies. There’s FaceTune, Bestie, Perfect 365, CamMe, YouCam, Selfie Studio, CreamCam, Candy Camera, Cymera, Selfie Booth, Selfius, Frontback, Dayfie, Everyday. In March 2014, the Apple store added a dedicated “Selfie” section (much to tech bloggers chagrin; Engadget mocked the virtual storefront as “not the app store section we needed, but the app store section we deserved.”). The apps all function in slightly different ways, but they all optimize both the process of taking a selfie and the post-production tinkering that happens before pressing send. CamMe is made to enhance the initial photo-capture; it allows the person holding the smartphone to click the shutter with a hand gesture (a closing of the fist). This freedom from hardware means that a selfie-taker can stretch out, walk away, pose in full body, moon from behind. It liberates the hands, and in doing so, lets you twist around like a figure drawing model, lets you mimic and dialogue with the iconic self portraits of art history (NB: I refuse to wade into the perennial art critic debate about whether Rembrandt would be rolling in his grave over all this).
Editing apps like FaceTune exist to streamline everything that comes after the snap; the serious work of preparing an image for gallery viewing. FaceTune features a powerful arsenal of editing tools: you can fuzz out blemishes, whiten teeth, add a dewy soft-focus like a smear of Vaseline on the lens, brighten your eyes, hollow your jowls. This is where selfies start to get more controversial: if, in 2015, we agree that it is blurry feminism (at best) to Photoshop celebrities beyond recognition on magazine covers, then why are we comfortable erasing our own perceived imperfections? If selfies are about warts-and-all self-acceptance, what message does it send when we don’t show the warts? I understand these fears, but also would argue that using a personal Photoshop machine doesn’t necessarily present the same grand-scale self-esteem attack that glossy magazine covers do. Celebrities and models never have final approval on their covers; but selfie-takers own the entire publicity machine: you take the shot, you edit the shot, you publish the shot. All the artifice is in your hands, and that can feel like power. FaceTune, and other apps like it, are a way of playing, of gaming your face. They let you you tweak and shade, paint and polish. They let you pick out your favorite features and highlight them. They let you art direct your own portrait, sending viewers’ eyeballs to precise locations on your face. Some people see editing apps as a way to hide behind magic wands, but I see them as very public declarations of a common human hunger: to be seen in the light you want to be seen in. It’s your selfie party; cry in sepia tone if you want to.
The app I use is called Bestie, and it combines the two types of apps into a one-stop experience. It opens onto a front-facing lens, and then immediately applies a smooth veneer, airbrushing in real-time. Under-eye circles magically disappear, the complexion goes luminous. After I downloaded Bestie, I realized there is a world in which I never again need to keep an unedited version of my own image on my camera roll; there could be no faulty negatives to protect from the cloud, nothing to leak, nothing to wince at later. And I know instinctually that I don’t want that. Sometimes when I feel like I look my worst, I take selfies outside of the app. This act makes some strange sense to me; on certain moody days, it can also feel like high-risk behavior. I put up these few raw images a year to remind myself (and my followers) that even with the wrinkles and stray eyebrow hairs and visible pores, I am a person who should be seen and appraised, and even found acceptable despite these flaws. But I still love the apps; I believe in them. It took Cindy Sherman hundreds of different costumes to interrogate all the different corners of herself; apps let us try out her lifetime of masquerade with just a few quick clicks. I am not ashamed to use them, nor should anyone be. Apps turn your iPhone into the Queen’s Magic Mirror. Stare into it. Think: I am the fairest of them all, I will eat their hearts.
I have a friend who controls her own image online with an iron fist; she hates encountering pictures of herself taken without consent. She often scrolls through Instagram and Facebook untagging every candid image, like a burglar wiping off fingerprints. I used to think this was a bizarre eccentricity, but after living in the world of selfies for a while, I understand it. Photographs that you don’t control may have some journalistic benefit one day, but they can feel exploitative, unwieldy, and strange. Selfies provide a blessed course-correct to this photographic chaos, a chance to refocus the narrative that others might want to tell about you (or not tell — selfies also allow you to have pictures available online even if you are the type to rarely show up in party photographs or crowd shots).
When I met my partner, he told me that he got to know me through my selfies. This was for the best. Because if you Google me, you will get: an almost feral picture from an old gossip blog article in which I am wearing schlumpy buffalo plaid and look like I have a thyroid condition, a photo of myself at 24 in a backyard garden wearing a horrible pastel scarf and writing in a notebook while everyone around me seems to be talking to each other, and some photos of myself at literary events, surrounded by acquaintances with my hair in a topknot. If you make guesses about me from these photos, some of them will be right: I am a writer in Brooklyn and have worn the lumberjack flannels and scarves to prove it, I have attended parties, I have read in public, at one point I thought it would be a good idea to wear a formal bowtie with a dress. But I don’t recognize myself in any of those photos, and not just because some of them are unflattering. It is because I can only view that person as an other, as someone I might have crossed paths with a few times but who still takes me several blinks to remember.
Even as a young girl, I always felt such a discrepancy between the person I saw in the mirror and the person that showed up in photographs. But my selfies tell another story, one where the person I see and the person I feel that I am fuse in the same instant, one that feels closer to who I am, one that always ignites a flash of recognition when I revisit them (and as anyone who takes and posts a lot of selfies will tell you, going back to look at old photos can be as tender and thrilling as finding a diary).
Scroll back through my Instagram. There I am in black and white, wearing oversized sunglasses, drinking a Slurpee, looking like a still from a new wave film on a hot summer day. There I am in driving a vintage car in Los Angeles, with my eyes focused on the side mirror (the closest I may ever be cosplaying as Didion with her Stingray). There I am, hair in a static halo around my face, no makeup on, a coffee the size of a small child in my hands, with the caption “I woke up like this.” There I am after a long night of writing, my face drained but at peace with what I’ve made. There I am, red lips and false eyelashes; less myself, more drunk woman in a Weimar cabaret. There I am, sweat-stained and piglet pink after the gym. There I am, tears running down my face, after I capture myself crying (YET AGAIN) after watching the final scene of A River Runs Through It. There I am, stunned with grief after receiving bad news and the only thing I could think to do in the moment was capture it. There I am in an outfit that cinches my waist and shows off all the dimensions of my body, dimensions I used to hate and now find sumptuous and human, dimensions that make me feel stronger, even hulk-like, every time I share them. There I am, a book in my hand, peering over its edges into the frame. There I am, looking serious, or carefree, or intense, or demure, or bold — I have looked a thousand different ways. Someone who chooses to encounter me for the first time on my feed, like my partner did, is making a compassionate choice. Because that’s where you can find my prismatic selves, my multitudes.
Like everyone else, I own the copyright to my face. I am the one who gives birth to her self(ie). I know the messages I want to convey with each picture that I post, they are all arrows aimed at a big target, the one that could one day convey a larger truth about myself than any one image could. If we tell ourselves stories in order to live, sometimes those stories come in the form of pictures of your own silly miracle of a face, taken from as many angles and expressed in as many colors and shadows as technology will allow. We are writing the story of how we want to be seen.
In this way, selfies are teaching tools. When I learned that my mother checked my Instagram, my first reaction was fear, followed by gratitude. I think that selfies (first mine, and now the ones she takes and sends to me via text or Facebook) have helped us get to know each other better, an adult daughter and her adult mother learning how we each view ourselves. Selfies can inform the people who love and know you how to really look at you. I wonder if parents who feel their child takes too many selfies would do better to ask questions about these images instead of trying to shut them off at the source. Hugely instructive conversations can come out of asking a person why they posted a particular selfie on a particular day. Spoiler alert: it often has more to do with “I just thought I looked hot.” Asking someone in your life about how and why they put up their own portrait can be a vital new step in gaining a deeper understanding. Selfies are begging for this question, and every picture posted is an invitation to ask it.
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd. I look upon hundreds of faces every day and I feel refreshed. I feel refreshed by watching other people look upon those same faces, and so on. This second-order looking, this swelling communal river, is the aspect of selfies we need to fight to protect by not shaming those who take them. If you are afraid of wading into this river, if you feel there is nothing to see there, then selfies might not be meant for you.
And just to put it on the record, to make things clear, here are some of the other people who selfies are not for:
- Men who want to police what women can do with their bodies, when they are allowed to love themselves, all under the guise of “being concerned.” About what, exactly? Exploitation? Identity theft? The ogling of other men? This isn’t necessary! Concern is little more than a smokescreen for policing women’s behavior. Concern is both oppressive and nefarious.
- Women who claim to be feminists but then use their feminism as a weapon against selfies, writing blog posts about how duckfaces undermine efforts for equality. The women writing these posts are trying to separate themselves from the kind of women who would kiss the camera, not realizing that the binary they enforce — the good feminists, the bad feminists — is one that has been handed down to them by the powerful in order to keep women at each other’s throats for so long that they forget to overtake the patriarchy.
- Members of the media establishment who view a thick network of people who don’t need them (because selfie communities are making the beauty-industrial complex set up by magazines and Hollywood look wobbly and exclusionary) to be a tremendous threat. See also: members of the press who are afraid of citizens who don’t need the media’s cameras to be seen, their microphones to be heard, or their publications to have a voice.
- Anyone who says “All Lives Matter,” who doesn’t see that certain faces that have been long absent from the dominant visual history now need to be celebrated, that these faces self-reproducing en masse is now completely vital to their survival, that selfies can become protective shields against violence and hatred.
- Those who fear youth rather than struggling to understand it, who forget that they were once young, insecure, and lonesome, and who have maybe grown up to be old, insecure, and lonesome, resenting the ever-strengthening community that selfies are building.
- Those who censor selfies, who flag women’s nudes from Instagram for removal (for more on this, read Petra Collins odd story of having her selfie removed without her consent), whose puritanical way of seeing doesn’t allow for bodies to invade their world unless they can be in charge of them, who see naked bodies as anarchy.
- Those who harbor the creeping dystopian fear that when the robots take over they will recognize us by our selfies. These sci-fi concerns do not outweigh the current benefits of a life lived unafraid, of how powerful it feels to stare down a camera lens and press send. The known dangers of remaining unseen are far worse than those that might come out of risking it, of being brave now.
- Those who have never shared a selfie but are adamant that it “isn’t for them” that they don’t see why anyone would ever do this. These people are willfully walking away from discovering a place where identities are distinct from that of the oppressors. They are making a choice. It is not a crime to not take selfies; there are many ways to live and be happy. I repeat: you do not have to take them! But it is detrimental to speak of them in the language of stigma. This only bolsters the sense of dishonor around the act of taking a selfie, discourages people from ever entering into a practice, and into a community, that may very well save their life.
But there are millions of people who selfies are for. There are millions who use them, love them, and are loyal to them — these are the people talked to, emailed with, gazed at, and become a fan of while scrolling through my feeds, the people I have watched being watched. These are the people who find comfort and life force in their selfies, and who give the most to the community in return. These are the bodies that you tear down when you are afraid of them, these are the lives at stake.
- The geeky middle-schooler who is bullied in class, but has finally found his people online, who flashes peace signs into his camera while riding home on the bus.
- The girl who has just been heartbroken, who has been left, getting to wave a middle finger at the camera and at her anger, and find 100 people who will rush to her side. Every double-tap heals her heart, toughens the muscle.
- The survivor of domestic abuse, who was verbally assaulted and made to feel like nothing, and who is crawling back from that hurt by allowing other people to tell her that she is more than just her pain, that she looks radiant, glowing, free.
- The cancer patient who takes selfies in chemotherapy, documenting the tufts of hair as they fall out, who wants the world to know that they were brave, that they faced death with a wink, that they did not want to be forgotten.
- The Syrian migrants who have found comfort in selfies on their treacherous route through the Balkans, and who are challenging the world to see them as humans running from violence, even as countries and states continue to close their borders to them. Selfies are extremely effective tools for displaced people or people living in perilous conditions to reconfirm their humanity; it is easy to ignore a sea of faces, but difficult to turn away from just one, staring with hope and sorrow into the camera, searching for sanctuary.
- The world-famous pop star who is sick of being ripped apart by magazine profiles and talk show interviews and who knows that the candid portraits she takes of herself backstage get beamed directly to her fans, who are increasingly learning to check their idols’ feeds rather than gossip columns for the real dish. Beyoncé hasn’t given an interview in years, and she may never need to do so again.
- The teen recovering from anorexia who takes pictures of herself finishing burgers, bacon, green tea ice cream; who finds a community of others in recovery who encourage each other to eat, to get well, to aspire to fullness.
- The middle-aged dad who starts Snapchatting to commune with his kids instead of remain mystified by them, and finds out that he has never really looked at himself with fondness, not until now.
- The off-duty fashion model who just wants to be seen as a real girl for once, who crams fries into her mouth, a slovenly, gangly imp in a dirty sweatshirt.
- The teen with vibrant pastel hair who has found a place where they fit in, where they get encouragement as their body changes, where they get to be present and excited and to come out as transgender, where they get to begin living more fully as their authentic self.
- The woman who decides to photograph herself naked, to leak her own nudes, who decides to revel in her curves before anyone can take that joy away from her.
- The teens who are finding each other on Instagram and Tumblr, creating “image collectives,” like the Art Hoe movement, where “nonconforming gender teens are positioning themselves in front of famous art pieces from old masters to abstractionists to ‘raise questions about the historical representation of people of color in art.’” Teen stars like Willow Smith and Amandla Stenberg have joined in, causing #arthoe to explode and continue to challenge the we study and view art history. Because of movements like these, young people may now grow up in a world where they set the visual agenda, where they know how to challenge the art that is shown to them as important, and offer up a new iconography of beauty that both undermines the exclusive canon and rewrites the academic syllabus.
- The autistic child who starts taking selfies on his iPad, who finds a way to unlock his inner chambers by capturing his outer self, who finds a place in the vibrant Tumblr autism selfie community, where thousands of people post new pictures every week, trying to reach out and connect where words may fail them.
- The old widow who has found an entire community full of people who will call her beautiful now that her husband cannot.
- The millions of people who do not fit the mold for what capitalism defines as physical perfection, whose skin or height or gender or personal aesthetic might have kept them out of the hallowed halls of Those Who Get To Be Seen before selfies existed, those who would not have seen themselves in photo albums a decade ago because no one ever wanted to take their picture, those who go their own way. I have seen people of every color and shape and pronoun beloved in their own online lands, the heroes of their own stories. I have watched, off to the side, scrolling through this kaleidoscope of faces, as they rack up likes and admirers and accolades, as they become icons to the exact people they hope to reach. I have seen them find each other and stick together. I have learned entirely new vocabularies for how to look, for where to look. And there is always, always more to learn.
This is the radical potential of selfies. This is what I think about most when I take them, when I channel women of the past, when I think about Julia and Clover and Frida and Francesca, when I think about all the people who wanted so badly to be seen but were born too soon to ever have an @ handle of their own.
I wish, all the time, my great-grandmothers (women I never knew; a gentle seamstress, a boisterous lawyer’s wife) could have taken a million selfies. I feel like I owe it to them and to those who feel unseen now, to keep posting, to keep sharing, to keep liking, to keep seeking out new faces to like. I feel that I am, that we all are, writing our own history with every selfie.
This is the way that selfies become death masks, memorials to the idea that once, we existed. There is joy in confirming that you have a self, that you have a life, that the ultimate gift you didn’t ask for is real, that your body takes up mass. And then there is the sorrow of knowing the gift must be returned, that your ship has holes in it and will one day sink, that no body makes it to the other shore in tact. The ego, then, is about loving oneself enough to temporarily forget that we are all disappearing, loving oneself out of the terror of nothingness, loving oneself out of bed.
Seen this way, self-regard is nothing to be ashamed of; it is merely a survival tactic. And selfies are an instrument in this survival, tiny rages against the dying of the light (or the iPhone battery, whichever comes first). They are a chance to create images that will last longer than we will, mediated by ourselves, passed along by ourselves, with targets we might not yet know but who will nonetheless be grateful to discover them. Your selfie is never sick, never has its heart broken, never ages. It doesn’t need sex or food or pharmaceutical assistance. Your selfie is able to travel to places you cannot, and it will outlive you.
Remember this: your selfie is an artifact and a gift. People in your own time might not see it that way. They will call you narcissistic for giving birth to hundreds, maybe thousands, of fractured little selves. They will wonder why you need so much confirmation, so much attention, so much visibility. They will experience your face as an assault. Pay them no mind. Your selfie has already ventured off to the future, where all of us are dead.