The selfie phenomenon
What do Miley Cyrus, President Obama, and your little sister have in common? They all take selfies.
The popularity of taking selfies has given our generation the reputation of being a tad self-absorbed. Do they have a point? Taking endless pictures that show off your face or body (often aided by filters, lighting, and in some cases, makeup) can seem a bit narcissistic to the outside observer. In fact, one study found that men who had narcissistic characteristics tended to post more selfies on social media than those who didn’t. A number of studies have also linked heavy social media use to narcissism. But not everyone feels that way. Selfies can also be used as a valuable form of self-expression.
“Selfies are the newest form of public performance,” says Daisy Pignetti, PhD, member of the Selfie Researchers Network and associate professor in the Department of English & Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie. “I think it’s clear that teens want to show their true selves in photos. The selfie can be a way for them to reclaim that.”
Narcissism or self-expression?
More than 88 percent of you said that taking a lot of selfies does not make someone narcissistic or full of themselves, according to a recent Student Health 101 survey.
“I take a selfie at least once a day,” says Tameen of Waltham, Massachusetts. The majority of Student Health 101 high school readers do too. More than 40 percent of you said you take between 1–3 selfies a day, and nearly 30 percent take between 4–7 per day, according to the survey.
“Selfies show self-love and confidence,” says Erin, a sophomore from Brooklyn, New York. “In our society, seeing yourself as attractive is viewed as narcissistic because girls are conditioned from a young age to hate their bodies and their faces. Self-love is a radical concept in our society, and that’s not right. Selfies help to boost our confidence, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
Both sides of the selfie debate
Like with most things in life, there are positive and negative sides to taking selfies. Selfies can raise awareness about important issues, serve as a form of self-expression, and be used as a way to help those in need.
“I use some of my selfies to promote pride in my African American heritage,” says a high school junior who chose to remain anonymous.
“One of the current trends is taking selfies for transparency, especially for political reasons,” says Dr. Pignetti. For example, last year in Tunisia, people of all ages took pictures of themselves in front of piles of trash using #SelfiePoubella (trash selfie) to shed light on the trash problem in their country. As a result, the Tunisian government collected around 300,000 tons of trash off the streets, according to Aljazeera.
But some students see another side to the selfie phenomenon. “I feel [selfies] go both ways. They can make you feel really good about yourself or make you get down on yourself if you don’t like what you see,” says Julia, a junior from Brooklyn, New York.
Judging our own selfies isn’t the only thing that can make us feel bad. Scrolling through other people’s selfies can sometimes cause us to feel inadequate, especially when we forget that the person posting them probably spent a lot of time trying out different poses and choosing the most flattering filter. That “perfect” selfie probably had a lot of not-so-perfect attempts leading up to it.
How to improve our selfies
We all tend to want to show ourselves in the best light, and there isn’t anything wrong with that. But displaying a more realistic portrayal of who we are can help us show the world our true identity and can help others identify with us.
“I feel the internet in general has offered people, young and old, more unique ways to get their voices heard,” says Dr. Pignetti. “Yes, people can post [negative] things or bully others, but the positive impacts of the internet, I feel, far outweigh the negative.”
So how can we make our selfies more selfless? Next time you feel like posting a selfie, try out one of these selfie styles:
Lately there have been movements to create a selfie culture around positive behaviors like self-improvement and community engagement. For example, on the site healthyselfies.org, users share pics and videos of themselves doing activities such as running 5k marathons, eating fruits and veggies, and volunteering in community gardens.
“We started Healthy Selfies to have people share their photos and stories, not just with us but with others out there who can relate, be inspired, and stay motivated through healthy eating, healthy living, and physical activity,” says Alexis Batausa, health and wellness promoter for the Mingo County Diabetes Coalition, the organization that started healthyselfies.org, in Williamson, West Virginia.
How to take an inspirational selfie:
- Choose a healthy activity or a cause you care about that you think could be inspiring to others. For example, Nia, a junior from Forest Park, Illinois, says she once took a selfie for an anti-bullying campaign.
- Snap a selfie—make sure the pic clearly captures the activity you’re doing.
- Post to your social media accounts with #healthyselfie and any other relevant hashtags.
- Tag your friends and encourage them to join you on your #healthyselfie journey.
The Real You Selfie
Check out the hashtags #naturalselfie, #nomakeupmonday, #takeanhonestselfie, and #wokeuplikethis on Twitter and Instagram.
What you’ll (mostly) see are pictures of people who aren’t afraid to post a less-than-perfect selfie. It’s kind of refreshing, right?
Celebrities like Demi Lovato and Lena Dunham have been leading the way with this refreshingly real selfie trend. Lovato popularized #nomakeupmonday selfies, and Dunham started posting #wokeuplikethis pics with her hair in a mess and makeup smudged under her eyes.
We’re already bombarded with images of celebrities and models that have been airbrushed to perfection, and research shows that this has a negative impact on our self-esteem. Seeing and sharing pics that represent our genuine selves can be empowering and can help us build stronger connections.
“Selfies are great because we can connect to each other in a way. Even when we are far apart from each other, we know how the other person is doing,” says Cristian, a senior from Forest Park, Illinois.
Try posting your own #naturalselfie or #wokeuplikethis selfie. Your friends and followers will likely appreciate your authenticity and might be empowered to share their own genuine selfies. Who knows? The #naturalselfie trend might even lead you to higher selfie-satisfaction.
The Sweaty Selfie
If you look up #sweatyselfie on Instagram or Twitter, you’ll see a lot of people showing what they look like post-workout. You might also see some images of chiseled abs and unattainable bodies. But that doesn’t have to be what sweaty selfies are all about.
Selfies can be used to track progress toward a healthy weight goal, but we want to be careful not to let that get out of control. We see plenty of unrealistic body images on a daily basis, and we know that doesn’t do great things for our self-esteem, so instead of perpetuating the problem, we can be part of the solution.
Next time you finish a game of basketball or an awesome hike, post a sweaty selfie to show your friends and followers how good it made you feel. Try not to worry about how you look—your sweat-drenched t-shirt and matted hair will be the evidence of how hard you worked.
Alexis Batausa, health and wellness promoter for the Mingo County Diabetes Coalition, in Williamson, West Virginia.
Daisy Pignetti, PhD, internet researcher, associate professor, and program director of the Professional Communication and Emerging Media online bachelor’s program at the University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie.
Aljazeera. (2014, May 22). “Trash selfie” campaign calls for a cleaner Tunisia. Retrieved from https://stream.aljazeera.com/story/201405222014-0023756
Fox, J., & Rooney, M. C. (2015). The Dark Triad and trait self-objectification as predictors of men’s use and self-presentation behaviors on social networking sites. Personality and Individual Differences, 76, 161–165.
HealthySelfies. (n.d.). [website]. Retrieved from healthyselfies.org
Shape Up Houston. (n.d.). My healthy selfies. Retrieved from https://www.shapeuphouston.org/Portals/shapeuphouston/Healthy%20Selfie.pdf