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Our Bodies, Our Selfies

Move over Mommy Wars, breastfeeding wars and other categories of intra-feminist warfare. The selfie wars have arrived. Soon after “selfie” — a picture one takes of oneself — was proclaimed word of the year, the debate over the value of selfies began.

Erin Gloria Ryan caused a furor when she wrote at Jezebel that selfies concern her:

Retaking a photo 12 times until your chin looks right is in no way analogous to asking your boss for a raise. Nor is it the sort of self-promotion that results in anything but a young woman reinforcing the socially-engrained notion that the most valuable thing she has to offer the world is her looks.

Ryan’s argument boils down to this: selfies, like lipstick or high heels, may be something women do to get ahead in a patriarchy, but they’re not somehow an empowering or feminist act. I have written similarly that high heels and makeup are in fact, extra patriarchal burdens on women. They may give women some form of control and pleasure in crafting their own images — but they are never feminist. So I’m sympathetic to Ryan’s line of thinking for that reason. Beyond that, I am one of those cheesy people who really believes human beings shouldn’t be judged by how we look, and I try to fight against my own aesthetic snobbery. Thus I find selfie culture among women in my cohort overwhelming at times, in that it calls for us to even more regularly have to literally put our best faces forward. In addition to being accomplished, witty, “put together,” groomed and always able to fit into our jeans, now women have to take semi-occasional cute pictures of ourselves too? I poked fun at the trend, and my own complicity in it, by dressing up as a selfie for Halloween (see photo below).

The question of wresting control of our images is a perturbing one for feminists. I’ve been to feminist rallies and media trainings where young activists were told to have a good picture of ourselves on hand. I always chafe at this advice — worrying about looks for The Man?! — but have simultaneously found it to be incredibly useful.

I’ve learned from observing social media that for many people of all genders who are younger than I am, selfies are just like tweets or texts. They are a language of communication: here’s where I am now. Here’s what I’m up to now. Here is a face I’m making. Beyond that, many women of color or women with disabilities responded to Ryan’s piece explaining that they use selfies to fly in the face of beauty standards, to present themselves as worth looking at in a media culture that ignores or erases them. They are crafting their own counter-narrative. In this sense selfies can be incredibly affirming and powerful, even feminist, as the humorous hashtag #feministselfie demonstrated. Selfies are the definition of taking our own portrayals into our hands.

Selfies are a medium that can be used for purposes both inspiring and insipid. For many selfie-takers combating conventional beauty standards, their act should be applauded as subversive and empowering. For others, an over-interest in selfies may indeed veer into vanity or approval-seeking. Because I enjoy judging people, I reserve the right to inspect individual selfies that float into my timeline and ask whether they stray into ridiculous territory — and to judge my own potential selfies the same way. But I won’t castigate the medium writ large. Selfies are evolving to be their own mode of communication, and I am fascinated to see where the trend goes. Besides, I want to be hip. Far be it from me to say, “Get off my lawn!” or in this case, “Get out of my Instagram feed!”

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