We, the millenials, have mastered the art of the “selfie”. Sure, you read articles which say the first ever “selfie” was some Victorian guy with an old-fashioned camera, but we’re the generation who owned it. It’s a cultural phenomenon, hordes of us all each perfecting the angle, lighting and filtering of self-portrait after self-portrait. And for whom? We post them to our Instagram pages, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat and so on. We pursue “likes” and “favourites” in order to validate ourselves. Deny it, if you like. But if you’ve changed your profile picture and never checked to see how many “likes” it has, you are a better person than I.
Why are we so enamoured with the selfie? Are we really so afraid that we must document every moment of our lives, that we should wake up one morning and not recognise ourselves in the mirror? Or is it deeper than that? A need to be validated based on appearances, both literally and metaphorically: “keeping up appearances”, having a “web presence” because our social codes have shifted as we have all emigrated to the Internet? Now, we tailor-make our online profiles to consciously alter how people perceive us. Not everything we think and feel goes online, only the things we want people to see. The selfies we post are us when we feel attractive, or happy, or goofy. We don’t talk about our sadness online – it’s unsavoury, it’s “attention-seeking”. It’s unattractive. And so we don’t share everything, and we rely on our faces to gain us the approval we crave.
We seem to place a lot of emphasis on how we look. Why else do we have filters, and Photoshop? The selfie has long been deemed a “female” artform, namely because many men are shamed for taking them. In society, men should not be seen to care about their appearance, in spite of the fact that they are expected to fit the mold in terms of fitness, height and strength. However, that is another discussion. Of course men care about the way that they look, just as women care how they look too. But women are more inclined to take selfies, why?
Because from an early age we are taught to commodify our beauty, to see it as an important part of how we will be perceived by others. Our looks have been under more scrutiny than anything else, because we still fear being catcalled on the streets, and see image after image projected onto our screens and printed in our magazines, purporting to offer us advice on how best to fit the heteronormative ideal of female attractiveness. Selfies offer us the chance to control what we share with our potential critics, or our online-dates, and our peers. We boil down our worth to the pictures we take, because it is not common to share much else on social media, not many of us can say we share our innermost thoughts on Facebook.
Of course, physicality has always been a human obsession: fashion, matrimony, sex, procreation and all that lark. And the objectification of women is hardly an occurrence that has come about with the selfie. It is just one way we see it happening today. Before the Internet, we relied on a real feeling, a sudden chemistry between two people, be that physical or intellectual. With social media focusing heavily on the physical, we could do with a bit more intellectual.
To be honest, I am as obsessed with social media as anyone I know. I use it on a daily basis, and I’m not too proud to admit that I post selfies on a fairly regular basis. I justify them to myself, “I’m in Skye – everybody has to see this beautiful scenery!” or “Mikkel is in Edinburgh, I want everybody to know we’re reunited!” but really, it’s still just about seeking some sort of approval. I don’t see myself going cold turkey on the Instagram, but perhaps I’d benefit from being a little bit more honest about what I’m up to, and the things I care about. On that note, here’s my Shelfie: