May 9, 2014

In Defense of Selfies

In the March 2014 issue of Glamour magazine, writer Roxanne Gay took on the topic of selfies. It's the age of smart phones and social media, so it makes sense that selfies are a huge topic of debate. In her article, Gay notes that selfies have a bad reputation among some--the outrage at the term "selfie" being added to the Oxford English dictionary and the general sense that people who take (and post) selfies are narcissists with self-esteem issues. Maybe some selfie-posters are, but that seems like a harsh label to me, and to Roxanne Gay.

I have been taking photographs of myself since the early nineties, when I was a preteen with a disposable camera. The earliest selfie that I currently have in my possession was taken when I was twelve years old. I had taken a disposable camera on a trip to the beach, and had a few shots left over when I got home. I'm standing in my bedroom, alone, holding the camera out with both hands, trying to look sophisticated and grown up. And I do. It worked. When I got the pictures developed and saw myself in print the way I'd seen myself in my mind, it was incredible validation. This is me. This is who I am. What else can I be?

For me, photographing myself is a form of self exploration. It's a way of capturing and materializing ideas I have of myself, making them real and tangible. I know exactly how I want to look, and I know how to make it happen on film or digital media. I am more beautiful in photos taken by myself than by anyone else. I believe that the person behind the camera influences the person in front of it--different photographers may make a subject feel uncomfortable, or sexy, or playful, or angry. Having my ex take outfit photos for this blog always made me feel vulnerable and sometimes childlike, bashful. When I take photos of myself, I am the lens. I am the filter through which both the subject and the photographer will pass through, and the image of myself in my head is strong.

I continued to take pictures of myself throughout my teens and twenties, many of them with disposable cameras until I got a camera of my own at 21. I've taken not just handheld closeups, but have also employed the self-timer to capture full body shots exactly how I want to appear. When I was 22 and starting to gain weight for the first time in my life, I used my camera to take a series of self-timed body shots because the mirror can be misleading. I wanted to know what my body looked like on film. When I got my first camera phone and digital camera several years later, this self-exploration was revolutionized. I could now see my shots immediately, and could delete the ones I didn't like without wasting any resources. I was on Myspace and Facebook by then, and for the first time, I could share the photos that had previously been a closed-in exercise seen only be me.

But having an audience didn't change my process of self-photography, and it still hasn't. The act of taking my own picture is still more about creating an image of myself, for myself, regardless of how others see it. Filters and special effects make it fun, and getting "likes" can be a nice boost, but in the end, it's always about discovering a piece of myself. What would happen if I tried to look pretty? What would happen if I tried to look fierce, or mysterious, or of another era? How will this turn out? was the looming question in the days of developing film, and it's still the question today. It's just answered more quickly.

Many of my older selfies, the ones taken with film, are not digitized or stored on my computer. I went through my computer files as I was preparing to write this post, looking through old shots, mostly from my days of early camera phone pictures. I was struck by how many of them were from the same year, 2008, following a difficult breakup that left me feeling hollow. The camera phone shots pick up speed around the time I started to heal, almost all of them illuminated close-ups of my face, sitting near my bedroom window where the sun came in pure and white. I felt damaged when that relationship ended, and looking back, those selfies seem to be a subconscious attempt to remind myself I'm beautiful.

In her Glamour article, Roxanne Gay writes about being in control of how you're presented to the world--being able to crop out things you don't like about yourself and present things you do. The closing paragraph of the article really struck a cord with me:

"We want to see ourselves. We want images that look like us, like our human bodies, whether fat or thin or in between, weirdly proportioned, scarred, or imperfect. Selfies create a space for women--who are constantly bombarded by very specific images of how we should look--to shout, 'I am here too'(especially those of us who often feel invisible, like women of color). With selfies, we're visible on our terms. Yes, we might take a few shots until finding the right one, but we decide how we want to look. We decide what we're going to do with that image. Personally, I'm going to keep taking selfies and sharing them. I am going to keep believing I deserve to be seen."

I think Gay's words have given validation to those of us who use selfies in a positive light, who derive empowerment or personal growth from our exploration and documentation of ourselves. I don't feel narcissistic when I take selfies, and I never feel like posting them online comes from a place of insecurity. It's fine if you "like" them, thank you if you do because hopefully it means you've seen in me the same thing that I saw and tried to capture. It's also fine if you don't. But it's not fine to bash people's presentation of themselves, images that they may feel deeply connected to--images that may feel like extensions of themselves, and therefore bashing those images, or the decision to take and post them, is akin to bashing that person.

I've included a handful of selfies from over the years. When I see myself in these images, I see the person I want the rest of the world to see: strong, present, fierce, and beautiful.

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Circa 2003, taken with a manual film camera.

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Circa 2007, taken on a camera phone.

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2008-2009, taken on a camera phone, during my recovery from the breakup mentioned above.

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winter 2013, taken with a point-and-shoot camera.

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Spring 2014, taken with my iPhone.

Thanks for reading, you're beautiful.

4 comments:

  1. Gorgeous pics! I don't think there is anything wrong with selfies.

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  2. This is a great article Lydia: honest, reflective, direct. I love your description of the process of your self-portraits and how they make you feel. What you describe is very creative and certainly empowering. I too began experimenting with a very basic digital point and shoot camera when I was 12 going on 13. It was so exciting creating a persona and I'm still essentially playing at dress up to make the images I want to see, being exact about how I want to appear.
    There are aspects of the 'selfie' that now cause me concern though,especially having spent quite a lot of time interviewing younger teenage girls recently. I don't want to generalise, but it seems that for many the pressure to present themselves in a certain way and to achieve recognition can be a relentless and intense pressure that can also have a destructive impact.

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  3. Selfies are life. A.

    B. So much truth. SO much love. I feel warm when I read this. I look back at my old selfies and reminisce. I used to sit on our staircase, maybe 4th or 5th step and snap. That was my sweet selfie spot. I'd also roll down the backseat window, put the camera strap around my wrist, stretch my arm out the window and take epic shots of myself with the wind blowing in my hair. Yeah, this started round nine or ten. So many webcam selfies. Poloroid selfies. All dating back, too. I love it, though, because I can see, visually with my own eyes, THROUGH my own eyes, how I have grown and developed (haha pun). Great piece.

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