Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Self Esteem, Selfies, and Teenage Monsters

I was asked last week to weigh in on the apparently endless debate about selfies. This time it was a blessed change from the "are the selfies feminist" discussion; instead the issue at hand was The Children. "Selfies are ruining our children's self esteem" was the main gist of the discussion, and I'm sure you can probably guess where my opinion fell. But it got me wondering how differently I might have viewed myself if I'd had access to digital cameras, beauty apps, and Instagram when I was growing up. I can safely say these things didn't effect my pubescent self esteem because I simply didn't have access to them. But what if I had?

I was an enormously self conscious teenager - I'm sure this is hardly a shock. I've met very, VERY few people who didn't feel like some sort of hideous monster for most of puberty. Being self conscious and concerned with your appearance is just something that comes with being a teenager for a lot of people - I don't think technology created that, and personally I don't think technology is necessarily making it much more prevalent. I've meet teenagers now who insist on wearing makeup all the time so they'll look "acceptable" on Instagram - but there were plenty of girls in school with me who insisted on wearing makeup all the time to be "acceptable" just for showing up to school. I don't have children, so I wouldn't presume to tell anyone how to raise theirs. But I can offer my own experience as someone who grew up during the transition from film, offline photography to the digital, share everything age. I'm sure there are some people who have been adversely effected by the increased availability and focus on selfies. But speaking for myself, as photography became more flexible, dynamic, and all pervasive, I found my acceptance of my own image evolving right alongside the technology. Far from making me more self conscious or self loathing, taking a metric shitload of selfies has made me more comfortable in my skin than I've ever been.

As with pretty much any rapidly changing technology, the "rise of selfies" has been trumped as something to panic about in recent years. The fact is though that selfies are not a new thing. At all.  Even assuming we're limiting the definition of "selfies" to photographs rather than paintings, the very first one was taken in 1839, by an amateur photographer named Robert Cornelius.

Turns out Mr. Cornelius was kind of a fox.
By the time I was attempting to navigate the twisted morass of "growing up", photo technology had come a fair way since Mr. Cornelius ducked awkwardly in front of his camera. There were technically digital cameras around, but I didn't have access to one until I was well into my 20's. There were, however, plenty of film cameras around. Disposable cameras were available everywhere, and relatively cheap, so I had a fair few opportunities to fool around with these as a teenager.

I still have at least one of these hanging around undeveloped..
Something about film photography that's hard to explain to people who've never done it is just how  painfully slow, rigid, and unforgiving it is. You only get 24 chances on a roll to get a picture right, and there's no way to preview the results before it's developed. You'd just have to wait and see. Assuming you take the roll to a photo shop to be developed the very instant you finish taking the pictures, it would be a 2 hour wait to see your results at the VERY least. More likely you'd be waiting a couple of days, even a week to see how any of the photos came out.

Once the picture was developed, for the average photographer, there was no changing it. Photo manipulation is, technically, as old as photography itself, and there have always been certain techniques available to alter photographs after developing.

An example of tools used for these early photo manipulations
However, very few amateur photographers would have been getting out the gouache and charcoal sticks. Most people using film cameras, especially to take selfies,  just took a picture, crossed their fingers, and hoped for the best. This process didn't exactly encourage a great deal of experimentation, especially if you didn't have a lot of money to spend on developing endless rolls of unusable pictures. However, the rigidity of film photos did give them an air of undeniable truth - if it was in a photo, it was assumed to be true. There was a perception that cameras don't lie (even though there are actually hundreds of examples of film photographs being complete bunkum), an idea that they could only capture what's really there. The physicality, the difficulty for the average photographer to change a photo once it was taken, gave film photos a certain authority.

The authoritarian perception and extraordinarily slow process of film photography, could be pretty unhelpful for a developing young teenage ego. Any photographer will tell you that the same person can look VASTLY different depending on poses, lighting, expressions, outfits and makeup. The camera might not lie outright, but it only ever shows part of the whole, and sometimes not the part you'd prefer it to show. It takes time and experimentation to figure out how to take a photo that highlights the parts of you that you like best. As a teenager, I would sometimes only get my picture taken once or twice a year, because it was a pain in the backside to pull out the camera, get the film developed, get the pictures back.  It was also super awkward to try and take them of myself, when I couldn't even tell if it was in focus or not until I got it developed. Taking photos was largely something saved for "occasions", and I only played around with photos of myself for fun every now and then. As a result, there are maybe 20, 30 pictures in existence of me between 14 and 18. How could I possibly figure out what poses, what lighting, what expressions worked for me with a data pool that tiny? I had no idea what suited me, so naturally the majority of the photos taken when I was a teenager were dreadfully unflattering. To my malleable teenage mind, this meant that OBVIOUSLY I was hideous. I mean, there was undeniable proof, in those photos, right there! The camera doesn't lie! I believed that film photos showed the "real" me, and the "real" me was ugly.

Good grief, that was appalling hair. Lookit my wittle button nose tho!
The arrival of digital photography changed so much about how people take photos in general, and definitely changed the whole way I personally viewed photography.  As someone who began taking photos with film and later moved to digital, I can tell you that simply being able to see the photo immediately completely changed the way I approached photography. Not sure if that shot came out in focus? No worries, check it out, delete if need be, and take another. There's always another shot available, you can always try one more time. The pressure to make every frame count is completely dissipated, and  suddenly I felt free to experiment, try new things, to play around. The rate at which you learn what does and doesn't work for you in a selfie is sped up exponentially when using a digital camera. Instead of having to wait a couple of days to learn new things (positive or negative), you can see the results and adapt immediately. The ever expanding storage capacity of each new generation of digital cameras encouraged me to take more and more photos, and with every photo I learned more.

Hmm, if I tilt my head to the side, it makes my cheekbones really stand out...
Whoops, that's too far. Less tilt needed!
I could see in these photos proof that my image was fluid, changeable. With film photos I always seemed to make the same face, and stand in the same way, probably because I had so little practice I just automatically snapped into "photo mode". But when playing with a digital camera of my own, I had the flexibility to try a million different things, to see just how different I could make myself look. Sometimes my experiments went well, and I thought I looked good in the results. Sometimes I thought I looked awful, and deleted the pictures just as fast as I could. Sometimes my selfies turned out not "pretty" as such, but interesting all the same.

At this stage though, my selfies were still relatively isolated. I was one of those people that refused to get a mobile with a camera in it until the very last possible moment, because I didn't see the point in discarding my trusty Nokia 2210 until it was literally falling apart. This meant my selfies were all taken on my stand alone camera, and had to be transferred to my desktop for resizing and possibly a little tinkering before I could share them. It also meant my online presence was relatively small - it was kind of a pain to have to sit down and specifically "be online", so I mostly hung around small, sheltered online spaces where I already knew everyone.

Then I got a net capable phone, with a camera, and seemingly in the blink of an eye - well, a blink of my ancient, slow eyes anyway - my social world exploded. Taking the leap from a stand alone digital camera to a net enabled mobile phone camera meant my self portraits could now be taken literally anywhere, at any time, with no forward planning required. With a tap of the screen, I take a picture of my lunch, share it across five different social networks, and see people's responses without putting my sandwich down. With the explosion of photo manipulation apps available now, I often don't even have to stop walking to touch up or resize a photo anymore, let alone transfer it to a desktop computer. I can take a photo, review it, manipulate it and share it all in a couple of minutes from the one device. Some of you probably think that's totally normal, but I'm sure at least some of you are old enough to understand what a staggering development this is.

Back in my day, we could "run out of film"!
Naturally, since it's so ludicrously easy to take selfies and share them now, lots of people are doing it, and some are doing it quite a lot. Self portrait photography is no longer a specific activity requiring specific equipment for a lot of people - it's just a part of their everyday lives, as is the inevitable feedback that comes from sharing anything in a public place. About here is where a lot of concerned parents groups start getting a bit panicked. Phrases like "camera ready generation" start getting thrown around, and people fret that now they're taking photos of everything all the time teenagers will be obsessed with always looking as attractive as possible. Parents (understandably) freak out that their teenagers are posting pictures and being told they're ugly, and that this will ruin their self esteem forever.

I can't honestly say that I think parents are wrong to worry. There is some nasty fucking shit, and some dreadful fucking people out there, who love nothing better than pissing on other people's self esteem. Bullies and assholes are not a new phenomenon, and being picked on as a teenager is hardly new either, but sharing selfies online does open you up to an extraordinary volume of assholes. It used to be you only had to worry about the bully at your school - now you can be attacked by someone on the other side of the world without even leaving your room. It can be enormously dangerous, and very possibly harmful to squishy little teenage minds and their baby soft self esteem.

It's not all assholes and nasty comments out there on the Big Wide Internet though, and I think the positives of sharing selfies are often brushed over in favour of focusing on the potential negatives.
Since getting a net capable phone with a camera, and especially since starting this blog, I've shared approximately a million pictures of myself online. I'll often take five or six pictures of myself before I even get to work at the moment - although to be fair that's largely so I can capture my makeup before I forget I'm wearing it and rub it all over my face.  I've taken so many photos of myself, both for fun and for this blog, that I know what I look like from pretty much every angle, under every light - and some of these angles are not pretty.

Ack, I'm all forehead!
Wait, now I'm all chin
Agghh, ENORMOUS cheekbones!
In addition to learning my bad sides though, I also know now there are angles from which I look rather pretty indeed. I've even practiced enough that I can recreate the most flattering ones at will. I've played around with the so-called beauty apps, and had a glimpse of what I would look like with airbrushed skin, or ludicrous manga size eyes.

I gotta tell you, the size of my eyes in this picture kind of creeps me out
Do I have flawless skin, or is the saturation so blown out you can't see anything?
You'll never know the truth!

Playing with apps, and Photoshop in general, has given me a much clearer understanding of what's behind the curtain of the airbrushed photos I see in the media around me. We all know intellectually that they're retouched and altered - but there's always a little part of you that wonders how much. If you don't know what sort of enormous changes can be achieved with photo manipulation, it's hard to really visualise how models can look before retouching. There are a lot of before and after demonstrations around on the net, but speaking for myself, doing it to my own face was so much more compelling than seeing it demonstrated on a stranger. I would like to think that running their selfies through a beauty app could demonstrate the same thing for a teenager.

I've taken photos from every angle, good, bad, and indifferent. I've tinkered with my image until it's unrecognisable, then put it back together again. Digital photography and selfies have allowed me to collect such a huge pool of data that it's became impossible for me to define myself as truly "ugly" anymore - I no longer believe believe that photos show the "real" me, because I've captured so much variation I don't think there is such a thing as a definite, "real" me. There's only how I look right now, and I find that enormously comforting and reassuring. If I don't like how I look right at this second, it's okay because in five minutes I'll probably look different. If I don't like how I look then either, I can tinker with the photo until I do like it. I can create my own image, exactly how I want it, and that sort of control is absolutely thrilling.

Sharing my selfies has also been enormously comforting and reassuring, for me. I know that not everyone is so lucky, and as I mentioned previously, there is a big wide pool of assholes out there who are all too ready to put in their two cents. As much as they would hate to admit though, the assholes are not the whole of the internet. There is enormous good that can be done, and comfort that can be shared by sharing images that counter popular media. The way people, especially women, are depicted in mass media doesn't look like any person I've ever seen, but sharing selfies is a way for everyone to help fill the gaps left by advertising and movies. This is particularly relevant for teenagers trying to get a sense of who they are and how they fit in the world.

As I said previously, I thought I was a grotesque monster when I was a teenager. Comparing yourself to people as they're portrayed in mass media is always a losing game, but I did it anyway. I didn't look like any of them, and I thought I was the one that was wrong. Comparing myself to the people I knew in meatspace didn't help either. There were only 40 kids in my year, so let's say there were about 20 girls my age in my town that I could compare myself to. Unsurprisingly, given the enormous variety humans are capable of, I didn't look like any of them either. I thought I MUST be the one who was misshaped, malformed, because I couldn't see anyone who looked like me. But now I can open Tumblr and see 20 people who look just like me go scrolling past, in outfit posts or makeup shots or just plain "I feel cute" selfies. I know it's not just me who's made like this, and that makes me feel so much better about this funny squishy body I'm in. Having access to so much more data has changed the way I view myself for the better - I don't feel like a monster anymore.

An enormous dork, for sure. But not a monster.
This potential effect of sharing selfies is one of the reasons I make a point of sharing unflattering photos of myself every now and then, especially if they're funny. I don't want people looking at my blog or my Twitter and thinking I look perfectly poised all the time - because I most certainly don't, and neither does anyone else. Just because you haven't brushed your hair today is no reason you That  can't join in the sharing too! I was inspired to share unflattering pictures by other (braver) people who did it first, and I hope that by joining in, I can help inspire other people to keep the cycle going and see just how much of the wstaggering variety that is human beings we can capture.

Keep in mind when I talk about how much sharing selfies has done for my self esteem that I'm white, cisgender, and have no major physical disabilities. I did essentially look like everyone else in my town as a teenager, as much I didn't think so at the time. I was essentially playing the self esteem game on one of the easier settings. If being exposed to the diversity of images that widespread selfies offers changed my life so much, imagine what it could do for teenagers growing up in places where they don't essentially look like everyone else - for teenagers playing on a much harder setting than I did.

So are the positives worth the negatives for teenagers trying to navigate puberty and come out the other side with some sort of self esteem? I can't speak for every teenager, but speaking for myself, I wish I'd had access to the net and selfies and all the good that comes from sharing and viewing them as a teenager. I think it would have taken a lot less time for me to realise that I'm not a monster, and that I never really was.

What do you think? Would you, or do you approve of your children sharing selfies on social media? Do you wish you'd been able to do all this yourself as a teenager? Are you a teenager currently wishing photos were much less easily shareable? Do you think the good outweighs the potential negatives?


  1. Love this post. I was thinking that even if selfies don't have the same effect on teenagers as they have on us older ladies, at least when they hit their mid-twenties or thirties (whenever the fuck-off fairy arrives) they'll see their 'hideous' teen selves and finally see they were actually always pretty. I'm lucky to have lots of photos of myself, although most of them I'm scowling because my grandfather was annoying and prolific at taking my photos. Anyway, it's interesting to see them and realise I was perfectly normal.

  2. Thank you! This is so needed! I think the same thing - being able to manipulate my own image so much has helped me get rid of the idea of the 'real' me. No matter how I look - it's all still me. I'm not not being me by wearing my hair differently one day, or wearing a different style of make-up, or even just not brushing my hair. It's just different facets of my personality. And my parents are all 'technology is bad', 'you are on the internet too much', 'stop taking so many photos of yourself' so it's nice to hear someone that has the same opinion as me! :)



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