I think we are very confused about how we feel about “selfies.”
We ridicule people who take them (like Kim Kardashian, for instance, who recently released a book composed entirely of selfies.) We assume that taking too many probably isn’t such a good idea and research indicates that excessive selfies correlate with some pretty concerning traits. But many of us still take them and if we don’t take them, we probably at least feel the (albeit suppressed or controlled) desire to.
So what’s the deal? Is it just a guilty pleasure that we should all be ashamed of?
Yes and no. We should not be ashamed of the mere act of photographing ourselves. We should, however, be ashamed because we are really bad at photographing ourselves. We do selfies all wrong.
My toddler loves taking selfies. But he takes them for a very different reason than Kim Kardashian. I think my toddler takes selfies the right way.
When a toddler takes selfies he does it because he delights in himself in a pure and innocent way. He delights in his funny faces or in his smile or in the mere fact that he is who he is. He doesn’t consider who will “like” the selfie or what it will win for him. The toddler appreciates himself in the same way he might appreciate a tree or a dog or a person he loves. This kind of appreciation of the beauty or the humor or the sheer existence of oneself is healthy and good.
So what’s wrong with the Kardashian selfie? I don’t think the Kardashian selfie is done for the sake of true and pure self-appreciation and expression. Rather, I think it is done for self-promotion. It is done for the sake of garnering quick praise and attention. The person taking this kind of selfie usually hyper-focuses on the sexual or the sensational, resulting in what feels deceptive and inauthentic. Unlike the toddler selfie, the Kardashian selfie actually exposes very little about the person’s true self. This deception offends us and makes us feel like we are being cheaply manipulated into giving the person the attention they seek.
Unfortunately, the average selfie is much more likely to be a Kardashian selfie than a toddler selfie. It is much more likely to be self-promotion driven than pure appreciation/expression driven. I think this is why we have the gut feeling that something is inherently wrong with selfies. I think that the Kardashian selfie, for all its appearance of over-confidence, is actually borne out of insecurity– insecurity about one’s true beauty and worth. That insecurity demands mass attention to make up for the lack of true appreciation. I think so many of us seek hundreds of likes on Instagram because we are afraid we aren’t loved enough by a few.
Maybe this is why nobody gets their portrait done anymore. You walk into old houses and museums and portraits are everywhere. But nowadays, we only see portraits of children and famous people. For that matter you rarely even see traditional photographs of people by themselves; it’s either with somebody else or its a selfie. It’s as if we feel stupid asking somebody, “Can you take a picture of me?” And I think it is because we don’t think ourselves worthy of being captured. We don’t find our faces beautiful enough or our personhood interesting enough. Who would want to look at ME? we say.
Nobody. Obviously. So instead, why not pose provocatively and post it on the Internet? Wouldn’t that fill the void? Wouldn’t that suppress and satisfy the desire to be truly appreciated?
We should know better. It doesn’t fill the void.
So what to do? I’m not saying don’t take selfies. I’m saying take them well. Take a selfie because you want to genuinely appreciate and express the person that you are. I think a good test for a selfie goes like this: Would I send this to my parents? If you would, then you’re probably doing it for the right reasons. If you would feel sort of weird or ashamed sending it to your parents (or some other person who truly loves you) maybe it’s a sign that the selfie isn’t genuine. Maybe it’s a sign that the selfie is driven by insecurity and done for the sake of cheap self-promotion. Personally, I don’t take many selfies, mainly because I fear I would be taking them for the wrong reasons. But I would like to learn to take them the right way. And I am learning. My toddler is teaching me how.