These photos of our friends publicly showing their own faces/bodies may be helping take the steam out of the capitalist beauty machine, says Samantha Eyler.
“Men and women of my FB friends list: I’m reading quite a lot of stuff these days about people who post selfies being narcissistic or vain. You know what? Bugger all that nonsense. PLEASE POST YOUR SELFIES. I LIKE YOUR FACE. I like seeing your mug in my newsfeed. I want to see more of all of you guys. SO POST YOUR DAMN SELFIES, FOR GOD’S SAKE.”
This status update was, of course, referring to this piece on Jezebel, which was a response to this piece on Slate, which was itself an answer to this one at the New Yorker on the Oxford English Dictionary’s decision to make “selfie” the word of the year. (We bloggers just love to talk circles around each other.) Another friend recently tweeted about the disparaging remarks she’d received from one of her most admired female mentors about the number of selfies posted on my friend’s Instagram and Twitter feeds.
Like most outpourings of popular concern, I suspect that the real motivation for all this selfie navel-gazing has very little to do with the blogosphere’s genuine concern for the well-being of the selfie-takers. Balderdash. My theory is that everybody’s talking about selfies these days because, on some level, some people really don’t like seeing all these selfies building up in the communal space that is their newsfeed.
Let’s turn the camera around here and ask not why people feel the need to display themselves in a shared space in sexy, sassy, faux-nonchalant, professional, or new-haircut poses (ad infinitum), but rather: Why does seeing a self-shot photo of a person’s face annoy you any more than seeing that person’s name in your news feed? Presumably you like or can at least tolerate that face if you found the generosity deep within yourself to add that person to your list of friends.
Maybe it’s the fact that the shots have in most cases clearly been composed with quite a lot of preening on the part of the selfie-taker. I still can’t see why that should annoy anyone. What the hell is wrong with a person publicly displaying what she thinks is the most beautiful angle of her face? How is that different than a photographer who aims to capture his subjects literally in their best light?
Did anybody accuse Velázquez of narcissism when he painted himself into the background in Las Meninas? What about Picasso, Kahlo, or Botero when they did their many self-portraits? Not to mention non-visual art: Think about the level of “narcissism” that went into the writing of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or Slaughterhouse Five, or For Whom the Bell Tolls, or One Hundred Years of Solitude, or David Bloody Copperfield.
Disclaimer: I don’t actually know what people said about those artists when their works came out (and Hemingway at least was definitely a narcissist, in my book), but I do know that now we think most of these folks were geniuses. Why should some forms of extravagant self-revelation be classed as profound examinations of human subjectivity and others as unequivocal displays of narcissism or low self-esteem?
Erin Gloria Ryan implicitly worries about the fact that selfies are intended for an audience, but I can think of few forms of representation—visual, musical, verbal, or otherwise—that are not intended for some sort of external consumption. We show things we like about ourselves to other people, and hope they will find it as fascinating getting to know us as we find the process of getting to know ourselves.
My theory is that this open display of a search for self-knowledge bothers people because it’s requesting viewers’ participation in an intimacy that the viewers themselves may not want to share. And not just that—it bothers people to see that request validated by the “Likes” and “Shares” of other users. To avoid that highly individual but universal discomfort of having claims made on our attention, we have collectively launched a war on selfies.
Do you know what would be in my newsfeed if my friends didn’t fill it with photos of their beautiful faces? Ads, that’s what. You know what else? I’d much rather see a dozen photos of the chubby smiling face of my 15-year-old cousin who’s going through a very public phase of self-searching than 15,000 news stories about a Victoria’s Secret fashion show.
The truth is that in many cases I love being invited to peer into people’s mental, emotional, and actual lives, to see how they want themselves to be perceived. Maybe it’s voyeuristic, but to me, my Facebook newsfeed offers a lavish display of the vastness of subjectivity and nuance that characterizes this crazily terrifying experience of being alive. The whole extravaganza somehow reassures me that my efforts to be anything but exactly what I am are a waste of my time.
Part of me wonders if that is what is causing all of this alarm. Remember the argument that Naomi Wolf made in The Beauty Myth? That this beauty hierarchy that surrounds us has the function of convincing us as women that we are aesthetically—and, by extension, economically, professionally, sexually, existentially—less than enough.
Now, suddenly, the entire world of mass communications is clogged with billions of photos of normal people who really believe they look good in that photo. Screw whether you think their outfit or their face or their attitude is laughable. The photo is there, saying, “Look at me, because I think I look good right now,” and there is nothing whatsoever that can be done by the people who think those poses, faces, bodies, attitudes, perspectives don’t deserve to be aired.
As Jezebel puts it, “seeing body diversity makes us more comfortable with diverse bodies,” meaning these photos of our friends publicly showing their own faces/bodies may be helping take the steam out of the capitalist beauty machine. The reigns of display of positive body images have been taken from beauty mags, fashion runways, cosmetics ads, lads’ mags, and Hollywood directors and put firmly into the hands of everybody. Talk about revolutionary.
So when your best friend posts a selfie with her best “Come Hither” face, click “Like.” Or better yet, post one of yourself next time you feel good in your body. Your friends list has no need to be “protected” from your smiling face, so show it. You’ll be doing your friends, yourself, and women everywhere a favor.
Samantha Eyler is a freelance writer and editor raised in Kentucky and London and now based in Medellín, Colombia. She has written about politics, immigration, Latin America, and social justice for publications such as NACLA and the New Statesman, and is one of the founders of the London Fields Feminist Book Group.