The Science Behind Your Selfie
The Debrief: Science Says Selfies Make You Narcissistic, But What's Wrong With That?
I have, according to my iPhone folder, taken 101 selfies since August 13. About half are just of my own face, and half feature other people. I think I’ve posted around 25 to Instagram, but I rarely share them on Facebook or Twitter. Two of them are unpublished cleavage shots. (Honestly, I thought there would be more of those.) The greatest number of attempts I have on record at taking a single selfie is 13. The filter I use the most is Chrome (because I think it looks the least ‘done’, and I can pretend it’s a legitimate representation of my actual face, which is me being hypocritical and ridiculous - surely I should just go balls out for Mayfair and own the selfie.)
Last year, a study conducted by researchers at the University of Iowa found that for young women, body image worsens in a way that directly correlates with social media use. Instagram star Essena O’Neill recently revealed that she skipped meals and worked out excessively in order to look slim in the selfies she used to post. The Department of Psychology at Curry College in the US recently published this study looking at the connection between selfies and narcissism (defined as ‘a personality trait characterised by inflated self-views and attempts to seek attention and admiration from others’.) However, women who take a lot of selfies are more likely to ‘show leadership qualities’, but according to that study, men who do the same tend to have ‘exploitative and entitled’ natures.
FeelUnique.com surveyed 2,000 selfie takers and found that half the 16-25 year olds they asked took at least three a day, and spent almost five hours a week on preparing, editing and posting. You might want to dismiss selfies as vain, selfish and silly, but claiming the selfie is not a cultural force makes you look a little bit like King Canute trying to stop the sea. It’s two years since it was Oxford Dictionaries’ Word Of The Year. Our world leaders take selfies. My Granny took selfies at my wedding - in fact, I’m not sure she took any pictures of me.
Sometimes my selfies make me feel happy and confident about my face and body, and sometimes - well, I spent the night after my last birthday crying into my boyfriend’s jumper because I wasn’t ‘pretty enough for Instagram - or for life!’ I’m proof of that social media study. Petya Eckler of the University of Strathclyde told the BBC ‘The attention to physical attributes may be even more dangerous on social media than on traditional media because participants in social media are people we know.’ When I look at a model or an actress in a shoot, I know that I’m seeing a fabulous fantasy. But sometimes everyone else’s selfies stir up the meanest, murkiest kernels of insecurity and envy within me. How come everyone else looks like a model while they’re just out there living their life? Why don’t I ever feel as beautiful as they all look - and is that going to hold me back?
My friend Nell, a 30-year-old writer, is my selfie heroine. She’s turned the technique into an art form with her Tumblr, Goppeldangers - an amazing collection of self portraits where Nell recreates iconic images from art and pop culture. I rang her up to chat about it, and asked her how she felt about selfies. ‘Goppeldangers has actually given me a greater acceptance of my body and my face, and how they work. I used to get worried about looking quite manly, but dressing up as different men actually accentuated the feminine parts of my face - I think I look more womanly as Paul Newman than I do as Anjelica Huston!’
Nell thinks selfies are broadly a good thing. ‘I feel so much happier looking at, say, a picture of Rihanna where she’s chosen the venue, her outfit and how she wants to look than one that I know was taken by some middle aged man in a studio. And generally, historically, women have been looked at, and seen through someone else’s lens. I think the best thing a young woman can do for her self esteem is to take pictures of herself, and really look at them - and most importantly, choose how she would like to look in them. We’re so savvy, we know how to use filters, angles and cropping tools. People who think women are stupid for taking selfies are basically denying us our autonomy. You don’t even have to publish your selfies, but I think that accepting - and liking- our faces is a very good, healthy thing.’
Obviously the self portrait is not a post Millennial invention. Cambridge psychology lecturer Dr Terri Apter explains that historically, since before the 15th century people who had access to self representations were keen to make use of them. In this way people could control the image projected, and of course the fact that the image was on display, marked the importance and status of the person represented.” Essentially, the only difference between Henry VIII and Kim K is access to a ton of tech and a contouring palette.
I asked my Twitter chums about the number of images they had in their iPhone selfie folders. @Lissia said that she has almost 800 selfies ‘but hates most of them…if my make up is on point and the lighting is good (best lighting is on the bus lol) I'll post on Insta BUT It'll be 1 of 50’. Emma, joyfully sent me a screenshot of 24 slightly different versions of the same selfie, saying ‘I HAVE NO SHAME!’ but adding that she sometimes asks her colleagues to help her pick the best one, although she feels a bit weird about it. ‘I don’t think it’s necessarily empowering - just saying hello with your face!’ Emma’s words made me think about how much we love emojis, and how a good selfie is essentially a way of transforming yourself into a human emoji - the trick is to have a sense of humour about it, and to let ourselves have days when we’re the dancing lady and days when we’re a poo with eyes.
Becca, 26 periodically asks Twitter friends to send her selfies, tweeting ‘I will make u feel good by showering yr selfies with praise!’ She loves them, explaining ‘As the dialogue around them has moved further away from "that's vain and silly" to "everyone is doing it and it's FUN!" I have done it unapologetically. I used to be like "put a cute caption or be self deprecating" to sort of balance out the perceived vanity. now I am just like "HERE is my FACE’. Lauren, 28, reckons we can all ‘read’ a selfie. ‘I think we can FEEL when someone is taking one for confidence-bolstering or happy, memory-preserving reasons as opposed to 'Must... present... flawless... face... to the world...' reasons. I think we’ll look back in a decade or two and think it was very weird that we all spent SO much time photographing our own faces. It’s not toxic or anything - just a bit comical.’
Self love, and selfie love, seems to be a bit of an uphill struggle. We’re all at it, but we’re not vain or silly - just terrified that other people will find us vain and silly. Nell says, ‘I don’t see why a little narcissism is a bad thing. There are so many people telling us to hate the way we look, who profit from our insecurity - so it’s great that there’s something we can do that will make us love ourselves a bit better.’ Since my Instagram based breakdown, I’ve started taking and posting more selfies, and I’ve found that what Nell says is true. I can exist on social media alongside all of my gorgeous friends, and the more pictures we post, the more examples we have of different kinds of human beauty. I don’t need to be the prettiest or the sexiest, and I’m not trying to win a competition - but life is lovelier when you learn to like your own face, and you can only do that by looking at it. If you can get past every person who stands to make a profit from making us feel bad about our bodies, you can take over the world. It’s no wonder the female selfie queens demonstrate ‘leadership qualities’. When you’ve mastered the selfie, you can become your own boss.
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