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.|
|I still have at least one of these hanging around undeveloped..|
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|
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!|
|Hmm, if I tilt my head to the side, it makes my cheekbones really stand out...|
|Whoops, that's too far. Less tilt needed!|
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"!|
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!|
|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!
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.|
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?