Selfies: A Young Girl’s Deviancy

Self portraiture is a tradition that spans back many centuries. As with many traditional activities, it was revolutionized with the advent of social media. The selfie, which is a photograph of the self, taken with the intent to be shared immediately on a social network, is a result of the marriage between the internet and self portraiture. There are certain presumptions about who are the main “perpetrators” of the selfie: narcissistic, consumerist “Millennials,” generally female, who are taking a selfie with the intent to get attention of some sort of audience - generally presumed to be male. They are condemned as narcissistic demands for affirmation but deserve a closer examination; selfies have the potential to enhance empathy in digital discussions and promote a healthy development of self awareness.

There has been quite a lot of press about selfies lately but they are by no means a new phenomenon. I remember taking my first purposeful webcam selfies at the age of sixteen, in 2010 - but most of my friends at school had started taking them long before that. When I put out an open call for selfies on facebook, the earliest webcam portrait I received was from 1998 (Appendix 1). I was also sent selfies taken by digital cameras (Appendix 2), polaroid selfies, and selfies taken with traditional film cameras. It is interesting; many people qualified their submission of selfies by telling me they were embarrassed of them and that they did not consider them to be a work of art.

History of Selfies

In order to delve deep into the subject of selfies, it is important to contextualize them within the human tradition of self representation. It is also important to analyze the potentially problematic aspects of the way in which this tradition is documented. A cursory Google search of “self portrait” displays first a block of related images and then a link to a Wikipedia article on selfies (See Appendix 3). Of the first eleven Google image results, six are self portraits by Van Gogh, two are by Frida Kahlo, one is by Rembrandt, one is by Picasso, and one is by Lucien Freud (See Appendix 4). The Wikipedia page is similar; there is a heavy focus on European men and their contributions to art. Whoever wrote the article acknowledges that there is a “longer continuous history [of self portraiture] in Asian art than in Europe,” but there is only one miniscule paragraph and eight examples of Asian self portraits included, none of them of women. The bias towards European males as creators of “fine art” self portraits is obvious.

Women painters from Europe are cordoned off, and given a slightly beefier paragraph to explain their contributions. The article states that “almost all significant women painters have left” a self portrait; it is curious that this section is not included in “European Art,” as all of the artists discussed are a part of the European artistic tradition. There is no examination of self portraiture by women of other cultures at all. Because Wikipedia is one of the most common places for non-academics who are interested in learning about a subject to visit first (and many academics too) this europhallocentrism is incredibly problematic; all discussions of selfies will be coloured by it.

Self portraiture, when examined through the lens of canonical European art history, is typically viewed as a rigorous examination of the self - not aesthetically, but psychologically. Van Eyck is celebrated as cerebral for including himself, hidden in the mirror (See Appendix 5); Rembrandt, “the most frequent self-portraitist” of his time, is not described as self-obsessed, but as prolific. Many women artists are excluded from discussions of the European canon, but they were some of the most prolific creators of self portraiture, a clear indication of the value that is placed on the physical appearance of women.

Photography revolutionized the idea of “reality” in art; because it was easy to pretend that photography was an exact duplication of a scene and could be substituted for actually being there, the boundary between fiction and reality in visual art was blurred. Photography allowed people to preserve themselves as they were, without any flattering touches from a painter. Self portraits created with cameras brought this new concept of “reality” to people’s depictions of themselves. Cindy Sherman used self portraits taken with cameras to subvert this sense of reality by dressing up in costume.

Now, photoshopping pictures is commonplace and the ability to use Instagram filters comes with every smartphone. People’s credulance when viewing photographs is tempered by an awareness of the ease with which they can be digitally retouched. When someone takes a self portrait and runs it through a filter on Instagram, it is analogous to any painter who alters the colours he sees before him to create a more harmonious painting. When someone takes a self portrait with a phone and shares it on a social network, they have taken a selfie.

Selfies, before they were called selfies, were called a variety of names. On tumblr, they were often referred to as GPOY, or “gratuitous pictures of yourself;” on 4chan, girls who posted pictures of themselves were accused of “camwhoring.” The way we view a selfie is very much based off of context: Who took it? Where was it posted? What were they wearing? Through these questions, we try to interpret what the selfie means to us. Most people do not consider selfies to be works of art; considering the fact that “art” is often defined by the European Canon, this is not surprising. Given that many artists who are widely acclaimed for their artistic creations are also prolific creators of selfies, such as Ai Wei Wei (Appendix 7), it makes sense to classify selfies as an artistic endeavor, or at the very least, an attempt to communicate through visual media.

Potential Developmental Benefits of Selfies

Interpreting and communicating through visual media is an important part of human socialization. Huk explains that “Although seeing feels like an easy and automatic process, it turns out that a very large proportion of the brain is involved in visual processing.” Before infants reach the age of two, their brain is not able to process the visual phenomenon of mirrors. They behave socially, as if interacting with another infant. By the age of two, they begin to demonstrate embarrassment, “tucking their head into their shoulders or hiding their face behind their hands.” Rochat attributes this embarrassment to the discrepancy between the way “the child represents herself within, and how he or she is actually perceived by others as reflected in the mirror.”  Throughout life, most people eventually develop a tolerance for images of themselves; after “adults of an isolated Papua New Guinea tribe” were exposed to their reflection for the first time, “the anthropologist [who] recorded their reactions...describes reactions of terror and anguish.” Although many people in cultures where mirrors are commonplace describe a certain discomfort when confronted with a mirror, most do not react with “terror and anguish.”

Selfies, then, serve as an ideal method for developing an accurate image of oneself. By examining the image of the self extensively, one becomes more self aware and thusly more able to self regulate and grow. People who take selfies often become more aware of what they look like in a variety of situations; it serves as a feedback loop which allows for a higher level of self control. Staring at oneself for hours in the mirror may not, in fact, be a sign of vanity, but a way of exploring the self as it is presented visually to others. In fact, while most children are able to identify the child in the reflection as themselves by the age of two, they typically struggle to identify the self as seen in photographs or movies as “me” until the age of about four. Selfies serve to reinforce accurate self image; if a person takes many selfies throughout the day, they are effectively submitting themselves to biofeedback therapy.

As selfies are a good way to examine oneself, they are often used by people who are confused about identity. Selfies taken by girls often examine their physical presentation; on the photo sharing website Instagram, it is very common for girls to upload pictures of themselves wearing outfits they are proud of, new hairstyles, or makeup they recently applied. It is also very common for girls to take selfies together; this is a way for them to examine not only themselves, but the way they present themselves within a group. By posting this photo onto a social networking website, it reaffirms their connection to the other person and makes it public. Girls may also run fashion blogs and post selfies within these. Instead of reaffirming a connection with another person, they are examining themselves within the visual culture of fashion and the brands they label themselves with.

While it is not true that only girls take selfies, it is definitely true that more girls take selfies than boys. In my discussions with prolific takers of selfies, there seems to be a trend for people who are more concerned with their identity to be predisposed to take selfies. People who identify as non-gender conforming or queer display a much higher concern with identity on a regular basis; as they don’t “fit” the norm of what society wants them to be, how they are viewed by others is of constant concern to them. As my friend Micco explained to me over Facebook chat, “I didn't have the language for it, but in hindsight, I totally see that a lot of my selfies were documentations of gender performance and gender fluidity. And I think I didn't take nudes because a) I was scared of my body and b) that seemed like a "girl" thing to do, and I wasn't able to do that yet.” Taking selfies was a way for her to become comfortable with  her body and with her identity.

Selfies are not only useful for getting to know oneself; they encourage empathy across digital barriers. One of the largest criticisms of digital communication was that it's much more difficult to determine intent and that tone becomes muddled. Initially, ways of clarifying online included emoticons and special modes of typing, e.g., typing in all caps. Now selfies can be used to communicate as well. A lot can be communicated with facial expression - and now, there are many social media applications that emphasize visual communication, especially via selfies, over pure verbal communication.

Narcissism and “Generation Me”

Contemporary academics engaged in the study of the development of adolescents and young adults are currently embroiled in a vicious debate: are Millennials, the youngest generation, self absorbed to a point which is unhealthy? Although it is definitely a fair argument that Millennials are more self aware than previous generations had been, if only because so much of their life is documented and then immediately reviewable, Twenge makes the argument that this generation is also incredibly narcissistic.

Twenge has dubbed Millennials “Generation Me” and then explains that it is a generation filled with an  unprecedented amount of narcissists. Unfortunately for Twenge, none of the metrics she uses to determine “narcissism” are particularly accurate. Arnett breaks down her statistics, and reveals that, if anything, the younger generation is moving towards more positive trends:

[R]ates of risk behavior have undergone a remarkable decline in the past 20 years over a wide range of behaviors. At the same time, emerging adults today show unprecedented acceptance for people who are different from themselves and are participating in community service at record high rates.

Twenge’s charges of narcissism are irrelevant if the youth’s narcissism does not show any measurably negative effect on their behaviors. Young adults using the word “I” more during discussions does not matter when they are more engaged in their community and less likely to harm themselves and others.

Twenge, in her article, also claims that there are “increases in mental health issues among high school and college students,” while concurrently noting that “the youth suicide rate declined between the 1990s and the 2000s.” Her conclusion is that “more positive self-views have not made us happier.” Arnett responds that “meta-analysis of epidemiological studies of depression over the last 30 years reported no changes in prevalence of depression in childhood and adolescence”and that it’s natural for young adults to be more neurotic than their older counterparts.  It’s hard to be emotionally stable when “most young Americans [are trying to] find a life partner...but in the course of finding that partner they make and break a series of relationships.” He also adds “[u]nemployment rates among 16- to 24-year-olds are consistently twice as high as the overall rate;” overall, it is a stressful time to be alive.

It is important to also examine the potential ways in which the benefits of selfies could be co-opted by industries that do not prioritize the mental health of young adults. Douglas, in her book “Where the Girls Are,” brings up important points about how narcissism and a focus on the self can be detrimental. She examines how an excessive focus on personal achievements derailed the feminist movement. Advertisers appropriated portions of the feminist movement in order to sell their products; “[u]nder the guise of addressing our purported new confidence and self-love, these ads really reinforced how we failed to measure up to others.” The women featured in these ads were heralded as role models because of their ability to adhere to traditional success narratives for men; “[t]hey were self-satisfied and self-assured, yet their value came from male admiration and approval.” Women were told that in order to be “successful,” they had to compete with the boys - and win - in male dominated workplaces, and thusly “instead of seeing personal disappointments, frustrations, and failures as symptoms of an inequitable and patriarchal society we saw these, just as in the 1950’s, as personal failures, for which we should blame ourselves.” While it’s certainly a step up from advertisements that characterized women as “stupid,” this attempt to categorize problematic ads as “pro-women” is disturbing.

Dove, a brand of Unilever, made an advertisement highlighting how Photoshop creates unrealistic standards of beauty in an attempt to appeal to general dislike of Photoshop for reinforcing unrealistic standards of beauty.  It is unfortunate that Unilever is able to promote their products using overtly racist and sexist advertisements while still getting widespread “feminist cred” for their popular “Dove Campaign for Real Beauty” ads. The Dove Campaign for Real Beauty epitomizes how advertisers are taking feminist tropes and turning them into campaigns. While the Dove campaign is definitely a step up from body-shaming in advertisements, a trend that hopefully continues, the industry definitely has many areas for improvement. I do predict that campaigns with an intense focus on selfies will become more normative; while this may not seem like a positive, in the long term, this is definitely a step in the right direction. Campaigns which highlight the agency of the people participating participating in them are incredibly important.

Many fashion bloggers seem to be in the avante-garde of this movement in advertising. Bebe Zeva, for example, whose archives on her blog “Fated to be Hated” start in 2010, describes her views on fashion:

Contrary to popular belief, fashion isn't superficial. It requires a great deal of talent to accurately execute a theme, as well as dedication to an aesthetic. It's more than what meets the eye- it's what meets the mind, and how the mind manipulates its fabric environment. Fashion icons shouldn't be lambasted for caring about the way they look; they should be lauded for their stylish sagacity... To me, a good outfit is something practical, well-constructed, and artistic.

Zeva, who has teamed up with various brands such as Maybelline and H&M, is more than just a model; she offers brands a chance to tap into her following. She occupies a space that is different than, say, a tennis star who helps to advertise tampons; she critically analyzes the clothes that she wears and the makeup that she applies. A brand that teams up with a fashion blogger gets access to a model, stylist, and PR expert all rolled into one. Douglas wrote about how  “[w]omen’s magazines, movies, and TV shows have been especially effective in alienating women from their faces and bodies;” by partnering with fashion bloggers instead, brands are able to engage in a more positive and personal mode of advertising.

It is not only fashion brands that are able to use the platform of fashion blogging to propagate themselves. Jayinee Basu, at her blog visualinput.me, uses images of herself to explore everything from Foucauldian theories of discourse to body schema. Basu’s engaging and informal writing and gorgeous sense of style make the experience of reading her thoughts on intellectual subjects so much more palatable; reading through her website is more like grabbing coffee with a friend than drudging through a textbook. While her photos do not expressly appeal to the male gaze, she uses the attention she achieves by being conventionally attractive and uses it to address issues in society that she considers important.

Contrary to Twenge’s assertions, Millennials use images of themselves to communicate more effectively with others. Their goal is not solely self promotion, although that may be a factor. Arnett’s characterization of Millennials as “Generation We” rings true; if anything, most selfies seem to express a desire to connect with others across digital barriers.

Online Presentation and Self Esteem

Selfies were not always characterized as self-indulgent; in the nascent days of the internet, the discourse about selfies and self esteem was markedly different. Instead of girls being accused of narcissism, they were criticized for having low self esteem. Girls who took selfies, especially selfies of a sexual nature, were warned that their activities were dangerous and could cause them to be stalked, harassed, or even murdered. In the early days of socialization on the internet, among newly burgeoning modes of communication, girls were encouraged to not identify themselves as female, creating an atmosphere in which women were erased from discourse.

Girls are encouraged to not take overtly or suggestively sexually photos; the method of eradicating these “sexts” is raising girls’ self esteems. Sexual photos of boys, however, considered normal and expected, and are not a sign of poor mental health.

Now that technology has improved, and it has become easier to send information via digital images versus pure text, selfies immediately push gender to the forefront.

ridiculous amounts of time spent on facebook - how does that point to self absorbtion, if the whole point is socialization? people may be expressing themselves more, but that is more assertive than narcissistic delineating an area wherein they can express themselves freely is important and valid. also adds to democratization of discussion, allowing other voices to be heard more easily, allows for easier deconstruction of narrative created by media.

4chan

4chan was an online image board created in 2003. People who identified themselves as women were told that “there are no girls on the internet,” and women who posted pictures of themselves were accused of camwhoring for attention out of low self esteem.

Some of these women amassed large followings and fanbases and are referred to as “Chans.”

4chan’s response to my piece of art was particularly classic, analysis of that lalalaa

Tumblr

On Tumblr, which is known for having a women-heavy population, people began a trend of posting “GPOY”s. These pictures could then be reblogged (shared or responded to) or liked. People developed fanbases, asked for compliments, and served as inspiration for others.

“Thinspo,” or pictures depicting often unhealthily skinny women as inspiration for losing weight, became a trend as well. “Proana” is a tumblr movement devoted to promoting/bonding over an anorexic lifestyle. There are, however, due to the nature of tumblr, also anti-anorexia communities, in addition to other positive communities. There are flourishing trans*, people of colour, queer, and other social justice communities. Many of these communities make heavy use of GPOY, or selfies, to promote solidarity.

Instagram

Instagram propelled the selfie into the spotlight. Due to the nature of the website, which elevates image over text as a mode of communication, selfies have become an integral part of how one is perceived.

Facebook

Facebook has created a “likes culture” in which women post beautiful photos of themselves for likes - but there is a phenomenon in which each “like” does not mean as much as it used to, chasing the dragon in a sense.

Selfies in the News

The media seems unsure of what to make of selfies, like that one lady who thought they were narcissistic, they all went along that line, although now they are opening up to the potential that selfies are good.

History of Narcissism

WHAT IS NARCISSISM AFTER ALLLLLL

The word “narcissism” is derived from the Greek myth of Narcissus, a man who was so beautiful and self absorbed that he was cursed to forever love himself - without satisfaction. In Ovid’s telling of the tale, Narcissus is a beautiful boy who scorns all: the nymphs, young men, and everyone in between. The one person to whom he appears to show any interest is Echo - but this is only when she repeats his words back at him. As soon as Echo presents her physical form to him, Narcissus rejects her. Rhamnusia, a goddess, decides that the only course of action is to have him fall madly in love with himself, but never be able to have himself.

After Rhamnusia lays her curse upon him, Narcissus happens upon a pool of water in the forest, and when he catches his reflection in it, he falls madly in love. Narcissus at first does not realize that it is himself whom he loves; “what he has seen he does not understand, but what he sees he is on fire for.” Ovid decries Narcissus’ foolishness - he is in love with an image, who will never be able to return Narcissus’ love. Eventually, Narcissus realizes that what he is seeing is but an image of himself, and he bemoans his presence in his physical body, describing his intense desire to be separated from it, that he might love it properly. Eventually, Narcissus’ longing for himself becomes so overwhelming that he turns into a flower.

This myth applicable to selfies taken by girls in two ways: the selfie exAamined through the lens of Echo, and the selfie examined through the lens of Narcissus. when exmained through the lens of ech, it becomes immediately clear that echo is only appealing to narcissus when she reflects him. young girls are only good/appealing when they reflect men. there are no girls on the internet. Narcissus is totally that too, cuz narcissus staring at self in pool analogous to what the media thinks young girls are doing.

Lacan and Narcissism

Freud viewed narcissism as a psychological retardation, and a sign that the child had not fully developed. Lacan reinterpreted Freud’s psychoanalytic techniques, taking Freud’s descriptions of the body as symbolic metaphors. Lacan had an intense fascination with what he called the “Mirror Stage,” which he constructed out of a dissection of the myth of Narcissus.

lacan was like sup my homies i will interpret everything as symbols

Deviancy of Narcissism

Rubin, in her essays, delves into an examination of why society views certain actions as “bad,” and how deviating from expected gender roles threatens to undermine the traditional structure of society.

WOMEN WHO ARE FOLLOWING MALE ROUTES FOR SUCCESS DO NOT THREATEN MEN AS MUCH BECAUSE THEY ARE STILL DOING THE THINGS, SERVES AS A DISTRACTION,, while its still not “good” for women to take on a mans role, its better than subverting gender roles completely (see: transwomen/transmen and the percieved need to adhere to traditional gender roles, Nuer women who become “men”