On Jan. 27, 2011, “#selfie” was born. Just over three years later, there are more than 75 million Instagram photos tagged #selfie and a National #Selfie Portrait Gallery. Furthermore, Oxford Dictionary crowned “selfie” its 2013 Word of the Year after being officially added in August.
Its social media spotlight focused a lot of hatred toward selfies. Some critics cry narcissism, others complain about duckface and cringe at the inappropriate places some people feel compelled to take selfies (okay, that one’s valid).
As people explore the limits and extraordinary possibilities of selfies every day, it’s time to realize those single-subject pics won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.
#Sorrynotsorry, selfie haters.
Selfies have been around for ages.
Nope, think way before MySpace default photos and its characteristic angles. Before the camera self-timer. Before cameras.
In the 15th century, self-portraiture allowed artists to control the images and versions of themselves the public saw. During the Renaissance, commissioned portraiture was standard practice among the era’s elites, a status symbol.
Today, people carry high-definition cameras in their pockets, making it possible to snap photos of themselves whenever, wherever. The selfie barrier to entry is no longer the wealth, time and privilege of a French monarch. The selfie game is close to a level playing field, so go out and play, Marie Antoinette.
A picture’s worth a thousand words.
Remember your high school English teacher’s favorite essay critique, “show not tell?” That’s what selfies do.
In lieu of a boring status update about your delicious dinner, share a photo of yourself staring lovingly at your pizza, sitting next to your best friend at your favorite pizzeria in town. This selfie communicates so much more than a status could: what you look like, your expression, who you’re with, where you are.
Mike Rugnetta, host of PBS Idea Channel on YouTube, believes the act of sharing a selfie on social media adds to the meaning of the photo itself, for example, how you might’ve looked snapping it in IRL, and why you chose to share the photo.
The selfie becomes a speech act, which sets it apart from the standard definition of photography. This shift in meaning is what selfie-haters are overlooking. The selfie provides more insight into my life and personality than a photo of my pizza could ever convey.
People actually “like” selfies.
Contrary to complaints, your followers want to see you on social media. In the ever-expanding digital space, a human face is a break in a constant stream of links, text and graphics. Social media becomes more interesting when people insert themselves in it, as Rugnetta says. It reinforces the “social” in social media.
In James Franco’s New York Times pro-selfie opinion piece, he admits he judges people who don’t embrace the opportunity to share who they are.
“I am actually turned off when I look at an account and don’t see any selfies, because I want to know whom I’m dealing with. In our age of social networking, the selfie is the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, ‘Hello, this is me.'”
Franco adds that his stats support his stance: His most-liked Instagram photos are selfies. (Though, given the majority of his photos are selfies, that analysis might not seem credible.)
However, my own unofficial and unscientific research supports Franco’s theory. After shedding my skepticism, I shared my first selfie in September after getting a new pair of eyeglasses. It’s still my most-liked Instagram photo.
Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend is another vocal supporter of selfies. He tells Rolling Stone, “I’m definitely pro-selfie. I think that anybody who’s anti-selfie is really just a hater. Because, truthfully, why shouldn’t people take pictures of themselves? When I’m on Instagram and I see that somebody took a picture of themselves, I’m like, ‘Thank you.’ I don’t need to see a picture of the sky, the trees, plants. There’s only one you.”
Damn, you look good.
The selfie is breaking down the barriers of what it means to be beautiful. The media’s narrow definition of beauty is being challenged by people who don’t fit that mold. We’re constantly encountering images of people of all shapes, sizes, skin colors and gender identities — and they look amazing.
Laci Green, host of Sex + on YouTube, stresses that seeing other people’s beautiful selfies, and posting your own selfies when you’re lookin’ good, is a great exercise in self-esteem and self-confidence. But she also suggests taking selfies where you’re not feeling particularly hot.
“Imperfection is okay. It’s okay to not look or feel pretty, because looking and feeling pretty isn’t the most important thing about you,” she says. “Believe it or not, you’re not obligated to look like a sexy hot sizzling sex bomb all the time (or ever, really).”
Sharing a smiling selfie when you’re not all dolled up can be even more powerful; it’s a more obvious challenge to society’s beauty standard. It can be a major boost to your confidence when you realize you look just as great without all the makeup the media’s trying to sell you.
Even celebrities fall short of media’s demands. In September 2012, Lady Gaga posted photos of herself in her underwear. The move caused a media firestorm, because the pop star didn’t look as fit and toned as they were used to seeing (though she still looked far from heavy). Journalist Ann Friedman called Lady Gaga’s selfies “powerful” in her New York Magazinecolumn. Why? “They’re poorly lit; they’re self-staged. Not only is there no airbrushing, but there’s no flattering lighting, no strategic body positions. They underscore the message of her accompanying words. They say, Here’s me. Just me.”
The “here’s me” message is key to the selfie’s greatness. Everyday folks don’t have the option to hire a PR team and schedule photo shoots — we have to DIY it. Selfies are our way of putting out the version of ourselves we want the world to see. Whether it’s a mass Snapchat where you contort your face so you have six chins and a wonky eyebrow, or a flatteringly filtered Instagram shot where you nailed the cat-eyeliner and red lipstick combo. You’re in control.
In January Dove released a short film, Selfie, which asked high school girls and their mothers to take selfies to learn what is beautiful about each other, and combat their insecurities. Of course, the girls were initially hesitant — putting yourself out there can be terrifying, especially when you’re afraid you don’t measure up to many of society’s impossible expectations.
The girls and mothers learned they’re much too hard on themselves; they are beautiful.
“Did the world combust into a million little pieces because I put a selfie out there?” asked one girl. “Nuh-uh, I’m still here, so it’s all good, it’s all good.”
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