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Our Bodies, Our Selfies: On Body Image Online


Sep 3 2014
The approval-seeking scrutiny of social media’s selfie-mania.

The ubiquity of social media exerts a certain pressure to post photos of oneself — often, selfies — and submit them to the scrutiny of others. One study estimates that a third of all photographs taken by people ages 18-24 are selfies — photographs taken by the subject of the photograph, usually at arms length.

Selfies, it seems, have become one of the important “body projects” of the digital age. In her book, The Body Project, historian Joan Jacobs Brumberg chronicles the increasingly exacting standards of appearance that girls and young women in North America have felt pressure to conform to. As others — such as Naomi Wolf in The Beauty Myth — have noted, gains in women’s rights have often been undermined somewhat by ever-more unrealistic and unattainable standards of beauty.

Photographer and documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has given considerable attention to the significance of girls and women’s appearance in our culture. There is, she has written, an “element of performance and exhibitionism that seems to define the contemporary experience of being a girl.” Or, for that matter, a person — actor James Franco defended his abundant posting of selfies in a New York Times op-ed piece, noting that poems and thoughtful quotations didn’t garner nearly as much attention as selfies — particularly shirtless ones.

It goes without saying that selfies posted to social media are the most attractive ones that the person can create, with the help of camera angles, cropping, filters, and other editing tools. Selfies are images of the self for the consumption and approval of others; some selfie-dedicated websites serve no other purpose than to promote the posting and approval — or disapproval — of images of the self.

I spent at least a ten-year period in my teens and early 20s obsessed with my appearance, constantly asking: Am I ugly? Does this make me look fat? Are you sure my hair is all right in the back? If I were going through that difficult decade now instead of then, I suppose I would have been taking selfies and posting them online, waiting for the “likes” and the “favorites” and the comments — hopefully all complimentary — to come pinging in.

Back then, I mostly used my first digital camera to chronicle our growing baby with pictures to be emailed to grandparents. But secretly, I’d also place the camera on a table or bookshelf, set the timer function, and pose so that the camera could help me decide for myself whether I seemed to be getting a little heavier in the thighs. Then I’d delete the pictures. At the time – and even now — I felt a measure of shame over what I was doing. It was a desperate attempt to find answers to the questions that my husband, mom, and best friends were so tired of hearing: “Do I look okay?”

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Our Bodies, Our Selfies: On Body Image Online