Annabel Nugent asks if the selfie can ever be empowering.
“You’ve been tagged in a photo”. My stomach drops as I wait anxiously for the photo to load that will decide whether it’ll be a good or bad day. “You look totally fine – honestly the photo is good”, I console my friend on the other end of the phone. It’s a sad but familiar feeling for most women, and one that I personally find avoidable by taking a selfie. The right lighting, the right smile, the right angle; with a selfie, I’m in complete control (a nice change). I decide the image of myself that is put out there for others to see.
This ‘staged’ aspect is not celebrated by most surveyors of the selfie. Baby boomers and millennials alike are quick to condemn the phenomenon as the embodiment of the simultaneously narcissistic and insecure, attention-seeking and crying-out-for-help, overly-confident and needing-validation young woman of 2017. Crowned Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year four years ago, the ‘selfie’ continues to rule over social media, a domain which increasingly bleeds into real life. From the divided comments over Kim K’s infamous (and fabulous) nude selfie to my own mixed feelings of liberation and fear of judgement when uploading bikini-clad mirror pics, the selfie is a hot topic for feminist debate – as frivolous as it may seem. So then: in what circumstances is taking a selfie a feminist move of self-love, and in what cases is it a reflection of destructive and patriarchally-enforced insecurity?
As of December 2016, there were over 282 million selfies on Instagram, so it seems silly to talk about the selfie without considering its most popular platform. It came as no surprise that the recent #StatusofMind survey found Instagram to be the most harmful social media site to young people’s mental health, negatively impacting body image, sleep and fear of missing out. We’ve all been in bed and found ourselves scrolling through the endless feed of tall, tanned, blonde girls and feeling like that second Byron burger wasn’t the best idea. Staying home to watch season after season of The Office seems a little less fun after looking at the Instagram stories of all your friends of friends having ‘the best night ever!!! (salsa girl emoji)’.
On a serious note, Instagram fosters feelings of inadequacy about appearance, lifestyle and popularity. Selfies are a big part of this. ‘Every girl wishes she could get three hundred likes on her pictures. Because that means you’re the girl everybody wants to fuck’, a 17-year-old girl tells Nancy Sales, the author of American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers. This is the sad reality for plenty of young girls, for whom self-esteem is determined by the number of likes you get, and self-worth seems directly correlated to how fuckable you appear to men.
Of all the images on Instagram though, I find the selfie to be the least harmful to my self-esteem. Given the history of men controlling women’s bodies in advertisements, politics and fashion, a selfie gives a woman the chance to craft her own image. In a selfie, I know that this girl is putting her best foot forward; I know this girl has found her best lighting, her best angle, or wants to show off her make-up or celebrate a good skin day. And the best thing about it is, I know this girl loves this picture of herself and is happy with it being out there for people to see. I love that selfies are about YOU, and about ME – and there’s nothing wrong with that. Selfies are a retort to that stupid One Direction song that suggests women can only be beautiful if they don’t know that they are. We are told to love ourselves right up until the moment that we actually do, and then all of a sudden – just like that boy on Tinder who tells you you’re hot until you agree with him – you’re a conceited bitch.
Having confidence on social media today is no small achievement. When everything is telling you that the only way to be beautiful is to be white, slim and able-bodied, it’s a big thing to put yourself out there knowing you don’t tick those boxes. Following a bunch of sassy, cool Asian girls on Instagram has hugely boosted my self-confidence; it’s nothing new that seeing yourself represented is a nice thing, and these girls give me something relatable to look up to.
Of course, beauty isn’t everything, and it shouldn’t even be on a list of things that amount to any value. But the reality is that most women do measure some of their self-esteem alongside their appearance. So even though I know that physical beauty isn’t actually important, I still feel better seeing Chinese girls in Vogue or bigger girls in Women’s Health being held up as beautiful. Selfies on Instagram give us a chance to construct ‘beauty’ from the ground up. If what’s popular on Instagram are selfies of girls feeling good with their cellulite or body hair, we’ll hopefully see that reflected in advertisements and on television. Instead of mainstream media dictating what’s considered beautiful, selfies on social media have the potential to redefine what beautiful entails.
Instagram is a rabbit hole. I don’t know how many hours I’ve lost scrolling through the explore page, but I’ve realised that the less I click on conventionally hot girls advertising FitTea, the less I see them. To an extent, we can control what we see on social media: my explore page is now looking a lot less white-girl-posing-with-coconut and a lot more Asian-girl-with-art-painted-on-her-face than it was when I was 16.
Finally, just let women enjoy things for once! Our typically ‘feminine’ interests are continually policed: feminism isn’t a noble political cause, Justin Bieber isn’t real music, Keeping Up with the Kardashians isn’t quality tv, netball isn’t actually a sport.
It’s a messy conclusion: selfies aren’t always empowering, nor are they always narcissistic cries for validation – but they are a logical response to being conditioned to think that being ‘pretty’ matters. For the here and now, being ‘pretty’ does matter, and so selfies can be a way of challenging what constitutes beauty and are a brave act of self-assertion and self-love. So before you call me, or any other girl, out as ‘conceited’ for posting that cringey bikini mirror pic, think about how selfies can be radical in changing the way we look at ourselves, and how others look at us.
Illustration by Billie Gavurin