You know that thing where you write a word so many times it starts to lose all meaning? I'm doing that with "selfie" right now.
Publish date:
November 22, 2013
feminism, Instagram, selfies, vanity

Yesterday, Erin Gloria Ryan posted a massive condemnation of "selfies" over at Jezebel, calling the pictures a "cry for help" from appearance-obsessed ladies.

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. If culture were encouraging women to be smart, the word of the year would be "diplomie" and the definition would be "a photo of an academic achievement posted to social media." "Here's my face!" is not an accomplishment. Feeling pretty is nice, but goddamn — "beauty" far from the most important thing about being a fully-actualized adult human person.

I agree with that last part, for sure. But overall I had a stronger reaction to this Selfie Takedown than I expected. I'm not going to pile on to to Jezebel or Ryan in particular, because that's not my thing. Ryan's allowed to have an opinion, and I'm all for people having different ideas and perspectives and sharing them and inspiring awesome passionate conversations about stuff. It's basically my reason for doing pretty much everything I do.

Other folks in selfieworld also had a strong reaction to the suggestion that selfies are intrinsically bad for women, or somehow unfeminist, to the extent that #feministselfies is happening all over the place on twitter right now in response (the snark is strong on that tag, be warned, but some of the responses are really funny).

I don't actually give a shit whether the selfie is a feminist, pro-woman act. My personal interest in feminism is not real invested in the individual expression, vadge-shaving, should-I-let-a-dude-hold-the-door-for-me stuff. Truth is, I don't actually go about my day asking myself whether every little thing I individually do is "feminist," but I guess many other folks do, and hey, Godspeed to those who walk that path, sincerely. You're a more conscientious person than I.

I'm definitely interested in what we all do as self-expression online, but I can't honestly say I spend much time worrying about how feminist it looks.

Rather, my reaction was less intellectual and more visceral. Because while I think the criticism that selfies may encourage some young women to continue to value themselves as decorative objects may be valid, that's an awfully narrow view of a very broad selfie phenomenon.

For example, selfies are important to a lot of folks for the simple reason that they offer a rare opportunity to see a woman who looks like they do represented in media, even if it's simply social media. The overwhelming majority of women we see held up as idealized beauty every day are very slender and very white, not to mention very able-bodied and very "feminine" according to traditional standards.

There's a reason a woman like Tess Munster has over 85,000 followers on Instagram -- because the opportunities to see women who deviate markedly from the fashion-model norm are so precious to those women who feel invisible in the world. See Tess' #effyourbeautystandards hashtag on Instagram for more examples of this, and a bit of evidence in how selfies have helped a lot of women to accept themselves as they are, and to stop hating themselves for how they look.

For many women, the gratification of posting a selfie is not simply about being told you're "pretty," it's about being reassured that you exist, you are seen, and yeah, you are worth looking at, not merely as a decorative item but as a living, feeling human -- something some of us need to be reminded of when we're feeling down or upset or lonely.

In full disclosure, I love other people's selfies. I love them because Marianne, one of my very best friends, lives 1200 miles away; because my coworkers are all in New York; because I get to see my mom face-to-face for a total of maybe four or five days every year. I love selfies because they give me the opportunity to put faces to the screen names of so many people who've communicated with me over the years -- and not just one face, in a thoughtfully-framed, posed photograph taken by someone else, but a range of expressions captured in private moments, as the taker wants to be seen.

Seeing all these people's faces, people I know and don't know, gives humanity to an internet that is often cruel because it is so faceless and anonymous.

And even on that self-expression tip, selfies are hardly a new thing. I was taking proto-selfies in the 80s, with an old Kodak Instamatic camera. I have "selfies" I took as an eight year old, an eleven year old, a fifteen year old, more -- long before anyone even considered putting a camera in a phone, and I love them because they represent me trying to document myself. And I succeeded! I have me, as I wanted to be seen, as I saw myself, at that time in my life! More or less. A little blurry. These images are communication, as much as any snapshot is, and they're probably less ephemeral than we like to think.

Whether selfies are slowly destroying feminism or making women more appearance-obsessed is totally a thing people are allowed to worry about. But it turns out selfies aren't taken for one reason alone (vanity), nor do they all serve one universal purpose (reassurance that you are "pretty").

And even if they are sometimes? That's OK too.

All of us here at xoJane would really love to see your selfies, so if you're down, please consider posting them in comments below and let us see your awesome faces. No vanity required.