Since “selfie” became Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year, the internet has been abuzz with mediations on the trend’s implication for young women, the group with whom the trend has become most popular. Does the validation of the selfie as a word and as a fixture in modern society hurt or help those who take them?
Flavorwire’s Michelle Dean and Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan view the photographic medium as dangerous to young women’s self-esteem and sense of worth. Both argue that the ubiquity of selfies reinforces the sexist idea that women must seek approval from their social networks. They also convincingly explain that the selfie is largely centered around physical appearance, and girls should not be taught that we need that type of approval.
Alternately, Slate’s Rachel Simmons wrote in a controversial article that in the face of a culture where women are taught to be self-effacing and overly-humble, “The selfie is a tiny pulse of girl pride—a shout-out to the self.” The internet responded to Ryan's piece with #feministselfies, a collection of self-portraits by women claiming the selfie as a right of self-expression and self-actualization.
The New York Times writer Jenna Wortham sees potential for real storytelling within the selfie. While acknowledging that “At times, [they feel] largely performative, another way to polish public-facing images of who we are,” she echoes Frederic della Faille’s sentiment that taking a selfie is not necessarily an exercise in superficial self-consciousness. As della Faille puts it, “It’s much more of a moment and a story than a photo. And more often than not, it’s not about being beautiful.”
If we return to the source of the word and its definition, The Oxford University Press’s blog notes that the immediacy of the selfie “makes them seem a thing apart from a photograph that required time and expense to process and print.” In this way, the selfie is less precious than other forms of self-portraiture, and if the images themselves don’t have carry monetary or cultural weight, the female artists/subjects suffer: they will be judged in a split second as frivolous and shallow. Selfies have the potential for self-actualization if taken as a legitimate art form, but the likelihood that girls will be encouraged to use them as such is unclear.
In the Wikipedia entry for “Selfie,” images of old photographs are displayed alongside modern-day iPhone selfies. One displays a young woman directly staring the viewer in the eye as if to say, “I am just now forming my own identity, and with this camera, I will control your interpretation of who that is.” The other depicts an older woman shooting herself within a frame-like mirror alongside actual family portraits, situating her in relation to those she loves.
These older images are powerful expressions of the self, but modern day selfies, simply put, often are not. A majority of selfies include only the individual’s physique and face molded into predetermined expressions: bikini-clad young women sport duck face, stick their tongues out. They seem less like personal venues for expression and more like reiterations of the same image, begging “Am I doing it right?” And young women certainly shouldn’t be taught to ask that. Here’s a selfie that actually serves as an expression of self-actualization, the now-famous image of three beaming women just after finishing the Marine Corps infantry course:
In conclusion, the feminist potential of the selfie remains to be seen! What do YOU think of selfies?
Images via PopSugar, Wikipedia, Parade, The Gloss, and The Atlantic