Decided to write this little post today because of the interesting public reaction to an opinion piece on Jezebel recently, entitled “Selfies Aren’t Empowering. They’re a Cry for Help.”
The reaction that has followed it has been enormous, and a lot of people have responded by posting their own selfies, or using their selfies as a avatars on various social media sites. This is interesting in and of itself. It is actually touching that a potentially vulnerable gesture that is often made by young women and girls, and which is condemned or criticized for that reason, could spark a wave of solidarity on the ‘Net–this alone is a pretty positive sign of change in the world. And I actually like the fact that Jezebel as a website could serve as a flashpoint for such a response. It’s one of the main things that I like about the site, and it’s one of the reasons that condemning the site wholesale as being some how Wrong/Bad/Stupid is something I consider a red flag when a man does it these days.
At any rate, the Great Selfie Controversy sparked some serious thought and reflection in me today. To be honest, the subject of image and self-portraiture with regard to women has been on my mind for many years. I have been a fan of the artist Frida Kahlo since I was about fifteen years old, and she is one of the greatest artists in the history of the world in the medium of the Self Portrait. Later in life I became an admirer of Cindy Sherman, who worked primarily with photographs, but who was also a truly great artist in the medium of the self-portrait. And I’ve learned to take a great interest in any female artist’s portrait of herself, including those that exist in the written medium–Anais Nin is arguably working in a self-portrait medium with her erotica, and Erica Jong followed a similar path.
I can probably put together an essay on this topic later, as my ruminations are still bubbling, but for today it occurred to me to look through my old digital files and see whether I had any selfies. And sure enough–I do!
These were taken around ten years ago. I can’t remember whether it was 2003 or 2004. I was living in North Carolina at the time, during a separation from my first husband. I was unusually slim at the time, on a diet-and-fitness kick which had taken me down to one of the lowest weights of my adult life. And for that year I was taking some time to enjoy the self-confidence and pleasure in your body that comes when you’re more conventionally attractive, and approval/affirmation are easier to come by in day-to-day interactions.
It was part of a general awakening to my own beauty, inner and outer, which has been ongoing to the present day. Throughout my childhood and teen years I was sold quite a load of BS about my appearance and associated worth, so throwing off the burden of this societal BS took me quite a while–and even today, decades later, there are always new hurdles and challenges to maintaining healthy self-esteem. When you’ve been abused in this way, it often takes genuine, concerted effort not to cringe from the world and accept its petty judgments of your appearance and worth.
At any rate! These shots were taken with a cheap crappy webcam that I bought that summer. Simple and shoddy as my equipment was, it was nevertheless a really powerful device to capture images of my own face and body, and I was fascinated by how quickly and cheaply I could capture images of myself in a variety of poses and moods.
So I took selfies. All kinds of selfies!I took funny selfies, I took glamorous selfies. I took selfies of myself wearing different clothes. I took selfies of myself in lingerie. I took selfies of my feet. I took selfies of my chest. I took selfies with my glasses on and off. I took selfies with my hair up and down.
And I never showed the majority of those images to anyone. If I did show a photo to anyone, it was only one image out of dozens. The point at the time wasn’t necessarily to share the images. The point was to look at myself, in a way that I had never been able to look at myself before–and to try to imagine how others might see me.
I was genuinely curious what I looked like, and what it was POSSIBLE for me to look like. What did I look like when I was just being me? What did I look like striking a pose?
It was very different and much more interesting than just looking into a mirror. My relationship with the mirror is not really a playful one, you see; I don’t ever look into a mirror and imagine it’s another person. To me it’s just a sheet of glass that lets me check to see whether I’ve got blood on teeth or if my war paint is smeared or if that spot on my shirt still shows. I use it to check myself for damage or apply and adjust my make-up. I don’t have a lot of fun with it.
My selfies, by contrast, were completely childish and playful. It was as if my mirror were suddenly a friend or a confidante or a lover rather than just an inspector or a judge.
And yes, I saved the ones where I thought I looked pretty or sexy or funny! Selfies are not about capturing the images of yourself that you don’t want others to see.
You can rely on the rest of the world for that.
Especially your school photographer, and the DMV.