Why Selfies are Problematic (or, Fear and Selfie-Loathing in LA)

Recently, I went on a shopping trip with my mother to our local, relatively small-town mall. It had been a long time since I had been to any mall-type establishment, but the place was just what you would expect from any mall, filled with the usual mall-goers: scary-looking teenagers, older women walking with their arm weights, and mothers pushing baby strollers looking hurried.

Hans Memling's Vanity  (c. 1485), reimagined for 2013.
Hans Memling’s Vanity (c. 1485), reimagined for 2013.

It was the middle of the day, so Mom and I decided to stop for lunch in the food court. Since options were limited to the pizza place that sells giant slices of droopy pizza and other unappetizing food court staples, I ended up settling on a California roll from a sushi place where 70% of the menu was fried.

As I was sitting at our table, spreading wasabi with the end of my chopstick, I noticed a group of construction workers nearby looking in our direction. A tilt of my head confirmed my suspicions — they were staring at me. Now, without sounding like Samantha Brick, I’ll just say that this is something that I’ve gotten used to over the years; despite my aura of awkwardness, I’m plenty used to being ogled by strangers. But this time it was different. Instead of looking me over until settling on another, more nubile target, the men wouldn’t look away.

The staring got so bad that my mom noticed, and told me to hurry up and finish eating so we could leave. As I got up to throw my styrofoam cup into the trash, I consciously avoided looking over at the men, feeling an all-too familiar anger at not being able to go straight to their table and curse them out. I knew the safest and best course of action was to dump my plastic tray and walk off — and that’s what I did.

This story is probably so familiar to women everywhere that it hardly seems worth telling. But I was angry — so angry that I did tell some friends about the incident. And you know what most of them told me? “Take it as a compliment. It means you’re hot!!”

The Male Gaze 

The male gaze is everywhere, and it is so omnipresent as to be considered a reality of modern life to be dealt with, tolerated, and ultimately, accepted. So much so that women themselves perpetuate it by encouraging other women to welcome and enjoy (or even to invite) the stares of strangers. Which brings me to the subject of this post: selfies.

male gaze

In Meghan Murphy’s essay entitled “Putting selfies under a feminist lens,” the author notes that selfies abound on the Internet, and that girls and women in particular are drawn to post these camera-phone self-portraits on social media sites.

Murphy writes:

If you Google selfies, you will find hundreds upon hundreds of shots of young women, often in various states of undress or attempting to capture the perfect face-to-cleavage ratio. There’s the odd shot of a teenage boy, looking confused or intentionally stoic, but there’s no doubt that the selfie is a gendered trend.

Vanity, Thy Name Is Woman

To put Murphy’s claim to the test, I did a quick stalk of profile pictures of men on my friends list. My boyfriend has never posted a selfie. My brother has never posted a selfie. None of my male cousins (with the exception of one photographer) have ever posted selfies. Instead, these men all choose profile photos from pictures taken at bars, at weddings, or on vacations. They’re depicted hanging out alongside their friends, girlfriends, or wives — who have either been left in the picture or cropped out of the frame, smiling somewhere just outside the photo’s scope.

In contrast, out of my 28 profile pictures, 12 are bona fide selfies — and I don’t consider myself the kind of person who takes pictures on a regular basis, let alone of my face.

That leads me to another observation: Is it a coincidence that we call narcissists “attention whores” and not “attention assholes?” The latter is certainly more alliterative, and just as fitting. But no, vanity is viewed in our society as a particularly feminine failing. During the Renaissance, this deadly sin — a manifestation of pride — was always represented as a naked woman, combing her long hair and gazing into a mirror. It appears that our conception of this vice has only changed slightly in the past 700 years — we’ve merely replaced the hand mirror with an iPhone.

A quick Google search of “how to take a selfie” yields 48,600,000 results, including links like “How to Take a Sexy Selfie: Tips From Sports Illustrated Models.” And, as Murphy points out, selfies are overwhelmingly taken and posted by women.

Murphy’s piece, while eye-opening, draws some conclusions that leave much to be desired — namely, that the biggest problem with selfies is the fear that they could become pornography, and that feminism has “capitulated.” I take issue with these conclusions for many reasons; namely, I don’t think it’s fair to place the blame on women for what men might do with their pictures, I definitely don’t think feminism is in any way irrelevant, and I think there’s more at play with the selfie trend than Murphy acknowledges.

Selfies: More Than Narcissism 

pull quote

I understand why people post selfies, and it’s not just about vanity. We live in a world where women and girls have to constantly deal with all sorts of conflicting expectations — and a great number of those expectations have to do with how we present our physical selves to the world. Obtaining the correct balance between hot, sexy, and cute is nothing short of an imperative — so much so that a fourteen year old girl wearing the “wrong” outfit can be seen as “asking” to be raped. So to me, it makes sense that women my age would feel the need to post pictures of themselves as a way of “performing” their gender and as an attempt to gain control over their own image.

Taking the right selfie can send a message. Think of all the different permutations of selfies that you’ve seen. There are the “Myspace”-style shots of yesteryear (or should I say, of freshman year?): in these, the camera is held over the head to optimize the ratio of face to cleavage and to assure that the girl pictured looks as doe-eyed as possible. There are the duckfaces, the “sorority squats” (not actually selfies, but the girls are still basically taking pictures of themselves), the “no filters;” the list goes on and on.

Performing Our Gender 

We use selfies to show that we are adept at presenting ourselves as today’s modern women. We know how to toe the line, how to present ourselves properly. It’s not enough to be educated, outspoken, successful — we also all have to be desirable in order to be taken seriously, whether we like it or not.

This isn’t just speculation; it’s scientifically proven. The sad, ugly truth is that we live in a society where a woman’s appearance is tied up in her worth. We live in a society where “conventionally attractive” women are more likely to be taken seriously, more likely to succeed in the workplace, and more likely to be considered competent, generous, and trustworthy.

Contrary to what you might think, selfies aren’t just about vanity, insecurity, or narcissism. I really believe that the trend of compulsive online self-portraiture is a response to society’s expectation of today’s modern women, who know that in order to succeed, they must present their best face to the world — literally. Looks are everything but arbitrary.  If social media is all about “branding” yourself as an individual, expressing who you are by creating a profile centered around your carefully-curated likes and interests, it makes sense that your face would be the logo for your personal brand. And unlike in the real world, where we’re seen in three-dimensions, with all of our flaws and our bad angles, Facebook and Instagram give us the opportunity to show only our best angles, to retouch our imperfections, and to decide which “filters” through which we will be seen.

Screen Shot 2013-08-11 at 3.41.21 PM

Selfies are a way to access the unique power that comes from being a beautiful, desirable woman. I understand why people would want to tap into this power and take advantage of it, but it still makes me uneasy, for all of the reasons I’ve listed above. So I posted this “anti-selfie” on my Facebook and Twitter accounts, because I felt the need to assert that images of my face and body do not define me or constitute my identity, and to remind my friends that they are more than just pretty faces. It’s my hope that other women will similarly find ways to empower themselves that don’t involve posting pictures of themselves — through things like writing, creating, or doing whatever it is that makes them feel strong and good.

But as a feminist, I believe that it’s a woman’s right to do whatever the hell it is she wants to with her body, and I’m sure not everyone views this issue the way I do. So hey girl, go ahead and post those selfies. But you might want to think twice about calling them “empowerment.” ▄

Published by Elizabeth Clausen

writer/person. I delight in terrible puns.

8 thoughts on “Why Selfies are Problematic (or, Fear and Selfie-Loathing in LA)

  1. Unwanted gazes and advances are just so awful and hurtful.

    I experienced something very similar to you when holidaying in France with my mother. We called my father over to the rescue!

    Best, Cam

  2. I’ve heard people talk about how they take selfies as a way to make themselves feel better. On the one hand, it is scientifically proven that dressing up and looking nice does trend toward being in a brighter mood, and keeping a photo as a reminder helps too, I guess. However on the other hand, when these photos are posted on the internet to be seen by others is when it stops being something for yourself and starts being something for others.

  3. My whole spiel is that selfless can be revolutionizing and they only appear simple if you look at them at their surface. A woman takes a photo, posts it on online. We ask ourselves why. The easy answer is narcissism (and it very well may be.)

    But when you put seflies in a feminist context you come head to head with feminist theory. It is no longer simply a woman taking a photo. We become occupied with how does her photo affect us socially? How does this trend of women taking photos of themselves affect us as a society socially?

    It seems like a silly question but it’s not. And I’m not going to argue why because your journal entry and Murphy’s piece do an excellent job explaining. (So why waste time covering covered ground?)

    But to continue where you left off, I would say selfless face the same problem as the word nigger. And you’re probably cringing or appalled at that idea but there are many similarities. A subordinate group utilizes a tool that can be used to put them down/disempower their political movement to empower themselves, while at the same time the dominant group shies away from its use.

    For women, selfless can be empowering because not only is it a public declaration of inner and outer confidence. It’s basically sticking a middle finger to “The Man” about what his definition of beauty may be. But a problem occurs because selfless exist as an object with a historical and cultural context. You cannot erase it. It carries it with it. Your message of empowerment can easily be drowned out by it.

    Therefore I see selfies in that same gray space in which, within the subordinate group, there is arguing over its use. Is the continued use of the tool necessary? What are the pros and cons to its continued use? Is there an appropriate and inappropriate use?

    I’m not going to pretend like I have those answer. Part of being a feminist is careful use of the word ‘should,’ and being careful of telling people what they should be doing. But I will say people could start viewing their selfless as objects with meaning and if they don’t like that meaning, find ways to invert it. And then ask if that method of inversion is successful or not?

    Am I making sense?

  4. I’m all for selfies, to an extent. I use pictures of myself and things around me to document my life, in order to look back. Whenever I feel I look good, or something important has happened to me, I take a picture and post it on Instagram, if not Facebook and all that other web stuff. I do it for myself, to look back on my Instagram pages, profile pics, what-have-you, and remember that I looked good that day, that I got that shirt and wore it a couple glorious times before I spilled wine on it, that I went to that party or visited that museum or hugged that friend. But there are times when the recognition that a selfie is especially flattering puts pressure on me, makes me worry if I’ll get the expected amount of likes. And that’s when selfies become problematic.

    One point you made is that your male FB friends are usually depicted with their “friends, girlfriends, or wives,” compared to the females’ increased usage of selfies for profile pics. It shows an interesting parallel with how men and women are depicted in the media, don’t you think? Men’s relationships are focused on so much more than women’s, within gender or otherwise. Women have a romantic thing going on with someone in the movie, or nothing at all.

    In addition to a fear of appearing vain and somehow feminized by taking a selfie, men would rather be pictured doing things that they like with people they like, rather than focusing on their lil scruffy faces. It’s what’s focused on in the media. But there’s a message being sent to women that the latter is so much more important than the former for them, you know?

    So this ties in with women taking pictures of themselves, just themselves, in order to put themselves in the best light for men. It’s an unconscious pressure, an expectation that that is all women are after. Untrue, but it seems that is the only way we as women know how to “brand” ourselves in a socially acceptable way. That’s the way women are shown to us, so we ape it. Not many actually fulfilling, realistic depictions of female friendship out there– the kind important enough to warrant inclusion in our oh-so-important profile pics.

  5. I also hate men that stare. A man turning his head to grab a second look is a compliment, staring is rude and creepy.

    It might have been interesting to delve into the role biology plays in this….I have always found it fascinating that for most creatures, the male is more beautiful/adorned in order to attract the female (think peacock, cardinal, lion). Why is it that with humans, the woman is the one who feels they must adorn themselves to attract the male? Do we have it backwards or was this part of God’s design? Is female vanity tied to our biological need to attract the opposite sex?

    I don’t know many women my age that take selfies…is that because the idea/technology is fairly new (so they shy away) or because older women are less vain? The only selfies I have taken were to share pics of a new haircut (of my profile pics only 1 out of 72 was a selfie). There are exceptions of course, but in my experience there is a point at which women no longer compare themselves to supermodels (or some other societal standard of beauty) and start to accept their bodies and physical appearance (and they seem to become less vain?) Are the selfies really a sign of vanity or of societal pressure…are they youthful attempts to try to show that you measure up to the ridiculous standard that society has set for women? Will selfies continue to be common for your generation as you age?

    It is true that attractive people are more successful (in certain fields, sales especially). It is also true in my opinion that unattractive people are often just not aware of how to put their best foot forward (ie they are not unattractive, just not at their best.) We can say it shouldn’t matter, but for the most part, it does….the world responds better to attractive people.

    This was a stretch for me… “Selfies are a way to access the unique power that comes from being a beautiful, desirable woman.” I am not seeing taking a selfie as accessing that power…but maybe it is my age? I have only known a few people who take ridiculous amounts of selfies and have found them to be either very vain or very insecure (maybe both?)

    Men are vain also, but it manifests itself in different ways from women. Men rarely change their appearances and from what I see on facebook, once they get a picture that they think makes them look good, they keep it as their profile picture forever. That could be a form of vanity too.

    My two cents…

  6. I see selfies as both a positive and negative trend. They are positive in that they encourage people to express themselves in new and unique ways. You might not truly realize how beautiful you are until you aim the camera a certain way or try on an outfit you’d never wear to a party.

    For most individuals, however (most notably young women), I think selfies are just another way to fit in. Posting selfies of a certain style is no different than wearing specific types of clothing, buying a certain purse or following any other trend. The only harm in it is that perhaps young women are losing a chance to really discover who they are and focus on what they have to offer, not what society tells them they should offer.

    If you want to see some male selfies check out Tom Daley’s Facebook page (or my profile 😉 ).

  7. Liz! Well done! Really insightful and well-written article! I found myself really excited when you bemused the question about it being intentional that some are called attention whores instead of attention assholes. The male gaze controls and dictates so much of a woman’s self-perception…in more ways than we even care to realize! Why do we post these selfies? Why do we feel the need to show ourselves as sculpted and photoshopped and refinished? Why do we constantly bow and at times (as you did in food court) cower underneath the press of the incessant/omnipresent male gaze? Really thought provoking!

    I’m usually in the camp of the “selfie loathers.” You know…that group of people on Facebook who are always complaining that, “If I see ONE more selfie/duckface on my Newsfeed…I’ll go crazy!” But that is problematic. You’re right. As women in this technological age of social media and constant interaction over the Internet, it is important that women feel like they are in control of how they’re seen…in this way we can (at least in my perspective) manipulate and, if you will, “trick” the male gaze. In this instance, we are seen the way that we desire to be seen – cleavage, duckface and all. There is something inherently powerful about being able to control and/or direct the everprevalent male gaze.

    Although by taking these selfies, it seems to me that we succumb to the male gaze by default. It is inescapable…much like those traffic cameras on stop lights. They police us and critique us…and force us to want to “self-edit.” Sigh. I could go on and on! Thanks for writing this, Liz Clausen. And for opening such a delicious dialogue! 🙂

  8. Great article … completely agree with the lines
    “images of my face and body do not define me or constitute my identity, and to remind my friends that they are more than just pretty faces.”

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