In the beginning was the selfie. Then came the belfie (bottom selfie), the relfie (relationship selfie), the helfie (hair selfie), the welfie (workout selfie) and the felfie (farmer selfie) – no, really. The explosion of the selfie has triggered a deluge of products, from the selfie stick to the belfie stick; launched a thousand lazy headlines; and even cost some people the ultimate price; as dozens of people have been injured and killed in while taking selfies.
People of all genders are seen to be keen selfie-takers (special mention must go to the creators of “nutscaping”; the artful combination of a single testicle hovering over a beautiful landscape), but the phenomenon is particularly associated with young women. Research has found that 68% of millennial women had posted a selfie, compared to 42% of millennial men, and only 24% of members of Generation X. And a survey last year claimed that the average 16-25-year-old woman spends more than five hours a week taking selfies.
Many young women are harnessing the power of the selfie for particular causes or campaigns. Artist Molly Soda leaked her own nude snaps in a statement about regaining power and control from nude picture hackers, while others continue to share selfie snaps in a plethora of inspiring and uplifting body-positive blogs and hashtags.
But is posting selfies an empowering and uplifting activity, or does it reinforce the notion that a woman’s value lies solely in her looks?
The statistics don’t have a clear answer. A body image survey by AOL found that 65% of teenage girls said seeing their selfies on social media boosted their confidence. However, 55% said social media made them more self-conscious about their appearance and 58% agreed that “seeing pictures of other people living glamorous-looking lives on social media makes me feel bad about myself”.
“Selfie campaigns” arouse similarly mixed responses: the “no makeup selfie” – started to raise money for breast cancer charities – was both praised as brave and uplifting and criticised for suggesting it was scary or daring for women to be pictured without makeup.
The issue is complex, not least because the online reception of the images can have as much of an impact as the intent of the creator. When teenager Maisie Beech posted a “half makeup selfie” online she thought she was doing something fun and empowering. But after the pictures went viral, strangers commented to say she was sick or ugly and some even threatened physical violence, leaving her shocked at people’s cruelty.
Many teenage girls find themselves subject to sexist pressures when it comes to selfies – both expected to present a beautiful, confident image, and navigating extreme criticism or even abuse if they are perceived as too sexy, “slutty” or posed.
There is a tendency to derisively dismiss selfies as narcissistic, but it’s no coincidence that so many of the young women who have hit the headlines for using them are doing so in response to sexist societal norms or abuse – from damaging, unattainable beauty ideals, to the hacking of women’s private photographs. While female celebrities are accused of being self-obsessed and oversharing, one could equally see their selfie habits as a clever means of taking back control of their own image from the male-dominated media and paparazzi. It’s also worth noting the palpable sneering and contempt for selfies (which most people would hesitate to regard as an art form) may well be influenced by the fact that society views them as a predominantly young, female creation.
But it is encouraging to see the considerable number who are pulling the rug out from under the traditional criticisms of selfies by harnessing the medium to send their own powerful, often feminist messages.