Taking Back the Selfie

by Alaina Leary

Somewhere in the deep recesses of my boxes of old stuff, there’s a photo of my mom from just a few months before she died. It was taken with one of those old disposable cameras that were popular in the early 2000s. In it, her hand is visibly outstretched so the camera is facing her, and she’s wearing cheap sunglasses and smiling. Our street can be seen in the background.

I like to call this “the first selfie,” even though I know self-portraits have been around since before photographs even existed. Early aristocrats wanted selfies to the point where they were willing to pay artists to portray them, often among their prized possessions in their homes. But this photo, to me, represents some part of my mom that I will never know: who she was, as a person, when nobody else was around.

That’s what a selfie is, isn’t it? Unless you count having your photograph taken as a selfie, or any self-taken photos with friends, then a selfie is, by definition, a photograph of you, taken by you. You have to be somewhat alone to take a selfie. Sure, you can do it outside, in the midst of a bustling New York City streetscape when you’re on your way to the café down the street to grab some food. But those people aren’t with you. They aren’t in your head, and they aren’t in your photograph.

I found my mom’s selfie among our collection of photos after she died. Normally, I was the one behind the camera, always capturing every moment at family parties and on regular days. Before fashion blogs were a thing, I was a nine-year-old kid trying on wild outfits, setting the camera timer, and going wild. But this photo was proof to me that my mom existed outside of being my mom. She was a person who smiled when she was alone. She was a person who wanted to capture her happiness in a picture.

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I grew up in what I like to think of as the new technology Renaissance. I watched as flip phones with cameras turned into Blackberries turned into iPhones. I watched as everyone in middle school owned a point-and-shoot, but by late high school, everyone just used their phones because they were just as good. At one point, I even had a flip phone that allowed the screen to physically twist so you could take self-portraits. Selfies were important even before people made a fuss about them.

These days, I’m trying to take back the selfie. What’s wrong with wanting to capture a photo of yourself or of a moment in time? We’re told that, as women, we shouldn’t take selfies for so many reasons. It means we’re vain, self-centered, and only care about surface level beauty.

I think selfies are feminist in their own right. Even if you’re taking a selfie just for the pure enjoyment of capturing how you look, you’re taking back your right as a woman to exist. A selfie says, “I’m here, whether you want me to be or not.” When I get a new haircut, I take a selfie. When I’ve got my makeup done for a date, I take a selfie. When I get new clothes, I take a selfie. I look good. I feel good. There’s nothing wrong with documenting that moment.

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About two years ago, my childhood best friend posted a selfie to Facebook that started an outright war. It was just a nice picture of her, with song lyrics as the caption and the hashtag “no make-up.” One of her male followers commented that she was lying, and she was, in fact, wearing makeup. Her friends, me included, rushed to her defense. By the end of it, the fight had lasted two hours and there were over five hundred comments from her followers, friends, family and strangers on both sides of the argument.

The follower who had started the war was someone she didn’t even know. He was just one of her many ‘fans’ who found her on Facebook and added her. He argued that she didn’t need to accept strangers if she didn’t want negative comments like this.

Isn’t that the epitome of what it’s like to express yourself as a woman? My friend put herself out there and shared a photo where she wasn’t wearing makeup—a rarity for her during that time—and she was publicly shamed, and then blamed for even sharing the photo in the first place. These are the same weak arguments that arise from sexism on the street, too, all blaming the woman for dressing a specific way, wearing makeup, or having an attractive figure. My friend shared a picture she liked. Simply by existing as a woman, there was no way to win.

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Selfies can be about something other than physical beauty although there’s nothing bad about the ones that are. You can take a selfie if you don’t fit the stereotypical mold of attractiveness that the media showcases. You can take a selfie if you never see people like you on television or in magazines. Fatshionistas have been taking the online fashion blogger world by storm, reclaiming the word ‘fat’ and saying that they’re proud of the bodies they have.

I take selfies when I’m dressed up, in my craziest outfits, when my hair is purple or I’m wearing DIY jewelry, to say that I am who I am, and I’m proud of that. I take photos after I get ready for dates, to reaffirm my existence as a proud, happy queer woman and to show that, yes, queer women do get ready for dates sometimes. (I wear less makeup than my girlfriend, but I do more to my hair than she does!)

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This year, along with my fellow editors at Luna Luna Magazine, I’ve been trying to show people that they can take back the selfie. It’s not a symbol of a vain woman. It’s just a picture, or it is whatever you want it to be. We’ve started an Instagram page @selfiewitchx, where we showcase any selfies that are submitted to us. Selfies on your worst days, selfies on your best. Selfies when you’re down-and-out because of your chronic illness. Selfies that reaffirm your ability to live if you’re dealing with mental illness. Selfies that preserve a moment in time: a first day of work, a graduation, a wedding, a loss of a good friend, a death anniversary. Selfies that show you, unfiltered, even if your thick eyebrows, dark skin, crowded teeth, gray hair, or fat body aren’t considered attractive by the mainstream media.

Sometimes I think about “the first selfie,” that picture of my mom, and how it says so much with one picture. Simultaneously, it’s a very personal image of one specific moment in her life, and also just one selfie in thousands of years of self-portrait history. If a selfie is anything at all, and can be defined in any way, it’s a mirroring of the self; it’s one way to try to capture what it is to be alive, to be you, to exist in your own space in your own way, and that’s something I don’t think anyone should give up on.

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Images courtesy of the author.

This post was originally published on March 23, 2016

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