the power of the selfie ( + the female identity project)
“I take pleasure in my transformations. I look quiet and consistent, but few know how many women there are in me.” ― Anaïs Nin
I arrived in Positano for a writing workshop with Dani Shapiro. I was jetlagged, hungry and unprepared. I needed to sleep, eat, unpack and read through the manuscripts my group was about to critique.
So of course the first thing I did…
…was take a selfie.
To listen to some, you would think that the selfie is a Pandora’s box that we innocently (or not so innocently) opened to unleash evil, sickness and despair into the world. If you’re been known to take a selfie from time to time – or twenty selfies immediately deleted from your camera for every portrait of yourself you don’t hate – are you a narcissist?
“Am I narcissist?” I once asked my therapist.
“If you were a narcissist,” she replied promptly, “you would not be sitting here in my office asking me if I thought you were a narcissist.”
If selfie-taking made you a narcissist, more women then men would be narcissists, since more women take selfies (up to 4.6 x more women, according to this study of self-portrait taking). Yet narcissistic personality disorder is “more prevalent” in men (8 percent of men develop NPD, as opposed to 5 percent of women).
“Vanity, thy name is woman!” exclaimed Shakespeare, at least according to a popular cultural meme.
The interesting thing is that Shakespeare never said that – the actual line is “Frailty, thy name is woman,” assigned to Hamlet when he is castigating his mother for remarrying so soon after his father’s death. That the quote mutated the way it did – and has been widely accepted as correct — reflects an interesting cultural attitude about women.
When Elizabeth Gilbert hit the big time with her memoir EAT, PRAY, LOVE – a woman’s version of ON THE ROAD – the inevitable success-backlash accused her of being a narcissist.
I don’t recall Jack Kerouac having that experience.
Then again, women are held to a standard of selflessness and self-sacrifice that men are not. Perhaps a woman like Gilbert wasn’t being penalized for what she was doing (pursuing her own agenda) so much as what she wasn’t doing (putting the needs of others before her own, being a good wife and mother).
This idea of women as inherently vain never made a lot of sense to me.
For nearly two thousand years of Western history, women didn’t even have the power to vote. She was expected to seek lifelong security on the arm of an appropriate male who would help care for and protect her offspring.
It is no secret that men are relentlessly visual creatures who value attractiveness in a mate. If a woman’s future depended upon catching a dude, then a heavy investment in appearance seems less like vanity and more like a survival strategy. Even today, in 2014, the culture transmits the message to girls and women that there’s a direct correlation between looking good and being loved – or at least not being openly mocked.
For women, self-presentation is both a skillset and an art form..where the point is to seem naturally, effortlessly, even carelessly beautiful. (The paradox of female beauty is that you’re supposed to have it without looking like you’re trying to have it or even know that you have it.)
If women are read and judged according to how they look – and they are – then there’s a tight link between appearance and identity that maybe doesn’t exist for men, or at least not to the same degree. When a woman puts herself together, she is in part shaping and navigating the relationship between self and world.
In the recent Disney movie FROZEN, one of the main female characters – the older sister Elsa – escapes her royal, stultified, good-girl upbringing by fleeing into the woods and unleashing the powers that she has dutifully repressed. She undergoes a magical makeover. The mythic power of the makeover – whether in tales like Cinderella or a movie like Pretty Woman or a (highly disturbing) reality show like The Swan or even a J Lo video (in which she starts out weighed down by bling, and ends up cavorting, natural and free, in the water)– hinges on this idea that the woman’s newfound outer beauty is a revelation of inner beauty. It’s not just a different outfit. It’s her true self.
Thus, women all over the world go to the mall.
We are what we wear.
This is why we’ll often signal a dramatic change in our ongoing life story (such as divorce) with an equally dramatic haircut.Women understand that transformation often happens from the outside in: change your appearance, and you change the way the world perceives you, and treats you, which changes the way you perceive yourself, which changes the way you think and act.
Identity is never static.
It is a work-in-progress, constantly mirrored back to you in the eyes and words of others.
It is the play between your true self, whatever that is, and your multiple possible future selves: who will I be today? she wonders as she stands inside her closet.
Female selfie-taking peaks in the early to mid twenties. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a woman’s twenties are when she is still figuring out her adult self and experimenting with identity (“who will I be today?”). Likewise, selfie-taking drops off dramatically for women over 40 – an age when women tend to know who they are (and even revel in that grounded, comfortable-in-your-skin kind of knowledge). I don’t buy that every time a young woman (or an older woman) posts a selfie, she is seeking external validation and approval because she’s so insecure. She is telling a story about who she is – I’m the kind of woman who goes to Positano – and in this very act of declaiming her identity, she continues to create it.
Selfies speak to the social and self-constructed nature of the identity project itself.
If selfies are filtered and edited to present a slightly idealized version of the self, that isn’t about being fake. Playing up your best features while minimizing or disguising your worst — as you present yourself to the world in the way that you want to be seen – has a word, and that word is style.
I take selfies like I take my red wine: in moderation. I take selfies because I don’t consider myself photogenic and selfies – unlike well-meaning but slightly misguided friends who happen to be wielding cameras – allow me total control over my own representation of self. I’m not just posting a picture of me; I’m showing myself as the way that I truly see myself (or want to see myself). There’s a difference. The latter may be more manipulated, but is no less revealing.
The implications of this get interesting when you’re no longer talking about someone like me (absurdly privileged blondish blue-eyed white woman) but other kinds of women, women who can and do use selfies to subvert the stories the larger culture tells about them (if the culture tells stories at all). Writes this blogger:
“The autobiographical nature of the selfie gives us access to reconfiguring how we are actually seen, also known as subverting dominant assumptions or “truths.” We can directly challenge stereotypes and imposed invisibility with the click of a button. This alone may not cause empires to crumble, but it is an act of defiance and a potential space for decolonization. Above all, it is a self-made visibility that proudly proclaims ‘I am here. I am mine. Look at me.’”
And so, my dear reader, it’s been fun, but time to end. I’m about to take part in a group reading, and I still have to figure out what to wear.