Much has been written about the ubiquitous selfie, and whether you think it's empowering or shallow, it's certainly become a staple of our generation.
Contrary to popular belief, the Kardashians didn't invent the self-portrait, and the act of capturing one's own likeness is not new. What characterises a selfie is arguably not the fact that it has the photographer's face in it, but that the face tends to look as close to a Western standard of aesthetic perfection as possible. From the Snapchat 'pretty filter' to the #WokeUpLikeThis trend, social networks and brands are capitalising on young (mostly female) millennials' obsession with putting our best face forward and giving us an excuse to do so.
It's rare that you see a selfie where a person actually looks like themselves, and when you do, it feels like a statement. Are they claiming they're too cool to want to look good? Is this a comment on our image obsessed society? Are they making the rest of us look stupid?
For those of us in our twenties this is a relatively new phenomenon. We remember going to school before the era of YouTube beauty videos, where Dream Matte Mousse and kohl in the waterline was the extent of our understanding of "beauty". Lots of our selfies are taken with a tinge of self-consciousness: we know we're being ridiculous, but we still want to look good, so an ironic hashtag or a vague mention of smashing the patriarchy via the perfect blended smokey eye is enough to quieten our discomfort. But there's a generation of young girls who are in their early teens, for whom there has never been a time when the internet wasn't screaming at them to look their best, and that's terrifying.
Perhaps the antidote to the monster we've created lies in its origins: portraiture as an art form, to present an image which will make people feel something, have an opinion and a critical eye, beyond judging the whiteness of our teeth and the sheen on our hair. An upcoming pop-up art exhibition is doing just that and while I applaud their efforts, I worry that we'll still forever be remembered as the generation obsessed with pictures of ourselves looking pretty.
One of the artists featured in the exhibition which opens this weekend is Emma Hopkins. She studied drawing the human anatomy, which gives her portraits a sort of anti-filter appearance. Rather than soft-focusing over imperfections and blurring the edges, her portraits home in on the stark reality of the female body, daring us to consider them anything but beautiful. Her paintings include a nude portrait of breast cancer survivor Ann Bates, who underwent a mastectomy and chose not to have the reconstructive surgery. Wanda Bernadino, who is also featured in the exhibition, hits us harder on the nose, with portraits which entirely remove people's faces, exploring our physical identity beyond the features we're most obsessed with as a society.
Some may say that there's no harm in our selfie culture; that's it's making people more confident and self-aware. A recent episode of This American Life even alluded to the kindness of Instagram (the ultimate home of the selfie) versus other forms of social media. But it's so easy to forget that our value exceeds the number of likes our face (overlaid by Amaro) garners that the bigger picture can elude us, and when our photos are replaced by Gen Z's virtual reality selfies and our faces become obsolete, let's hope we have another way to measure our worth.