So there’s been a bit of, um, excitment over the past week or so in the wake of the announcement that the Oxford English Dictionary has officially appointed “selfie” as the 2013 Word of the Year.
And, look. I have a confession:
I love selfies, and not just because the word itself has Australian origins.
I remember, when I was in my late teens/early twenties, I got my first webcam. (This was back in the early naughties, back before Instagram and Facebook and every single device ever made shipping with five embedded thousand-gigapixel cameras.) As Was The Style of the Time, I used it to take high-angled duckface photographs of myself to post on my website. This was an odd experience for me, given that I’d never really considered myself particularly photogenic; like most girls, I hid from cameras whenever they emerged. And yet, here I was, in my bedroom/dorm/study, taking photographs of myself that not only I liked, but that people online–other women online, in fact–seemed to like as well.
At the time, I didn’t really have the words to explain the experience.
Now I do.
Somewhere in the years between my own webcam experiments and now, the selfie got gendered. It’s easy to forget, but it didn’t used to be; most of the biggest early webcam adopters I remember were men, for example. Except cameras got cheaper and, more importantly, accessible to teenage girls. Who embraced nascent selfie-culture with a vengeance on places like MySpace.
Thus did the first, heavily gendered, nickname for the selfie aficionado emerge: camwhore.
Pretty sure the OED didn’t celebrate that one too widely.
Like I said, I love selfies. Whenever they appear on places like Tumblr or Instagram I always make sure to be generous giving out faves and likes. Because what I see, when I see selfies, is people taking back their own body image from commercial culture.
Media tells us we “should” look a certain way. We “should” be white, and thin. Our hair should be one thing, our eyes another. We should be configured according to the Standard Template of Human that gets recycled to us over and over and over again on TV and in magazines, in video games and comic books. Everywhere.
The only problem?
No one looks like that. No one. Not even the people whose job it is to look like that; propped up as they are by not just the magic of PhotoShop, but by teams of staff and entire lifestyles designed to maintain a particular look.
The rest of us have no chance of keeping up. Why would we even want to?
Selfies are a dangerous thing. They’re dangerous because they represent people existing outside of the Standard Assigned Beauty Template–which is to say, everyone–taking back control of their own image. Selfies allow the rest of us to present ourselves to the world how we want to be presented. Not how Great Aunt Effie wants to trap us in holiday snaps, ill-lit and mugging. Not how the media wants us to see ourselves, as hideous monsters in need of whatever latest fad diet or beauty product or exercise regime it’s trying to sell us.
People post selfies because they’ve finally seen themselves in the way they want to see themselves.
And the way that, in turn, others see them.
MANY people use selfies to reconextualize their very existence out of an abusive, oppressive social status quo. And that fight is ongoing.
— @red3blog (@red3blog) November 21, 2013
Because that’s the other thing. Selfies don’t just allow people to show themselves as beautiful or strong or competent outside of the narrow roles presented in mainstream culture. They also allow other people to finally, finally, see people like themselves shown in that same positive light.
Fat people, people of colour, people who are gender non-conforming, people with disabilities; selfie culture gives people visual confirmation that, yes, other people like them exist in the world and, yes, those people have presence and worth.
Being told you matter, matters. Being shown it matters more.
instead of complaining re selfies ask why it's so offensive, radical, debate-worthy etc for any woman to say 'i think i'm attractive'
— Leigh Alexander (@leighalexander) November 21, 2013
There’s a reason, after all, that selfie culture is so popular amongst teenage girls, one of the demographics most assaulted by messages of what they “should” be. Thin, pretty, white, hypersexual (but not slutty, and not frigid, so enjoy that catch-22), demure, quiet, non-threatening.
Even for girls who do, for all intents and purposes, fit into boxes of conventional attractiveness, the selfie is still a powerful fuck you to a culture that tells them over and over that in order to maintain that beauty, they must remain unaware of it.
We are CONSTANTLY barraged with messages about our flaws. Our bodies, hair, skin, clothes, makeup are never good enough. #feministselfie
— Amadi (@amaditalks) November 21, 2013
Like I said, I love selfies. Do I think that every selfie ever taken is some powerful weapon in the overthrow of the kyriarchy? No. But they don’t have to be, either. Sometimes, all a selfie is, is an attempt by an individual to make a connection with others in a way that makes them feel positive about themselves.
Sometimes, that’s the most powerful thing of all.