by Deirdre Kelly
photography by Chris Robinson
In the time of the coronavirus, life, it seems, has become one big selfie. The rise in popularity of Zoom and other face-fronting technologies meant to keep us connected while we stay apart – we’re all in this together, remember? – means you can no longer escape yourself, even if you try.
Everywhere you look, there you are, feigning nonchalance and overall got-it-togetherness while trying not to stare at yourself staring into the eye of an all-seeing video camera. Your self-consciousness spikes with the awareness that others are watching too, perhaps even homing in on all your perceived flaws. The last time we looked, there were no filters on Zoom. Only bare naked reality. The selfie on steroids – and now, so out of our control.
This might explain why selfies, even in a pandemic, continue to enthrall us. In these days of social distancing, some of those selfies might be showing masks, as opposed to the whole face. But that’s a personal choice, a form of self-presentation as selective autobiography.
Whatever the particulars, though, the habit of putting your best face forward is proving hard to shake. The Museum of Selfies in (where else?) Los Angeles makes the claim that “an image of oneself taken by oneself” dates back some 40,000 years.
When we post a selfie online, we’re following in the footsteps of the portraitists and memoirists across time who, in their own way, created images of the self for public scrutiny and consumption. Rembrandt did it, along with Dürer, Dickens, Brontë, Burroughs and other maverick creatives too numerous to mention. So selfies aren’t new. What distinguishes them in the digital age is just how many there now are.
Humans are hard-wired to enjoy looking at faces, capturing memories and seeking social approval
Since the release of the first front-facing camera in 1999, self-images have gone haywire, captured by anyone who has a mobile device and regards every moment of every mundane day as a potential self-focused photo-op. It’s easy to dismiss the growing phenomenon as just vanity, especially given the proliferation of apps enabling people to filter, retouch and radically alter their self-portraits in real time. But we all seem to be drawn like moths to the lens, and not just because we like ourselves too much.
According to Jennifer Mills, a York University psychology professor who studies selfies and their psychological effects, selfies satisfy a fundamental need. Her research shows that humans are hard-wired to enjoy looking at faces, capturing memories and seeking social approval. Posting self-portraits helps us to connect with others and, ideally, foster a sense of community. That’s how Instagram was conceived: as an image-sharing space where others can view and like (or not) how you present yourself online.
But as with most things in life, there is a darker side. People die taking selfies, falling off cliffs while capturing themselves silhouetted by, like, the most awesome sunset ever, for instance. Then there’s the lawyer who almost bled to death last summer after he was gored in the neck while trying to take a selfie during the running of the bulls in Pamplona. These are obvious self-portrait flaws.
And what about the cracks you don’t readily see – the ones that lead people into dark holes of narcissism and sociopathic behaviour? Taken to an extreme, selfitis – the obsessive taking of selfies – is a mental illness, a real problem. This is when the notion of selfies as self-expression takes a dangerous turn, increasing anxiety and decreasing self-confidence, as Mills found following a study she conducted at York University.
That lower confidence drives people to want to keep fixing and checking and fixing
Her experiments with selfie-taking students – featured on ABC Television Network’s 20/20 news program with Diane Sawyer – found that many of her young 17-to-22-year-old female subjects spend an inordinate amount of time taking and retaking photographs of themselves in pursuit of a perfect image to present to the world. Even then, they aren’t satisfied, having continually compared themselves to others whose online selfies look better, at least in their minds.
This competitive digital conduct leads many selfie obsessives to spend hours retouching their images to remove any perceived flaws, only heightening their apprehensions as to how they might be judged by outsiders. “That lower confidence drives people to want to keep fixing and checking and fixing,” Mills says.
Exploring how to mitigate the sense of unease that selfie-posting can trigger in certain individuals, Mills is building on her preliminary research to develop possible interventions, including preventative strategies and coping techniques for both before and after posting a self-portrait online. Her ongoing investigation includes looking at the need for social media literacy programs – modelled on the financial literacy programs offered in schools – to give people the skills to recognize “the tricks, distortions and deviations from reality” at which social media excels.
Ideally, giving selfie culture a critical context will encourage the development of self-awareness and self-compassion in those for whom selfies erode self-esteem. Preliminary results, Mills reports, are positive – which is a good thing given that people (especially in a pandemic) aren’t about to loosen their hold on their mobile phones anytime soon. Like it or not, the selfie is here to stay. ■