Since reading James Franco's New York Times piece "The Meaning of the Selfie" yesterday, I've been thinking nonstop about the instant self-portraits so dominating social media on what seems to be an epically global [cough cough, first world] scale. I haven't been much of a selfie taker since freshman year of high school, when camera phones took over like the plague - with the exception of snapping photos of myself to send to my friends or relatives thousands of miles away. But I am not immune to their popularity. Every day, my Twitter and Facebook feeds are assaulted by at least a dozen selfies - selfies at school, selfies in the car, selfies at work, selfies on the toilet (no joke). They're obviously a thing - so much of a thing that Oxford Dictionaries announced that the word of the year is none other than "selfie." But up until Franco's essay, I hadn't really stopped to analyze them.
Anti-selfie folk would be quick to call the entire practice narcissistic. But I'd argue that whoever is truly anti-selfie is also anti-GenY, and looking for any new development to call millennials out on being self-involved. If selfies are narcissistic, someone probably should've told Sylvia Plath or Kurt Vonnegut that their self-portraits were equally egotistical. Do I dare compare a selfie to a work of [painted] art? Well, yeah. Because at the end of the day, they are representations of the "self" that an individual is creating, and the medium via which those representations are formed doesn't change the overall message.
But what is the overall message? This is where I struggle. Some people may take silly selfies or conversely, selfies with a kind of profoundness to them, but it seems that the majority of selfie-takers strive for the perfect image - the image where they will look most beautiful; the image that says, "This is me and I have the power of showing you who I truly am."
On the surface of things, that is extremely useful. To have control over the way the public perceives us is tremendously empowering. Selfies allow us to take a photo of ourselves that we genuinely like, because we look good in it and subsequently feel good, and show said work of art to the world. The trouble, for me, comes in the fact that very often, how we make ourselves look in selfies is simply not how we look in real life. The selfie is the polar opposite of the candid, natural shot. The selfie is slowly becoming staged and manipulated and the opposite of the "mini-me's that we send out to give others a sense of who we are," as Franco writes, but rather the mini-me's of who we want to appear to be.
And isn't there enough of that? Don't we do enough pretending? I'm guilty of it. I cannot deny that I am a different person within my circle of close friends than at work with my boss. I cannot deny that I apply makeup and like to make sure my hair looks pretty before leaving the house, because I'm only human and I am aware that looking good will make me feel good through the day. But I also happen to celebrate "imperfection." In my own blog, I try to show the beauty in the fuller-figure through essays and fashion posts and consequently a lot of photos of myself in clothes, because I am aware of the fact that as a general rule, society does not believe being overweight is attractive. So when I do take photos, I want them to look beautiful aesthetically, but also to truly represent how I actually look. I don't want to hide my tummy or my chubby cheeks, because to show the beauty in something people dismiss as being unattractive is, to me, empowering. And I would feel the same about other traits - about freckles or moles or frizzy hair or squarer-framed women or huge eyes or oversized foreheads or flat butts or large noses or super shortness. So many of us have one trait or another that we find imperfect, and I love the idea of embracing those traits, because they are true. To me, they are what really make us unique and beautiful.
My problem with the selfie is not that it gives way to self-promotion (because self promotion is essential these days). I love that it allows us to be in control of the representations of ourselves that we spread through cyberspace. We deserve that control. I love that it allows us to see what our loved ones are doing or how our loved ones look in one moment in time. And I appreciate that it lets us take photos of ourselves that we love. My fear is only that we are putting out images that strive to hide anything anyone anywhere may think of as flawed. We are transforming the selfie from something strong and good and fun into just another outlet for the perseverance of perfection. Not to mention, we are destroying another art form: the candid photo.
The photos I love most of myself, of my friends and of my family from my childhood are those that were spontaneous. I may not look pretty in most of them, but I look real. I look like an actual person, not an edited or filtered one. The candid photo may not always result in a "beautiful" depiction of our faces or bodies, but it is just as powerful as the selfie. The two should be allowed to coexist, for they provide distinctive forms of beauty and memories. But with the increase in the popularity of the selfie, and the apparent decrease in the popularity of the candid shot, I worry we leave only room for one.