As I sat in a dimly lit, vaguely hipster Chicago coffeehouse, a flash went off in the corner of my eye. To my left, I saw a smiling couple posing as the man held up what I would later learn was a selfie stick. I shrugged and returned to my Americano. By now, such an event should come as no surprise. In the age of Instagram and Snapchat, the selfie has become a ubiquitous part of our popular culture, driven by our well-documented addiction to technology and need to be everywhere at once. But, at a time when harsh judgment runs wild, the selfie should be seen as a way of proclaiming self-love.
Selfies have taken popular culture by storm, partially driven by the omnipresent Kim Kardashian, undisputed queen of selfies. Her upcoming coffee table book, Selfish, is a compilation of never-before-seen gems. Selfish’s glorification of amateur self-photography is indicative of our culture’s growing obsession with the wonders of the smartphone.
However, I wonder if the world’s selfie obsession is driven by another cultural phenomenon: a crisis of confidence. In the face of magazine covers that bemoan “millennial narcissism,” it might strike some as strange to proclaim that we are in the midst of a crisis of self-esteem. Time’s 2013 cover story “The Me, Me, Me Generation” pointed the finger at millennials as self-obsessed and self- absorbed, entitled brats. These claims are often centered on studies suggesting that college students have grown more narcissistic since 1970s.
But these claims are overblown. Other generations have borne accusations of self-centeredness. A 1976 New York Magazine cover story labeled the 70s the “Me Decade.” Furthermore, studies are often based on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory, which can foster misleading conclusions. For example, agreement with the statement “I like to look at my body”—a statement featured in the NPI —could be seen as a mark of self-esteem, not a measurement of narcissism. But perhaps the rash of “millennial narcissism” upon us is not the product of conceit, but of insecurity—the other face of ego’s coin.
Millennials are a product of the digital age. From VCRs to DVDs, desktops to laptops, flip-phones to smartphones, we have witnessed the evolution of technology and leveraged its power to express ourselves. However, as we expand our social networks in a way that can feel, especially at Yale, as if everyone lives in two degrees of separation rather than the paradigmatic six, the cacophonous race to have a voice can lead to a feeling of voicelessness. We use social media to proclaim strongly held opinions because we are afraid to fall into the shadows of not feeling important. By engaging in such public actions that invite the world’s gaze, we might be proclaiming and affirming our place within it.
Without a doubt, much of the world’s social media could be described as mindless drivel. But we should not be so quick to write off the selfie. It is unique in its capacity to capture a feeling of self-love. Whether loud or subtle, the selfie is an act that declares “I matter,” and enters a human face into the hollow midst of 24-hour news cycle, Facebook news feeds, and Twitter timelines. For people of color in particular, such self-confidence can function as a political tool to give them voice in a society that divides, denies and denigrates them. Kendrick Lamar’s song “i” belies the radical nature of proclaiming “I love myself” for marginalized communities. For women and girls conditioned to sidestep accepting compliments, taking a selfie can be seen as an attempt to right the all-too-often crooked room of self-perception. The hashtag #FeministSelfie, which gained popularity late last year, supports this view. Beauty is in the eye of beholder. The selfie—in which the beholder and photographer converge in one person—can very well be a source of empowerment.
Of course, self-exposure and the desire for virtual visibility come with risk. A digital world subjects our flaws and foibles to increased scrutiny. Use of Photoshop is a given for every magazine cover. People refrain from speaking frankly for fear the meaning behind their words will be distorted or manipulated (look no further than the rise of “off-the-record” comments). In such an environment, undertaking a public display that showcases one’s image requires a certain sense of vulnerability.
Any quick glance at Reddit forums or online gossip blogs reminds us of the public’s tendency to tear someone down. By sharing an image of yourself in digital spaces where you can be so easily critiqued, the selfie can be a step towards loving yourself without regard for affirmation from others. For some, garnering likes will be a primary motivation. But for many, likes may just be icing on the cake. For these latter ladies, a selfie is a way to tell yourself and the world—in the words of Beyoncé—“I woke up like this—flawless.”