Since the Oxford Dictionary declared ‘selfie’ (a self-portrait taken with a smart phone) as their ‘word of the year’, it’s become the topic of the month on the internet.
Are selfies a narcissistic by-product of the social pressure placed on women to be physically attractive?
Are people who post selfies vain attention seekers?
Do women disempower themselves by buying into the idea that their physical appearance is something to be posted, promoted – even flaunted – on the internet?
According to Erin Gloria Ryan on Jezebel, selfies are:
“… a high tech reflection of the fucked up way society teaches women that their most important quality is their physical attractiveness.”
“Feeling pretty is nice, but goddamn — ‘beauty’ [is] far from the most important thing about being a fully-actualized adult human person,” says Ryan – and few of us would disagree with that statement.
Yet, I’m pleased to see that many women, identifying as feminists, have vehemently rejected the idea that posting selfies somehow empowers the patriarchy and reinforces negative stereotypes of women.
I’m a recent convert to selfies. Here’s the first one I ever took.
I remember thinking, “Wow! I look pretty good.”
And you know what? That felt good, and that’s not a bad thing.
I am the child of two super-genetically blessed parents.
My dad, particularly as a young man, was drop-dead gorgeous.
My mother, a former beauty queen, has always been admired for her beauty.
Together, even in their middle years, they made a pretty formidable – and daunting – combination!
Growing up with these two ‘hotties’, I often felt like a bedraggled ugly duckling. While Mum strutted her perfect size 12 hour glass figure in the latest 70s fashions, I struggled with pudginess, a mop of thick, oily lank hair of a non-descript shade and a handsome crop of pimples.
Through no fault of my parents, who were loving, attentive and did everything they could to bolster my self-confidence, I felt like a cuckoo in this nest of advanced physical beauty.
At high school, I was considered one of the unpopular ‘nerdy’ kids. Tall and awkward I once sent a note around the class asking my class mates to comment on what I could change to make them like me (a social researcher even then!). The only comment I remember now is, “Wash your face” – probably a comment on my blackheads and pimples.
Getting on the bus in my school uniform, or walking down the street next to my immaculately groomed, glamorous mother was a special kind of torture.
As it turns out, I wasn’t such a bad looking kid, but I never had any confidence in my looks and that affected how I led my life and the choices I made – often in a bad way.
When I got old enough to attract male attention I grabbed onto it without discernment, thinking that any attention from any man was the best I could expect. Thus began my life as a bikie’s moll!
I fell in love when I was 24 years old. Hard. Soon after, the object of my affection was posted to a job 600 miles away. When he rang and asked me to send him a photo of myself (“… in a bikini, please”) I should have been thrilled. Instead, I was mortified! I was a size 14 for Christ’s sake! How could I let anyone see me in a bikini????
But, eager to please, I starved myself for a week and jogged after work every afternoon. I bought a bikini (I didn’t own one) and cajoled my mother into taking a polaroid photo of me on the beach at Caloundra while I assiduously sucked in what I thought was my huge fat gut. The photo was duly sent on with sinking heart.
I don’t remember his reaction to the photo. Back then (and now) I had a habit of blocking out compliments and only hearing and remembering negative comments about my looks.
I don’t know to what extent my poor self-image contributed to the failure of our relationship. In retrospect I can see that I internalised every comment that could be construed to suggest I was less than perfect and blocked out any action or inference that I was actually pretty damned sexy. I always blamed him for our relationship self-destructing in spectacular fashion, but, looking back, I can see how my needy insecurity probably didn’t help the situation.
After that, I didn’t exactly let myself go, but I piled on a heap of weight and did nothing to arrest the rapid expansion of my figure. I had lost the love of my life and fortuitously, being sexually unattractive saved me the angst of having to deal with unwanted male attention.
It’s not that I really thought I was ugly – I just didn’t (and didn’t really want to) think of myself as sexually attractive. I put all my efforts into being smart and, generally, I was pretty happy with the trade off. When questioned about my ‘weight problem’ I’d reply that I didn’t have a ‘weight problem‘, I had a ‘weight solution‘ – and that was absolutely true.
That first selfie was a bit of a revelation to me. I had thought of myself as unphotogenic – an impression reinforced by the toe-curlingly embarrassing insistence of people posting and tagging photos of me on Facebook without ever considering how fucking awful I looked.
But that first selfie suggested that maybe the truth about my appearance lay somewhere in between the ugliness of an inopportune ‘click’ at an unguarded moment and the fluke of a good angle and reflection from a pink scarf at a gathering of friends. Could it be – possibly – that I wasn’t so bad looking after all?
After that, I started posting some selfies of myself online and enjoyed the compliments.
It gave me the confidence to have some professional publicity shots taken. I still didn’t feel gorgeous but I was beginning to feel that my self-image was gradually catching up with my growing confidence about my writing, my intellect and my aspiration to take on more public speaking roles.
Being confident about my appearance wasn’t only about valuing myself for how I looked, it was about getting that aspect of my self-confidence in line with other, more cerebral aspects.
Selfies helped me to understand that one bad photo doesn’t mean you look like shit. It just means you had one bad photo taken.
Taking a series of selfies – some good, some bad – reminded me that people don’t see you in ‘stills’ – they see you in motion; their concept of your physical appearance derives from far more than a single impression.
Selfies helped me to see that while I could look like Godzilla from some angles, from other angles I could actually look quite …. dare I use the word … pretty!
When some feminists dismiss the importance of feeling good about how you look, they miss the point, I think. To a large extent, how you feel about yourself in general is reflected in your physical appearance – how you hold yourself, dress yourself, look after yourself. It’s not just about winning the genetic lottery.
Now, some feminists might argue that I shouldn’t give two hoots if I look like shit – it’s my intellect, my talent and my accomplishments that matter. And, to some extent I agree. But the reality is, you can’t just lop off the bit of you that the rest of the world sees first and pretend it doesn’t matter. Confidence and pride in my physical appearance is not just skin-deep. It’s not just about vanity; about garnering compliments or male attention. It’s about feeling good about every aspect of myself for my own sake.
Becoming more concerned about and more confident about my appearance isn’t about abandoning my pride and belief in my talent and accomplishments – it’s just adding a little icing to the rich, spicy fruit cake that makes up the whole ‘me’.
With growing confidence, I started to invest in new clothes and jewellery. I began to walk a little taller. I had some more publicity shots taken and I thought, “Not bad – not beauty queen material but I’m not embarrassed to post them.”
The process of self-acceptance was slow but steady.
And then, the impossible happened. The man who I’d sent that bikini photo to 30 years ago came back into my life.
Refusing to meet with him, I trepidatiously sent him some photos of myself, explaining that I had put on a LOT of weight since we parted more than twenty years ago.
I fully expected him to say, “Well, it’s been nice chatting,” and discretely disappear back into the ether. Instead, he dismissed my concerns saying that if I thought my size mattered one whit I had completely missed why he’d been so attracted to me way back then. Unlike me, he’d been looking at the ‘whole package’ – not just the wrapping.
I wasn’t convinced. I was sure if I could only make him understand that how I looked now was completely different to the young girl he remembered, he would slink away. I figured it would hurt less to be rejected via email than in person. I took a selfie of myself in my underwear.
“Look!” I said. This is how I look now!
He sent back a one word reply. “Hot!”
I replied (somewhat in shock), “This isn’t the first photo of me I’ve sent you. Do you remember I sent you a photo of myself in a bikini 30 years ago?”
I confessed how embarrassed I’d been at the request and how mortified I felt having to send what I thought, then, was a most unflattering photo of a fat chick in bikini. Of course, I didn’t expect him to remember.
“I don’t just remember it,” he replied, “I still have it. I’ve often looked at it over the years. I’ll bring it along when I meet you.”
And he did. And you know what? I was hot – smokin’ hot – and I never, ever knew it or got the chance to appreciate it or bask in it or make the kinds of decisions a girl might make when what she feels about how she looks matches up to her confidence in what she is.
How many absolutely stunning women do I know who absolutely hate how they look? And how does that lack of confidence cripple them in other areas of their lives?
I know one woman who looks like a young Jane Fonda who is so down on her appearance she is often suicidal. She blames her appearance for her inability to find a partner. In fact, it’s not how she looks, but how she feels about how she looks which is probably the biggest turn-off for men.
Another woman I know looks amazing to me from any angle but is horrified at the prospect of photos of her being posted on the internet. She simply can’t bare to look at herself.
If women can take control of their own images by taking selfies, posting the ‘good’ ones and getting some positive reinforcement from their social media contacts, I say, “Go for it!”
It’s unrealistic to think that women (or men!) can, or will ever, be able to entirely divorce their sense of self-worth from their physical appearance. And why should we? Do I dismiss my intelligence because it’s something I was born with? No! I may have been born smart, but I’m proud of how I’ve capitalised on that particular gift. Increasingly, I’m beginning to view physical appearance in the same light; not as a shallow, narcissistic, skin-deep, irrelevant part of myself, but as a reflection of how I feel about myself holistically.
Being proud of how you look is not about meekly conceding to some patriarchal image of feminine perfection. It’s about growing comfortable with yourself. It’s about embracing the physical features that don’t quite match the idealised notion of feminine beauty. It’s about recognising that while you may never grace the cover of Vogue, it’s your wonky bits that make you unique; that make you ‘you’.
It took me a long time to understand that showing your vulnerability and admitting your weaknesses makes you more, not less, interesting. In the same way, one has to learn that the physical features we instinctively hate might be exactly what makes us appealing to others. Strange, but true.
But, let’s not lie about this. Selfies are flattering. Taken from the right angle you can look far better than you’ll probably ever look in real life. When I sent the first sexy flattering selfie to my long-lost lover I felt honour bound to explain that unless he cared to hang upside down out of the manhole in our bathroom and gaze upon me bathed in the warm golden light of the bathroom heat lamp, he may never see me looking as good as I do in this photograph.
But, you know what? Knowing that (at least from the right angle and with the right lighting) I could look like that inspired me.
(Under no pressure from him!) I’ve since lost 15kg (and aiming for another 20kg), I’ve started wearing skirts and high heels again, and I have rediscovered a part of myself I’d shelved for years. I’ve even bought another bikini!
One day – soon – I’m going to really look like those flattering selfies and, feminist or not, I’m going to bask in the self-confidence of that knowledge. I’m happy to be both smart and sexy and I’m pretty sure that one is going to inform the other. I’m beginning to realise that denying a whole part of myself for twenty years was pretty bloody tragic. I’m taking sexy back!
If middle-aged women like me are taking selfies and thinking, “Wow! I look pretty good!” and it makes them walk a little taller, how is that a bad thing?
And, if young women are taking selfies and realising while they are still young that they are beautiful, desirable, and hot – whether or not they meet the magazine-standard of generic feminine beauty – I am all for it.
Youthful beauty doesn’t last and it seems a shame not to appreciate it, relish it and yes, even exploit it while you still have it.
I wish I’d known when I was 26 years old that I was as hot as that girl in the fading polaroid. My life might have been quite different.