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.

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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 

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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.

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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.” ▄