In case your twitter was broken yesterday or you live in a cave I would like to bring your attention to an article published on the website, Jezebel. The article called, Selfies Aren’t Empowering. They’re a Cry for Help was by far one of the most shallow posts I’ve read since I last looked at the pages of TMZ. The article starts out by mentioning that the Oxford Dictionary recently recognized the word, “selfie” as the 2013 word of the year. That is true. Selfie is now officially a word and that is pretty much where I stopped agreeing with the article. For anyone unfamiliar with the definition, a selfie is a photo one takes of oneself, usually with a phone or other hand held digital device. Society and particularly the younger generation of tech-savy internet users have been quite fond of the selfie for many years now, as it gives an immediate way to show the world how you feel at any particular moment in time via social media outlets or texting devises. It also gives the selfie taker control of how they are perceived. Feeling happy? Feeling sad? Feeling sexy? Post a selfie on Facebook and let the world know! This has been going on for a while.

But Erin Gloria Ryan from Jezebel says,

“Selfies aren’t empowering; they’re a high tech reflection of the fucked up way society teaches women that their most important quality is their physical attractiveness.”

Uhhhh, whoah. What now? First of all let’s back up for a moment and remember what “selfie” is actually slang for. The self-portrait has had a long and very important history in the art world. Painters have painted self-portraits or selfies if you will, for hundreds upon hundreds of years and one could even argue that cave drawings were representative of those very humans drawing on those very walls. “Look at me! I was here and this is how I looked and how I lived!” Since then, artists like Frida Kahlo have used paintings of themselves to express the myriad of human emotions. Yes, Frida wanted you to gaze upon her. She also wanted you to understand her joy and her severe physical and sometimes emotional pain

Image above is an example of a Frida Kahlo self-portrait.
Image above is an example of a Frida Kahlo self-portrait.

and she did this by representing herself.

And when photography was invented the self-portrait shifted primarily to that new medium. Since then, artists have, over the years, made careers out of the selfie. I highly encourage you to take a look at the work of photographer and artist Cindy Sherman as an example.

If anything, Sherman took the selfie to the mountaintop and dismantled Ryan’s thoughts on the, “fucked up way society teaches women that their most important quality is their physical attractiveness.” Long before the word “selfie” was coined. Self-portraits can be feminist as fuck.

Self-Portrait by Cindy Sherman from an exhibition at The Dallas Museum of Art
Self-portrait by photographer and artist Cindy Sherman from an exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art.

Another issue that seems ignored in the vilification of the selfie is the socio-economic issues surrounding it. It used to be that only the wealthy could afford portraits. Rich families would pay artisans a lot of money to paint regal paintings of them that would proudly hang above the fire as a status symbol. Then, for may years after as we moved into the modern era, the only “good” photos one would have were the professionally taken wedding photos that sometimes took months to process. Images were painstakingly chosen and any retouching had to be done by hand with tiny brushes. OH, you blinked in that otherwise perfect photo? Too bad and so sad for you! You didn’t get a second chance on saving that moment the way you wanted to remember it. Film was expensive and good photographers were hard to come by and moments passed you by. But now one can take a hundred selfies in mere moments, see the results in seconds and discard the ones not desired.

Selfie in elevator mirror at South Point casino, Las Vegas.
Selfie in elevator mirror at South Point casino, Las Vegas.

You can even photoshop out that inconvenient zit on your nose or that ridiculous red eye. You can direct the gaze of others. You can be remembered the way you want to be remembered and often, it’s free.

So here we sit firmly planted in the digital age. We have been raised with cameras embedded into every aspect of our life. We are monitored in one way or another, constantly. Most of the time we have very little say in how we are captured on “film” or otherwise depicted. Selfies are one of the very few avenues in which we have control over how we are portrayed. This is extremely important for women. Many of us are taught that we are not good enough, not tall enough, not thin enough or not pretty enough. The not enoughs go on and on. There is constant pressure from outside sources to look a certain way and act a certain way and then when photos of us are posted online, often without our consent, we are shown through the lens or the eyes of someone else and often it’s not flattering or at the very least not in anyway in our control. Selfies give us a chance to show the world how we see ourselves. And that is giving us back the control that is often stripped away from us. Self taken images are another way we can discuss and express our place in the world from our own perspective. It may not always be beautiful or eloquent, but it’s our self-curated choices that we share. It’s our personal narrative.

Can someone take the selfie to an extreme? Oh yeah, sure. Anyone can take almost anything to an extreme and then use it to try to get negative attention but to generalize and call all selfies posted on social media a “cry for help” is an unwarranted generalization that strips away our power to show the world how we want to be seen.

Self-portrait by me, Amy Davis Roth
Self-portrait by me, Amy Davis Roth

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. Right on. Love this article Amy!

    I did want to add one thing – I am noticing a significant age gap in my social networks about who agrees with and disagrees with the Jezebel article – it seems that my older friends think of selfies as problematic entirely because they are more common among younger women. This is not the first time these older friends have been dismissive of the lived experiences of younger people, but it’s seriously frustrating to see this constant refrain of thinking whatever young folks are doing must be dangerous/bad/damaging/stupid etc.

  2. Good post.
    I found the whole article rather funny because, of the people I follow on twitter, the two that post the most self portraits are two 30-40 year old dudes. While I could see that a certain segment of the population might be crying out for help, making broad generalization about people and media usually leads to missing the point or being an offensive moron.
    I find the whole selfie thing odd in general. Every time I hear the term selfie I think someone is trying to talk about masturbation in the most infantile way possible. When I saw it trending yesterday, I was all “Yeah Selkies!” (and then was crushed with disappointment when it wasn’t about selkies).

  3. I’m near retirement and have been taking selfies since college days. I found my first one in my archive, how skinny I was! I’ve never wondered about my daughter’s and nieces selfies as cries for attention, more of “look, here is my life!” The good and the bad for me and their friends / family join and experience with. I’ve cringed when I saw more than I needed to, but I am more in touch with their lives, and they with mine.

  4. A friend of mine posted a link to her journal of a scientific article on upper-paleolithic female figures, with the authors noting that the proportions match someone looking down at head height at their body. The friend pointed out that this meant that one of the earliest forms of human art that has been preserved could be ‘women making self-portraits’.

  5. My dad recently posted a selfie of himself in a Tuxedo T-Shirt with the caption: Getting all dressed up to do the dishes!

    Later in the comments, he said: My first selfie, too!

    I about died. My dad is hilarious.

  6. My much loved late father in law was a keen photographer and took several selfies just before he died. Of course these are now treasured mementos for the whole family but also remind us that we all get old, that life is short and to make the most of every moment.

    Great post Amy!

  7. I think my position is “It’s just a fucking picture.” It’s a picture you took of yourself. On its own it doesn’t mean anything at all. There’s no way anybody could say with any kind of confidence that “selfies mean that women have low self-esteem” anymore than you could say “landscape paintings mean that trees have body image issues” or “still lifes mean that pears are vain.”

  8. “Selfies aren’t empowering; they’re a high tech reflection of the fucked up way society teaches women that their most important quality is their physical attractiveness.”

    Wasn’t there, like, at one time or another, a bloke who took a selfie? Surely, the selfie isn’t unique to women.

    I’ll be very surprised if the number of selfies people shoot isn’t more predictive of age group than it is of gender.

    Nearly all of my own FB profile photos (and indeed my gravatar here) are selfies although they’re shot with the webcom on my Mac and not a mobile phone. And I’m a middle-aged man and not a young woman. I think that maybe, just maybe, we can’t make an accurate generalised statement about what a selfie does and/or is any more than we can do so about photos in general.
    In the now immortal words of Doctor Ben Goldacre: “I think you’ll find it’s a little bit more complicated than that.”

  9. I’ve found the disgust over selfies to be part of the package of hating anything that is seen (correctly or absurdly) as the domain of young women. If young women are interested in it, doing it, or love it, it is automatically judged as complete shit. Try it. Pick a thing that is associated with teenage girls and find someone “cool” or some general-cultural magazine/website who champions it, who reviews it positively, who doesn’t knock it. For example: what’s the worst thing that can happen to a rock band? Their shows become filled with teenage girls, which weirdly means they are actually selling albums but, horrors upon horrors, they’ve “sold out” — they’re not seen as serious musicians. When did being good in school turn into a sissy way to be for so many areas? Could it be around the time girls’ averages started surpassing boys’? And the sickest thing is that women do it too — oh, the tweens are into it? It’s got to be stupid garbage. A book with a teen girl following? Trash. A style of clothing trending among girls? Slutty trash. An actor they all seem to adore? Worthless. Well, he’ll never be seen as a real artist until he does some film that the teens can’t stand to watch. Something gritty and Real.

    Sorry, this is a frequent rage flashpoint for me. I could go on and on. (Like a total girl, or alternately, like a fist-waving grandpa. YMMV.)

  10. Thank you for your broad and circumspective take on the selfie, Surly Amy. Over the past five years I have worked with a large number of middle and high school age females and if I want to give them (or anyone as seemingly misaligned as the Jezebel article’s author) a greater perspective on it, I will direct them to this. That being said, from my experience with this age group, I cannot completely discount the message of the Jezebel article; it may be that for some young women, selfies are a means to narcissistic self-validation. Yet the difference between your article and the Jezebel article (to me, at least) is this: The Jezebel article said, “This diamond has one facet, it is bright and it is wrong.” whereas your article said, “This diamond has more facets than I can think of, some are bright and who says this is wrong?”

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