Ah… the “selfie.” I have mixed feelings, don’t you? Or is this form of visual indulgence no big deal, utterly harmless, and just one more shorthand communication in our digital age?
Writer Jenna Wortham suggests we reconsider our knee-jerk response to these momentary glimpses of who we are and what they may mean, particularly in light of their self-portrait predecessors.
In “My Selfie, Myself,” Ms. Wortham explains these outward-inward photographs as:
… a way of trying to understand how people see you, who you are and what you look like, and there’s nothing wrong with that…
Sounds logical, no?
Reflections in the Mirror, Snapped
At what point do a few selfies cross the line between viewing ourselves as others do and narcissism? Is it a matter of degree or context? Don’t most of us ponder ourselves in the mirror at points in time, and even take a selfie to examine more closely?
Adolescents stare at themselves in part to sync up a rapidly changing exterior with an interior that may be lagging behind – or vice versa. Of course, staring in the mirror to figure yourself out, or to process (and accept) what you see, or to imagine what others see – is hardly confined to the 15-year old crowd. Don’t we scrutinize after gaining or losing weight, or as we age – considering the improvements or surveying “the damage?”
And we may well snap a selfie in the mirror while we’re at it.
Then again, those images are generally a private matter, not documentation for public consumption, or curating reflections on perception and reality for a specific purpose.
Public Versus Private
What may trouble some of us is the public nature of this process, issues of propriety – granted, a judgment call – and the seemingly indiscriminate proliferation of our likenesses, thanks to the Internet.
And as parents, we have reason to worry at times, though the very magnitude of the situation makes crossing the (propriety) line more common, begging the question of “moving” the line.
Yet I wonder if all these images desensitize us to what was once private and more introspective. Is that desensitization potentially a good thing? Does it allow us to see the silliness from teenagers all over the world – and thus how alike we may be? Would it encourage us to appreciate that families cherish their outings together, and capturing the moments is common across cultures?
Might we be enhancing or expanding communication? Or is the very nature of the massive number of selfies, the speed with which they seem almost to reproduce, and our tendency to glance, laugh, and move on quickly encouraging us not to absorb the impact of the image at all?
Why Do People Take Selfies?
If the reasons for selfies are more varied than we think – communication, a sort of storytelling, and narcissism as well – do life stages come into play? What about life events?
On the other hand, when I was younger and again after divorce, I used selfies (via camera) to place myself in context and observe. In fact, I came across two photographs of 19-year-old “moi” during the period I lived in Paris as a student. Clearly selfies, these snapshots showcase various (ridiculous) makeup looks, as I hoped to see what others might – an important undertaking as I couldn’t get a date to save my life!
After divorce, I used pictures of myself to build confidence after a long hiatus from the dating world, not to mention, adjusting my self-image after shedding weight. One digital camera with a delay button, eh voilà – I possessed the means to see my face as a man might, my trimmer figure, and to reacquaint myself with, well… myself. My selfies, myself, indeed.
Self-Portrait: A Picture’s Worth 1,000 Words
While I may not take many self-portraits, I watched with fascination as my artist-son drew his own face from the time he was six years old. These sketches and paintings were especially painful to see during a difficult divorce, and in the first few years that followed. As he didn’t talk about his feelings, there’s no question that the visuals were telling a story – his story – that he was unable to express in words.
I was grateful for this glimpse inside his emotional universe, and relieved when the scowl gave way to the grin. This leads me to consider this: Haven’t artists always poked through their interiors using self-portraiture? Doesn’t the writer do the same, by use of diction and metaphor and character, not to mention other tricks of the trade?
When we arrange images into a collection chronologically or thematically, surely they relate a story. Why not the selfie as psychological and physical guide post, and possibly, art?
Selfies Tell Our Stories, And More
Over time, if selfies tell our stories, is Ms. Wortham right that we ought to stop selling the selfie short?
Ms. Wortham notes:
We are swiftly becoming accustomed to — and perhaps even starting to prefer — online conversations and interactions that revolve around images and photos.
Is the real danger the extent to which we rely on photos as the main event, and weaken the discipline of language to articulate our message?
Sure, we may have vacation snaps taken with the camera held at arm’s length, a few photo booth strips tucked under old letters in a sock drawer, and a series of romantic Polaroids from “back in the day” with a lover or spouse. I can certainly imagine selfies that comprise more than “I was here,” executed in artistic (and entertaining) fashion. But are these the exceptions, at least when you consider the millions of images shot daily, thoughtlessly, in haste and then shared? Then again, does it matter?
I’m more open-minded on the subject after reading Ms. Wortham’s article, but for me, the jury is still out.