Friday, November 22, 2013

You Can't Take My Selfies from Me

I usually don't blog about internet activism events, but there was a hashtag going around this morning that gave me way too many thoughts to confine it to Twitter, where I usually do my most impassioned ranting.  Basically, Jezebel published an article condemning selfies on feminist grounds, and a large portion of Twitter reacted by posting endless selfies with the hashtag #feministselfie. Personally, I love this kind of immediate, groundswell response - it's one of my favourite things about being on Twitter. The way ideas bounce from one person to the next, to the next, and on in ever expanding ripples is something I find deeply fascinating, and I always love watching an idea sprout into a "thing", spreading seeds across the wilds of the internet.

ANYWAY, I have a lot of thoughts about this particular event, and for once I decided to jump on the bandwagon and dash something off before the zeitgeist rushes past. So let's talk about this Jezebel article. I don't actually read Jezebel a lot these days, because a lot of the articles they post make me really angry and I just don't need extra angry making things most days. However, a lot of people do read it, and a lot of people are influenced by it, so I feel like it's worth examining at least some of the problematic things they publish.

I'm going to start with this little gem here;

"Selfies aren't empowering; they're a high tech reflection of the fucked up way society teaches women that their most important quality is their physical attractiveness" 

I have quite a few issues with this particular train of thought. I do understand that teaching women being physically appealing is the ultimate end goal of their lives is bullshit -  but I also think this idea gets taken way too far the other way sometimes. Teaching women that it's not okay to feel pretty, to be proud of being pretty, and that they're not welcome to share their pride with others is also bullshit.

Feminist Selfie
My #feministselfie
Feminista Jones has summed up this whole tangled mess of pious insecurity versus wantom self love so much more eloquently than I ever could just this morning, so I'll hand over to her for a moment...

The selfie issue is connected to that. It is the idea that there are limitations on how much one should appreciate oneself & share w/others

It's commentary on piety, and the ways in which our society pretends to abide by it. We demand that people wait for external acknowledgement

Within those demands is a hierarchy, of course, and value is measured by how many people ascend to the top and how many remain below

 If society finds ways to determine who is beautiful, and who is allowed to believe they're beautiful, we almost "preserve" beauty's value

And since beauty is a multi-billion dollar industry, the preservation of beauty is essential to our economic stability.

We do so much to chastise those who believe they are beautiful, usually because we've bought into the insecurity that's been sold to us

There is a lot to unpack in just this short string of tweets, but I cannot agree enough with her assertion that women are encouraged by society to aspire to being perfectly beautiful (to a given value of beautiful) but also punished if they appear to be acknowledging their own beauty. It's "tacky", "unladylike", "pathetic" to actually believe you're beautiful; we're supposed to spend thousands of dollars and great chunks of time trying to attain this fabricated idea of beauty, but we're never allowed to acknowledge if we think we might have actually gotten then. And man, heaven help you if you publically acknowledge that your unconventional beauty is still beautiful. 

So here we are, having a discussion about why sharing images of oneself can be empowering, but it is SO much more than that.

There are several categories of aesthetics that are routinely denied that outright freedom to claim "beauty" as theirs

It is only from a place of privilege that one can assert that wanting to share your beauty with others is a cry for help

Truthfully, for many, it is actually a rallying cry, more than a lament.

And this is where the whole discussion gets me right in the guts. Sharing selfies has done a lot for me in terms of self esteem. My perception of what I actually look like is tenuous at the best of times, and very dependant on how well my brain is playing at the time. Taking pictures of myself provides concrete, outside evidence I can look at no matter what the chemicals in my brain are telling me, and KNOW that this is what I actually look like. Well, from that particular angle anyway. It's an enormously useful mental touchstone for me, and the more I take, the clearer my self image becomes.
Selfies on social media have also opened my eyes to the enormous variety of people who actually exist out there. Mass media sells us such a narrow, controlled perception of what human beings really look like, and I think the way people self chronicle their own appearance via selfies is a really useful tool to fight back against this airbrushing of humanity. If you're trans, if you're genderfluid, if you're fat, or black, or disabled or in any way markedly different visually to Miranda Kerr, other people's selfies can be a hugely powerful normalising influence. I'm sure it doesn't have as big an effect for everyone - maybe some people don't feel any better about themselves and how they look because of the proliferation of selfies all over social media. But I do, and I know a lot of other people who do, and to have our experience dismissed because we're apparently deluded is just infuriating. It feels like just another way in which we're being told to sit down, be quiet, and stay in the corner, and it makes me so angry.

I'm sure that sometimes, women do take selfies and post them for purely narcissistic reasons, that have nothing to do with feminism or activism or encouraging others to understand visible differences. And you know what? I don't have a problem with that. If you find them boring, or unappealing, don't look. Honestly, I find it really dull when all people ever post about on social media is how many times their child took a dump that day - but I'm not going to tell them they're bad feminists for telling the world about their child's poop. They're sharing their world view right now, and just because it's not something I'm particularly interested in doesn't make it any less valid. I'm sure a lot of my online friends don't give a damn about nail polish either, but they don't tell me to shut up.  We're all sharing what's important to us right now, and I think that's a beautiful thing. Which brings me to my last excerpt from the original Jezebel article;

God no, what? Are you so terrified that your online friends are aware that sometimes, you're alone? That sometimes you'd like to shout out and hear someone answer, even though there's no one in the room with you? Fucking hell. I don't know where I would be if I didn't have people I could talk to when I feel lonely, and have them give me reassuring replies. I fail to understand how reaching  out to other humans, even if it's online, is something to be pitied and mocked. Even the title of this article seems to imply that a "cry for help" is a terrible, shameful thing to be avoided at all costs, and frankly, fuck that noise. I kept my need for help under wraps for far too long, I'll be damned if I'm going to stop voicing my needs just because someone thinks its pathetic. But hey, what do I know? Maybe I'm just a loser without enough "real" friends.  
I know this isn't the best post I've ever written, or the most coherently argued. I also know some people will think this is a mountain out of a molehill, and on a global scale, it totally is. I know, I KNOW that Jezebel publish pieces like this specifically to stir up controversy, and I know I'm playing into that. But this subject is something that means a lot to me, and I just had to say my piece.


I saw this fantastic response to the whole #feministselfie discussion this afternoon, and it's just so good and so on point I needed to include it. All credit to the incredibly clever and insightful @idisea

"Sometimes I think, "oh, of course everybody knows that no one in real life looks the way they do in photos."

But then I talk to my 15 year old sister, or think back to being around that age, and that... that's not the case, for the most part. Which is why, god help me, I actually think the ability to take stupid selfies and post them to a million social networking sites isn't a) bad or b) antifeminist.

Taking seventeen thousand photos of their face gives girls at least a certain amount of control over how they are displayed to the world (and let's be honest, here in the age of digital everything, they *will* be displayed). And this means there's a chance that having agency over the way they present themselves will result in an understanding of the fact that *other* people can pick and choose and edit the way they're presented.

"If I can make myself look taller/shorter/thinner/fatter, maybe the people in magazines aren't really glossy supermodels in real life."

And ALSO, you get increased visibility of physical diversity. If you're a teenage girl who thinks she's abnormal because of her [BODY PART], it's *REALLY HELPFUL* to see that other people also have that particular trait.

"Is/are my [BODY PART(S)] normal?" is a huge deal when you're 14/15/&c. And 95% of the time, the answer is YES YOU ARE NORMAL.

Being able to see examples of how normal it is, is important. Or to see how being different doesn't equal being wrong/broken/deficient. Bodies are weird and complicated when you're a teenager. Society is weird and complicated when you're a teenager. (EVERYTHING IS WEIRD AND COMPLICATED WHEN YOU'RE A TEENAGER).

Learning how to handle cultural expectations of female physicality takes time. Like, cool, *now* I can roll my eyes and brush it off when someone says stupid shit about my [WHATEVER]. But it's different at 19 when someone calls you a slut because your body is/does [XYZ]. (Fuck you, Josh.)

Point being, dorky teenage girls taking photos of themselves making weird faces and striking ridiculous poses - it's conducive to dialogue on topics which otherwise don't get brought up as often as they should be. Everyone looks stupid with duckface, okay? But it's the visibility that matters, and if Jezebel doesn't think that's a good thing, well. I respectfully disagree and think they can suck it."


  1. Yes. Yes. Yes.
    I strongly identify with selfies as a self-acceptance tool. Sometimes it's also vanity, because sometimes I look fucking fabulous and need to tell people.
    My reasons for posting selfies:
    - reminder of what I actually look like (sometimes good sometimes bad)
    - being happy and proud of my style choices/beauty work that day
    - connecting with people who also find beauty products interesting and going 'look at this thing'
    - expressing feelings through facial expressions when smileys just won't do

    I so agree with your concept that it's ok to be vain about how you look some days, even if you don't look like a model or superstar. Normal people can look fabulous the way normal people do, and it's ok to show that. Beauty isn't the most important thing about me, but how I look and present myself are still part of my identity.


    1. I really like your point about selfies as a way of sharing interest in femme stuff - I think both of us are in the sort of social circles where we have to go looking for people who care about lipstick as well, and it's really validating and comforting when you find them.

    2. Absolutely. I only have a few truly interested, and then I have a bunch of "tolerant" people. My husband is one of those people who takes it as part of the marriage contract to at least feign interest in my rablings. However, finding people who actually are for realz interested in my lipstick is always super cool.

  2. I love selfies. If I feel good I want to let other people know! If I'm fully dressed with shoes on for the first time in a week and I want to post about it - you better not try and stop me!!

    1. Hahaha! Oh man, I would kill for your problems.

  3. I really love this post. It's such an interesting topic and one that I deal with a lot. I take an incredible amount of selfies, purely because, like you, I need the reaffirmation from a non biased source that I'm still there. That no matter what my brain chemicals are telling me, I'm still the same that I was yesterday.

    I take selfies because it's a way to document my life. I literally don't know how I looked (objectively) for the past 2ish years because I hated myself so badly that I couldn't bear having photos of me. I really miss those absent 2 years and so I take selfies so I can look back in 5, 10, 50 years and know how I looked, what I was doing with myself during that time.

    And yet, when my family finds these pictures, its all 'ooooo, taking selfies. Gonna instagram them somewhere?' Chucle chuckle chuckle in the background as if it's shameful or something that I shouldn't be doing.

    So, yes, fabulous post and don't mind that maybe it wasn't as well argued as some of your other ones. :)


    1. How unpleasant that they make fun of you for it. It reminds me of a blog post I read yesterday of a Finnish beauty/life blogger, who was taking pictures of her meal at a restaurant, and this older couple started really loudly criticising how "peasantly" she was being. (I'd link to it, but it's in Finnish). She was rightfully quite mortified that these people would make it their business to be so rude to her in public.
      Partly, I think there's a generational gap at play. A lot of people feel this way about facebook and twitter as well. Like airing your thoughts is narcissistic, or thinking others would care is the height of hubris or something.
      I'm hoping it'll just normalise over time, and people will stop being dickish about selfies/social media/food photos.

  4. Heh.

    I say all sorts of things in my blog, from my anger at my late mother to my passion for Hostess Ding Dongs to my new Oh My God When Did The Aliens Rewire My Brain interest in fashion and femininine frippery, but I've never dared to post a photo of myself, on the blog or anywhere else. Today, in a fashion post, there are pictures of my legs, feet, and neck, but not *me*. There's something about the visual that feels ever so much more dangerous than any collection of words.

    So, yeah, if I ever work up the courage to actually post a real life picture of myself, I'm going to see it as a milestone, not some sad effort at validation that I should be scolded for.


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