Why we take selfies
We asked a few self-portrait enthusiasts to explain themselves — and their answers are fascinating
This past April, actress Amanda Bynes tweeted a blurry photograph starring — who else? — herself. The image itself is unremarkable, its main features being her primped cleavage and a face obscured by her iPhone's bright flash. That didn't stop critics — both professional and otherwise — from highlighting the selfie as "bizarre," even though it would eventually be forgotten as just one of the starlet's many.
The attention lavished on an otherwise ordinary arrangement of pixels prompts the question: Why are we so obsessed with selfies and, in particular, the people who take them?
The familiar if dull refrain is that selfies reflect the narcissism of our age, spurred by the easy sharing capabilities of smartphones and the cameras they house. Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr provide potentially far-reaching platforms to broadcast close-ups of our faces, particularly the ones we deem fit for consumption by others.
Some critics of the genre think they're an icky vice, and that everyone would be better off if they ceased to exist. For example, a recent joint study of self-portraits in social media by three universities in the U.K. found that aggressively posting self-portraits on Facebook can alienate our friends and loved ones.
A recent poll, in fact, found that selfies compose a disturbing 30 percent of images snapped by everyone's favorite demographic — the much-beloved millennial.
But there's more to the self portrait than sheer narcissism. Indeed, perhaps the selfie and its wordless ability to inform an audience isn't quite as self-centered as we make it out to be. Writing about Instagram in a recent New York Times essay, Jenna Wortham had this to say (not specifically about selfies, but the same principles apply):
Instagram isn't about reality — it's about a well-crafted fantasy, a highlights reel of your life that shows off versions of yourself that you want to remember and put on display in a glass case for other people to admire and browse through. It's why most of the photographs uploaded to Instagram are beautiful and entertaining slices of life and not the tedious time in-between of those moments, when bills get paid, cranky children are put to bed, little spats with friends. [New York Times]
Seen through that lens, the selfie could be an empowering tool that grants us a modicum of control (or at least the illusion of it) over our own ephemeral identities. Which is why I decided to ask a few selfie takers about why they do so, even if some people find the idea of the selfie nauseating.
Here's what a few of them had to say (very lightly edited):
NED HEPBURN29, Writer
1. Why do you take selfies?They're really quite gross if you sit there and think about it; posing in front of your own camera, so to speak. There's probably (definitely) some low-level narcissism complex at work whenever anyone takes a selfie. It's more socially acceptable for a woman to take them, from what I've gathered. Dudes weren't born to pose. I dunno.
On the plus side: There's something kind of cool about being able to document yourself, so I think they're perfectly acceptable. But once a day? F--k no. Once a week? That's pushing it. Once a month or so, sure. And sometimes you get a new hat or something.
(Side note: Preston Olson does an excellent job of making his selfies f---ing hilarious)
2. Is there someone in particular that comes to mind whenever you post one? I guess? I have a (clinically) large head and managed to find a Dodgers hat that fit. Took a picture of that. If I was making some sort of kissy face at the camera while doing so it might imply I was actively posing for the picture.
There are rules, I guess. You don't want to seem too gross about it. Everyone is guilty of it but there's a line between "here's me" and "HERE'S ME!"
3. Have your friends ever given you a hard time about your selfie habit?I think your best friends are the one's that call you out on your bulls--t, so yes, absolutely.
JAIME M.16, Student at Long Beach Polytechnic High School (and my little cousin)
1. Why do you take selfies?I take selfies because: a) It gives me an excuse to get all cute b) It makes me feel pretty c) I get a lot of complimentsd) Sometimes I have nothing to do and I get quite bored.
2. Is there someone in particular that comes to mind whenever you post one?YES! Sometimes I post them because I want to get a certain person's attention (significant other).
3. Have your friends ever given you a hard time about your selfie habit?Yes, my sister gives me a hard time. She always says, "Why are you being such an attention whore?!" I continue taking them because when I post them online, it's kind of like a confidence boost. A lot of my friends comment and tell me that I look great and it makes me feel a bit better when I'm feeling down.
HOWARD CHUA-EOAN54, former news director at TIME Magazine
1. Why do you take selfies?I'm very selective about my selfies because each is a potential Facebook profile image. I like to change that up so that my personal page isn't static. The downside is that the selection process may be annoying to my friends. They can always diminish what they see of my timeline in theirs. But I consider it a very carefully considered, crafted moment. I'm not Van Gogh (I'm not cutting off my ear and then painting a self-portrait!) but each image is supposed to reflect a mood and to communicate something about myself. It is self-involved but it is my own page and my own self I'm trying to express and interpret.
2. Is there someone in particular that comes to mind whenever you post one?I post some images hoping to elicit reaction — though it is strange that some of the ones I consider macabre get comments like "you look great!" That helps me recalibrate my responses to the rest of my friends and followers.
3. Have your friends ever given you a hard time about your selfie habit?Some do. I always apologize and tell them to ignore them or to take pity on my narcissism.
JESSICA ROMERO26, Paraprofessional
1. Why do you take selfies?I think I post selfies when I'm looking and feeling my best. I'm usually at my most confident like after I have a new hair do or when I have fab makeup or outfit. It's kind of like a "hey look how hot I look with my new hairstyle."
2. Is there someone in particular that comes to mind whenever you post one?I don't usually think of any of my friends or followers when I post selfies. I honestly feel like it's a self gratification sort of thing. I know I'm looking great and feeling great. I do however expect my good friends and family to like my pics! Lol!
3. Have your friends ever given you a hard time about your selfie habit?I don't have anyone who gives me a hard time about posting selfies. If I did then my argument would be that selfies are an expression of how you view yourself. So you would prefer to post pictures that someone took of you, showing the world their point of view of you? I think not.
1. Why do you take selfies?It's a conscious act for me. I love my work so part of it is me saying, "Look at what I get to do today."
2. Is there someone in particular that comes to mind whenever you post one?My editor, of course, and colleagues from other publications and around the community come to mind. It's nice to get a like from a photographer whom I respect. The real goal is to engage the community and I think, I hope, that showing my face sometimes will add a bit more humanity to the photographs that get printed or posted. Plus, working at a small town paper, I think of myself as kind of a public figure. I want the community to know who I am and the publication I represent when I cover an event.
3. Have your friends ever given you a hard time about your selfie habit?Posting selfies is something I've just started doing since I took the job at the paper. At this point, it's an experiment. So far the response has been positive.
AMY ROSE SPIEGEL22, associate music editor at BuzzFeed and staff writer at Rookie
1. Why do you take selfies?Selfies, which is not a word I use naturally in my real life, are a way of taking ownership of my body and deciding how I want to be seen. Relatedly, we're all documented online so relentlessly as it is that why wouldn't you want to control the narrative of your own image to reflect the one that you actually want for yourself? As a writer, I also like keeping a record of all things, and making something public, to me, has always felt like making it more real.
2. Is there someone in particular that comes to mind whenever you post one?Most of my Instagram followers are strangers, but I wouldn't say they "come to mind" when I post a photo — it's more personal, more like a diary entry. Like, "This is what I looked like today." But I do that publicly in part because positive feedback about my appearance feels so recent to me, like it's only just started happening in the past few years, and I can appreciate it when it's not male gaze-y or sexualizing me in a way that I'm not actively welcoming. The thing is that with selfies, even if these people are strangers, I'm inviting people to look at me in the way that I want to be looked at and I'm totally in control of that, where in real life, the last thing I want is for strangers on the street to catcall me or otherwise comment on my looks without my consent.
3. Have your friends ever given you a hard time about your selfie habit?Nope.