Selfies are not new. They just do something new.
For centuries, probably millennia, people have been creating self portraits.
The camera is a unique medium to create self portraiture with though, because while it is still an art form, it’s a mode of capturing as opposed to creating.
That’s the thing. Self-portraits used to be a mode of creating one’s self outside of one’s self. A way to let the world see how you see yourself.
What the camera did was allow us to see ourselves the way the world sees us.
I was born in 1989 and Jane Fonda doing aerobics in spandex didn’t put pressure on my body image as a young child. The first pressure about my body I remember feeling was that I wanted to look like Mary Kate and Ashley Olson. Mary Kate specifically because she and I were both a bit more on the tomboy side of life and I liked that.
My parents have a toddler picture of me hanging on the wall in their front entryway. I’m about two years old and I resemble Michelle from Full House. I’d heard people say that since I was young, so the comparison of myself to the twins as we aged was natural, and not a negative thing.
That is, until the twins, a few years older than I, got into their middle school years and their skirts got higher showing their thinned legs, and their shirts got tighter to show their developed, larger breasts. Meanwhile, my friends and I were watching Britney Spears music videos and I, a too-tall, small-breasted, wavy-haired, leggy-but-for-my-age-thick-legged 10-year-old started to understand that the way I looked didn’t look like our new ideal.
I’m amazed and grateful I made it to 10 before the media got to me. Quickly the media started to show me what all pretty girls apparently looked like. Images left and right in my daily life portrayed women who had straight, straight hair, and thin, thin legs with no hips to speak off, and the bigger the boobs the better. I was failing on all accounts and I wasn’t even a teen yet (though my teen years wouldn’t help me in those departments).
Then photoshop came along and exacerbated the already brewing problem. It was the time when photos went from capturing to creating again, except no one told us they weren’t just showing what was real anymore. We believed our real selves should look like that.
You have now, not just one, but multiple generations who have been shaped throughout their formative years by everything the media images have told them to be, and selfies are not to show the world how we perceive ourselves anymore.
Sometimes they’re to show ourselves how the world sees us. We have a false sense of what we look like because we’re constantly comparing ourselves to those images (now not just those of the rich and famous, but of our friends and that random girl who is only famous because of Instagram). An objective camera shows us what we really look like. Sometimes when I take pictures of myself I’m forced to admit that I’m prettier or more slim or what-have-you than I tend to think of myself being.
We then put that objective photo out there to ask the world for confirmation — “Um, hey world, hey friends, I took this photo, and it makes me think I’m maybe prettier than I thought. Can you confirm or deny that?” And they do. Our friends and sometimes strangers (depending on how much skin you show and what hashtags you use) comment letting us know that the camera and our assessment of it’s feedback is correct.
After almost two decades of Olsen Twins and Britney Spears and all the others that followed (and Kylie Jenner who I looked up on Instagram just last night to see what all the fuss was about and now I see that she, too, is oh-so-much hotter than I am), that feedback is a little gift to our ego that’s been battered for so long — and maybe it even helps our self-esteem. Maybe.
Then there’s the other reason for selfies. We create and share selfies to show the world not how we see ourselves, but how they should see us. It’s the creation game again and still.
We pose ourselves. We use props — a book on the lap, glasses for the #nerdygirl hashtag. If we have a more adult account, we position our backsides to look plump but to hide that bit of cellulite over there. We use filters — change the lighting to cover blemishes, change the contrast to make our features pop, change the saturation to make our eyes and lips look vibrant.
We share it not saying “Hey world, this is the objective picture my camera showed me and I think I look kinda pretty, do you think so?”. No, we say “Hey world. This is an objective image. I’m hot. You know it. Please like my photo so I know you believe it and then maybe I’ll start believing I look like this for real, and maybe I’ll feel better about myself over all. Maybe.”
After all these thousands of years, our culture is trying desperately to get back to the place where we know how we see ourselves. We’d like that perception to stop being self-loathing.
That’s not an unworthy pursuit. Behind our airbrushed role models and our iPhone filters applied to our own faces we lost site of what we look like in the world, and we’re trying to find it again. Though if we looked up from our screens, we might have a better chance. Please bear with us. #TheStruggleIsReal.
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Jo O’Hanlon is an adventurer and storyteller. She tries to be honest about the ugly and hard parts of life, and the beautiful parts too. This blog is one of the places she shares her thoughts and stories.
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