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 estimatesthat 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?”
There is a double layer of scrutiny that comes with selfies. We play photographer, model, and editor, asking ourselves again and again if we look ok, before inviting feedback from our networks.
Of course, attractive faces play better on the Internet than polished words. No surprise there, but the selfie’s way of highlighting physical appearance (sometimes using editing techniques similar to those employed by the much-reviled advertising industry) should give us pause. Do we want to be known and admired primarily through the visual images we make of ourselves and put out for the world to see?
(We may not all be Jennifer Lawrence, but don’t be fooled — the images you capture on your smartphone have a footprint that’s potentially indelible.)
There is a certain grace to allowing others to photograph us, and select the photographs they like best. (“Let another’s camera capture you, and not your own,” an updated version of Proverbs 27:2 might read.) My mother tends to like photos of me that show an angle or expression that’s unfamiliar to me. Hearing our own voices on a recording can be similarly jarring; not quite what we expected. Yet when I look at photographs my friend Lisa has taken of my family, I feel I’m seeing all of us through different eyes, and I feel better for it — broadened, somehow.
That, I think, should give us pause in taking and sharing selfies: are we endeavoring to be seen, physically, in a certain way? Are we crowdsourcing approval and affirmation? Is the spiritual truth of our being images of God highlighted in our postings, or do we make ourselves out to be less multifaceted miracles than we are?
What, exactly, it might mean to “honor God with your body” in relation to photographs and selfies is not necessarily clear. I am not prepared to eschew images of human faces, as the Amish do. But I think it must mean that we offer some form of resistance to a culture that, as Lauren Greenfield writes, lifts up appearance as “the primary canvas on which girls express their identities, insecurities, ambitions, and struggles.”
That might mean taking fewer selfies, or indulging fewer selfies with abundant “likes” and approval. It might mean seeking first of all the comments of our Creator, who looked at the human beings he made and called them “very good,” a word of approval that is better than any our peers can offer.