Sometimes in my head I say, “There are two kinds of people: there are people who take selfies, and people who don’t.” I try this statement on, but deep down I don’t think it’s true. Or maybe I do, kind of. This lame dichotomy does expose, though, some innate judgment or rancor against the practice of taking selfies. (Selfie-ing?) To take a selfie, on some level, is to be fascinated by the self. Too fascinated with the self, though, and you’re a narcissist, shallow, annoying. Yes? No?
Of course, back in the day, they were just self-portraits. But when did self-taken photos of yourself go from being self-portraits to selfies? Probably since social media became the way we socialize online. Self-portraits are serious, artistic — what Van Gogh and Rembrandt did. Selfies are what the Kardashians do, the McPortrait. And while everyone takes them, people rank on them as well.
As I do — I don’t think I’m alone in being irritated when someone’s sole Instagram or Facebook activity is taking pictures of themselves. (The only person who should do this is Rihanna, but that’s because Rihanna clearly lives in her own simulacrum wonderland, right? Rihannaland?) It gets irritating because the same duckfaced pic shows up in your Instagram, and then on Facebook, and then it kind of just saturates your day’s worth of Internetting. And you’re like, “Stop the duckface! Stop the pigeon toes! Just stop and bring me my pictures of cute kittens!”
(And honestly, I actually like seeing people in their photos, but too much of it is…just too much. I suspect that’s why I don’t follow a lot of semi-pro and pro fashion people on Instagram or Facebook, because so many of these feeds are just pics of themselves and it’s…just too much.)
Of course I’m guilty of an occasional selfie. I’m definitely not guilty of too many of them — I’m not photogenic and I wear the same things over and over. (Though my things are FABULOUS, ha!) But taking a selfie is a torturous process for me. So many poses, so many snaps, though it’s much since phones have cameras. (Though, come on iPhone, where the hell is the self-timer option?) And now we have retouching studios at our fingertips: filters, photo apps, etc. I note with a degree of amusement that while my preferred Instagram filter is the plangent, romantic Amaro, my skin looks best with Walden or Valencia. (Someone should start a foundation line named after Instagram filters.)
In some ways, the selfie is kind of the natural endgame of existing in such a media-saturated age. Certainly this is something women can understand: our bodies are objectified from an early age — a lot earlier than many of us are prepared for — and we grew up with a kind of double consciousness. One consciousness within ourselves: our feelings, ideas, inner life. But also an outer one, always looking out for how we look through others’ eyes.
(It’s like that weird goggles-machine you sit in when you get your eyes checked at the opthalmologist, and they ask, “This lens? Or this lens?” and switch between prescriptions. We have a lens directed towards our inner life, and one directed towards how we appear to the outside world.)
Our notions of beauty and our grooming rituals, too, are often calibrated with the photographic eye in mind — I’m thinking of all those foundations sold specifically for high-def camera lenses, for instance, which can pick up even the smallest bit of powder. I suspect one day we’ll buy foundations and powders not just by shade and formula, but by resolution as well.
(Sometimes I look at designs and wonder if they were created with the two-dimensional image in mind — I suspect that’s why prints and weird, challenging silhouettes have been so popular in fashion for some time now, because they photograph well. The idea of a garment that moves beauty and takes advantage of the subtleties of movement, actual light and drape seems rarer and rarer as our eyes and tastes become digitized.)
If we live in a world full of mediated images shimmering in front of us, isn’t it natural for us to want to jump into the beautiful mirage and become part of that? Especially if it’s set up as this idyll of sexybeautifulgorgeous fabulousness?
I remember reading somewhere a long time ago about someone — I honestly don’t remember who — who was obsessed with going out in NYC and becoming a kind of nightlife celebrity. (This was way before sites like Cobrasnake on the Internet. This was like Paper magazine-era domination, where gossip columns ruled the roost.) I remember them talking about how they wanted to “get to the other side of the equation,” and that metaphor has long lingered in my mind about a lot of beautiful chimeras like fashion. We just want to jump on the other side of the equation — rarely do we question the equation itself. We want to be part of wonderland. And maybe with selfies and social media, we can be.
Of course, I can’t help but unpack how the way we talk about selfies has an undercurrent of sexism to it. The complaints against selfies — narcissism, shallowness, etc. — are familiar ones we levy against women, particularly young ones, often to keep them in line in some way or another — to keep them from taking up space. Everyone takes selfies, but the iconic practitioners of selfies are generally women. (And I guess Justin Bieber, but a significant strand of the Internet think he’s actually a fetching lesbian, so he’s a slightly queered figure perhaps.)
Selfies, though, might be better thought of as a process, rather than the end product: an exploration of the self. There’s something basic happening — we’re just curious about who we are and how we’re existing within our experience at a particular moment. On some level, I guess I just want to remember that “I was here.”
Or sometimes I’m fascinated by the gap between what my inner experience was and what the outer recording of it is: I look at a selfie taken at a particular place, perhaps, and see a bit of sadness in my eyes during what was supposed to be a happy occasion. Or sometimes I just think, “OMG, is that what people see when I wear that outfit?” It’s weird and anthropological and sometimes anything but a vainglorious celebration of my self. Sometimes taking a selfie is mortifying, and luckily I can just delete, delete, delete them from my camera. But then I wonder: am I editing my existence so that it better matches what was in my head? Am I trying to jump to the other side of the equation?
And of course, sometimes we just want to remember, to simply say, “I was alive at this moment.” I actually was thinking about this as I was looking through a photo album recently, and noticed how few photographs I had of myself. I didn’t allow myself to take many at the time because I hate how I look in photos — there it is again, not being photogenice — but it still made me sad in retrospect. I know that I existed in those moments — those vacations, those family events, those trips and parties and film shoots and the like. I was there, taking the picture, after all.
And yet, oddly, what made me sad was not including myself as part of that record — as if I didn’t deserve to be immortalized, or wasn’t worthy of being remembered. It spoke to my lack of self-regard, to feeling like an outsider in my own life sometimes — and those feelings colored not just my photographic record, but how I conducted my relationships and my life, and how I felt about myself. And it made me oddly and profoundly sad. I don’t need to be a part of every picture, but even just a tiny bit more would have been better.
So sometimes when I pick up my iPhone and turn the camera on myself, it’s a strange way of saying, “I exist. I took up space on this earth. And I want to be remembered on some basic level.” Sometimes those are the really basic things we spend lifetimes learning how to say. But a picture sometimes says it best. (Sometimes.)
(This is kind of a group video selfie of my baby niece, my mom and me. It kind of encapsulates to me the weird primal fascination and joy of taking images of yourself. You’ll also discover my niece’s name for me is “Aaahgump.” Okaaaaay…:-)