Vanity and the Selfie Wars

2013 seemed to mark the year of the selfie wars. Everyone had something to say about selfies, images people take of themselves and post to social media or share with friends, and many of those things were deeply uncomplimentary. Those things were also highly gendered, as was much of the meta-analysis of the selfie phenomenon, because the selfie culture says a great deal about gender, social attitudes about gender, and what we think of as acceptable behaviour from people of various genders.

It doesn’t escape notice that a large proportion of the population of selfie-takers is women. Women often use selfies to showcase fashion (Outfit of the Day posts, for example, are very common), makeup, hair, and jewelry. Women also take advantage of pictures of themselves to show off pieces of their lives; they might take pictures of themselves or themselves with close friends while they’re at restaurants and doing fun things, signaling pieces of their lives and activities to their followers—and remember, following someone on social media is a voluntary act. Some types of selfies are so distinctive that they have their own memes: the #bookshelfie, for example, of someone standing in front of a bookcase.

Many negative comments about selfies revolve around the idea that they are vain, self-involved, and frivolous, encouraging women to focus inward rather than thinking outward. They imply that they are of limited interest to anyone other than the women who take them, who simply want to preen for attention over the internet, holding their audience captive for pictures of them snuggling with their cats or wearing new coats. Proponents of the selfie, on the other hand, view it as a more empowering act.

Taking and posting pictures of yourself can be a way to take ownership and control of your body—among other things, it allows women to embrace themselves as they are and to proudly put themselves in the public eye. For women accustomed to being labeled as ugly and undesirable, selfies can be a way of turning the tables, refusing to hide under a sheet so other people don’t have to look at their perceived hideousness. Some fat women, for example, post a large number of selfies to showcase the fact that fat is beautiful, and that fat fashion comes in a wide range of flavours.

Selfies are also a way to showcase skills and discuss the complexities of things like finding the right garments or applying makeup well. Furthermore, they provide a mode of connection across a medium that can often feel very disconnected; by posting images of themselves, people show followers who they are in a very visceral way, especially when they are posting selfies of themselves at vulnerable, frustrated, and off moments. The woman who posts a picture of herself in bed sick, for example, is showing her followers how she feels, and she’s making a statement about how women are “supposed” to look and what kinds of norms society maintains for women in public.

Another aspect of the selfie phenomenon that many people seem to forget is the large number of people who are connected through the internet, and who rely on it heavily for their social networks. I’ve never met many of my friends in person, but I know what they look like. I know their moods, their bodies, their wardrobes, their favorite hair styles and makeup and pets, and this is because of selfies, which have showed me their changing and varied experiences over the years. For me, these images have helped me connect on a more immediate level with people whom I otherwise might think of in a purely textual way.

Disdain for friends in the internet is very common in this era, even when more and more people are meeting friends online, whether directly or indirectly. Growing numbers of people use dating services to find friends and partners, strike up friendships on social networks and in comments sections of websites, and cement relationships through message boards. These are real, valid, meaningful social constructs, and the selfie is one expression of such constructs.

aqszI can’t show someone what I’m wearing today when I see her at the office because I don’t work in an office and she’s 5,000 miles away, but I can post a picture for her to admire. I can’t run in the snow with my friends when I miraculously discover some while on a long drive, but I can post a selfie to show people how much fun I had, to transport them there for just a few moments. I can’t split a muffin from a friend’s favorite bakery with her, but I can laugh when she posts a picture of herself eating one and tags it to make sure I can see it.

The selfie is really more of an anti-selfish activity. It embraces and draws people in, rather than pushing them away. The beauty of the selfie is that it’s a public statement and declaration, a sharing of self and environment with the world; selfie takers are letting their followers into their lives and giving their followers tastes of themselves, and we communicate through this medium with a sense of connection and delight.

It’s intriguing that the selfie is sneered upon so often: it’s almost as though people don’t want women and other marginalised people connecting with each other, sharing their lives, cementing relationships, and developing solidarity through shared virtual experiences. For, most assuredly, the selfie does all of these things, and more.