Roundtable: On Selfie Culture

Wednesday February 5 2014
by Serena

Roundtables are where we basically just sit and chat. Today I talk to Sophia about the ups and downs of selfie culture.

Serena: My first impressions of selfie culture was that it was arrogant and self-centered, when in fact that's not what it's about. It's a revolution in how we depict ourselves in the public sphere. Rather than being fed a narrative by marketing and media, we are taking control and defining ourselves.

When beginning to post selfies, I think everyone follows a similar arc: first you only post conventionally pretty pictures, and work hard to make sure that they are pretty. And as you become more used to your face, you post selfies that might be seen as "ugly", like when you first wake up or when you're kind of sweaty after a run. In that way it does a great job of increasing self-acceptance.

Sophia: Of the problematic aspects of selfie culture I think the fact that you’re reducing yourself to essentially your looks is problematic, but I think selfie culture has less of an issue with that – because even if you are reducing yourself to your physical appearance, you’re not saying “I am typically pretty, I am a skinny white girl, I can do this this and this.”, you are being true to yourself and only you know how to rock that.

Serena: In some cases I feel like selfies actually humanize online interactions a lot more, because the majority of online interactions is text-based, it can be very easy to dehumanize that one comment and the person behind it. People posting selfies makes you go “oh wait, this blogger is actually a person!”.

Sophia: And I think that’s really important, particularly as more of our interactions move online. The ability to put a face to a person who you might not have even met, who is an Internet-friend who your parents think is a paedophile from Russia, but seeing their face makes them more of a friend than just an online friend.

One of the things I like about selfie culture is that girls will often do that after they try new makeup. I think that’s really important because a lot of people will say like, props for that. And I think that’s really important because putting things on your face to look good is really difficult. We’ve tried liquid eyeliner.

Serena: “Tried” is the functional word. Oh, my god. I’m still trying!

Sophia: And so, when people succeed, I think people deserve to be credited for that and I want to say hey, you’ve done well at putting things on your face. Congratuwelldone. I’m going to Like that because I think you’ve done quite well. And in that way you can be supportive of – I don’t want to say supportive of makeup, I’m supportive of people’s choice to wear makeup so rather than “I want to look more pretty”, more “I want to put this on my face”.

Serena: If people want to look more pretty they should go for it.

Sophia: I just don’t think they should be pressured into it.

Serena: But how could we not be pressured into it? Surrounded by The Real World and all.

Sophia: America was terrifying like that… everyone is gorgeous in LA, it’s so scary.

Serena: That’s because they’re all movie stars there.

Serena: What I find really helpful though, because on tumblr I’m following someone who’s very open about her depression and what she goes through, and she does it through selfies. So if she’s having a down day she’ll post a selfie of herself expressing that emotion, or even if she’s feeling terrible she’ll post a selfie of herself looking glorious. It’s totally personal and completely hers but it’s helpful in a really strange way.

Sophia: Yeah, I understand that. I think one of the most positive effects of selfies is when you feel shit about yourself you have this collection of photos where you look damn glorious, and these are pictures you've taken yourself. This is something that is both wonderful and something that could only ever have been done recently. Because now we have iPhones and webcams and other stuff where we can make it take pictures of us by pressing the button and it’s very exciting.

Serena: Welcome to the future. We’re in it.

Sophia: Where’s my flying car?

Serena: Where’s my jetpack? Oh, shoes that tie themselves, from Back to the Future? They’re real.

Sophia: Yeah, I saw those. They’re terrifying.

Serena: They’re weird, I don’t like them.

Sophia: Google glass is also terrifying.

Serena: Yeah, it’s… hmmm. It just seems so intrusive. I don’t know how I feel about it.

Sophia: I still don’t know how I feel about smartphones.

What do you think about the idea that people who are probably… too young to be making this decision, putting pictures of themselves on the internet for all and sundry to see that will never get deleted?

Serena: Oh, that’s really scary. Especially if you’re young and impressionable and it’s your first time on the internet, and suddenly you’re surrounded by gross people who tell you to post provocative images or something.

Sophia: Well I’ve read a whole bunch of articles that are like Concerned Mother Says Young Ladies Shouldn’t Post Provocative Selfies. That’s like… while I respect the decisions of young ladies who want to post selfies, I also recognize the fact that society heavily contributes to how people behave. You have your within-person things like, we’re both badasses, but society has also conditioned us to be very conscious of our appearance and all of those associated things.

Serena: It’s just even harder now, like, if I was a teenager and I was in a space online that was somewhere that was less safe and I just found myself there, then it would be very easy… because as a teenager, you’re looking for approval. I mean, I don’t want to tell people that I am but secretly, we all are. If you were in a space that says you have to do these things to have approval then that can be really dangerous and terrible.

Sophia: The thing that springs to mind is when I was 14, I – no-one knows this! – I would go onto chat forums and pretend I was like 17 and flirt with older guys.

Serena: It’s not that uncommon!

Sophia: But they were like, text forums. And I can’t imagine what it would have been if I was 14 this year. It would have been very different because I would totally still want to do that. When I was 14 I very much enjoyed pretending to be someone I wasn’t and would say things like no really, I’m very sexy.

Serena: You ever read fanfiction as a teenager? “You can only click this button if you’re over 18”. Oh yeah, I’m definitely over 18.

Sophia: Well also, I didn’t think I was a very attractive teenager so I would say things like “ah yes I have a nice chest and green eyes and very long legs and my waist is not that big.” You know? Totally buying into all those things. And I think if I was 14 now, that would be much much less safe, rather than going “oh yeah, I live in Sydney”.

Serena: Whereas these days it’s like heyyy, send me a pic. Oh god, no. Run away.

Sophia: There was one guy I flirted with who lived in Brisbane and I told him I lived in Sydney and he said “oh yeah we should meet up and have sex sometime” and I was like holy shit what. What. I am 14. What is happening. So pictures would have made that a lot more dangerous.

Serena: Pictures would have turned that from an awkwardly fun experience into… oh no.

Sophia: I think young people should be very aware of the power they hold when they take pictures of themselves.

Serena: I think they are aware of that!

Sophia: But like, both the positive and the negative aspects of that. To a large extent they are, but there’s also the huge amounts of societal pressure to be sexualised when you’re like, 12. The effect that has on selfie culture isn’t that great. But also, duck faces exist so, what are you gonna do?

[silence while we both try to make duck faces]

Serena: I think with 13, 14 year olds, their selfie culture is very different from ours in that when they take selfies they send them personally to their friends through snapchat or whatever, they don’t actually post them on a public forum or even on facebook, where a large amount of people can see them.

Sophia: I think that shows a nuanced understanding of how the internet works, much more than most grownups have. It gets me quite grumpy when grownups talk about how teenagers "don’t understand the power technology has".

Serena: No! They understand it better than you do… and they understand it better than we do.

Sophia: It’s because they grew up with it. I could give my cellphone to any 12 year old and say I don’t know how to do this thing, can you do this thing? And they will know how to do the thing.

Serena: A big part of me feels and also hopes that they’ll be all right. They know what they’re doing, in terms of selfies. It’s interesting because we post selfies more rather than sending them to specific friends.

Sophia: I think that’s just a difference in how we interact with the internet. While a lot of the younger teenagers might send selfies, a lot of older teenagers and particularly the cosplayers that I know – because, you know, you get all dressed up for a cosplay test and you want everyone to see what you did.

Serena: God, I know. Cosplaying. All of the snaps.

Sophia: It’s a legitimate response after having done a thing, is wanting all of your friends to see it and wanting them to approve of you.

Serena: I mean, throughout the whole getting into selfie culture thing I have been immensely surprised by how much it’s helped with my self-image.

Sophia: I think it can be an incredibly positive tool. I think if you walk into it with the wrong mindset it might be an incredibly negative tool. Like, if you are unhappy with your self-image and that remains or is enhanced by taking selfies, and get into the take 18 delete 25 mindset, that really isn’t beneficial and encourages the idea that your body isn’t right and you don’t agree with it. If you already have a terrible self-image, selfies aren’t necessarily going to help with that. It might. It also might make it worse.

I think in that aspect, the way the entire culture is functioning helps that. Because the narrative of this culture is that you can look pretty regardless, right? And while I disagree with the emphasis on pretty, it’s better than what we have.

Serena: It’s like when someone says “everyone’s beautiful” – why does everyone have to be beautiful? Why can’t we just be good human beings who do cool things?

Sophia: I say it less now, but I used to say it a lot, “I’m not that attractive but I have a banging personality” and that’s way more important. If you’re pretty but a bitch, nobody’s going to like you.

Serena: The thing is, why do we use the word attractive to mean just …good …looks? Because attractive is an attraction, right? That’s the definition. Or I assume so, I haven’t got a dictionary. But… people are attractive. Like, people. The whole package. Not just how they look or even how they talk, but how they behave, what they do...

The whole package makes a person attractive. ▼

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