Kim Kardashian poses for a selfie in this photo uploaded to Instagram in April.
The top 10 most-followed Instagram accounts are dominated by selfie queens like Beyonce and the Kardashian clan. The ultimate tool of narcissism, some might argue, but others have hijacked the trend with the #feministselfie hashtag that has gone viral online as women celebrate alternative conceptions of beauty and promote the kinds of images that don’t usually feature in the mainstream media landscape. Now, young digital artists have begun tackling the complex role of the selfie by exploring online feminism, or “digifeminism,” in their work—a far cry from the usual pouting pictures snapped by starlets.
The advent of the selfie—taking photographs of oneself, typically on a smartphone and at a flattering angle—has come with an explosion in the use of social media sites like Facebook and Instagram. The latter in particular, with its ethereal filters that gloss over bumps and blemishes, is a hugely popular medium among both celebrities and the wider population. But with these endless self-portraits is one clear negative: the so-called “e-validation” of the selfie, which could be expressed with a single insecure sentence: “Do you think I’m pretty?”
According to a 2014 survey by Dove, 63 percent of women believe social media is having the greatest impact on today’s definition of beauty—more than magazines, music or film. Despite social media’s power and pervasiveness in our lives, there has been little research into the impact selfies have on our self-image or self-esteem. Studies including iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession With Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us, however, suggest a correlation between social media and narcissism. Instagram’s third most popular hashtag, for example, is #me.
Swedish fashion blogger Sari Nilsson who regularly posts images of her outfits and selfies on Instagram, says many people snapping selfies are driven by the pursuit of perfection. “When it comes to Insta especially, I believe most people show an outward image; you don’t show the days or moments when you’re feeling low,” she says. I’d personally never show myself make-up free there, so it’s a bit like a facade and I believe many do the same.”
But why is narcissism a social faux pas for women in the first place? American art historian Amelia Jones explains it by demonstrating its inherent threat to status quo: “The female narcissist is dangerous to patriarchy because she obviates the desiring male subject.” Loving herself, a woman needs no confirmation of her desirability from him.
Selfies, some claim, can allow women to embody self love without the approval of the “male gaze” and to break through media gatekeepers. The #feministselfie hashtag shows women all over the world going about their lives, images that don’t usually feature in mainstream media. The #365FeministSelfie project takes the concept further by encouraging women to post a selfie every day. Writer Mikki Kendall, who calls the #feministselfie a “call to arms,” points out that when those who don’t have “model looks” post selfies and get attention, “it shifts a lot of narratives.” Selfies can mean visibility for underrepresented minorities and can lessen the power of modeling agencies and fashion designers, putting it in the hands of women. Advocates also argue that it is empowering for women to celebrate their “flaws,” by owning their imperfections, controlling their own images, experimenting with identities and contradicting old stereotypes.
Yet although it may be radical for a woman, narcissism is also quite shallow, and according to Charlotte Jansen, senior editor at ArtSlant, that’s precisely one of the problems with the selfie. “The ‘self’ is so much more complex than the ‘selfie’ can contain,” she says.
Jansen also points to the huge pressure to conform that social media stirs within us. “People care more about how they look in a picture on Facebook or Instagram because so many more people will see it online than in real life. But that puts so much focus on the static, unreal image of the self rather than incorporate so many other facets of our character: movement, expressivity that are contained in the body, let alone in the mind,” she explains.
Related to this, Jansen also underlines how women view and exploit each other in this environment: “Women are also responsible for objectifying other women, using their bodies and other women’s bodies as a marketing tool, or even just giving out a message of “beauty-counts-before-everything else” no matter what [that] ideal of ‘beauty’ might be.”
The self on a digital canvas
The exploration of internet feminism—also known as “digifeminism”—as an important art agenda is now seeing many young digital artists tackling the role of the selfie in their art. Leah Schrager, a digital and multimedia artist who curated the online exhibition Body Anxiety with Jennifer Chan, is one of them. Schrager, a former model, says that her visual work began as a craving for agency, an exploration of giving the model a voice.
In Body Anxiety, the artist is the model is the canvas. “Through Body Anxiety, I attempt to point out that the art world is more likely to value women who are ‘made art’ over women who ‘make art.’ Thus I’ve found that the ingrained prejudices against women carry through, from them being less valuable performers to also being less valuable artists,” says Schrager.
The use of the selfie in digital art is part of an emerging practice that Schrager calls the “female painter:” a female artist who marks images of her own body. The movement includes painting digitally, with moving images, and videos or other media. According to Schrager, “female painting” is in fact something that women have done for many millennia through physical decoration, textiles and makeup, and more recently performance art and artistic selfies.
Jansen could also be described as a “female painter,” who believes in the power of selfies. “It’s one way of projecting who you are, asserting your identity and individuality, and of expressing body positivity,” she says, “but I do believe the onus is also on the viewer [or] consumer of images of all kinds to educate ourselves on how to read and understand those images and to be able to discern when there is a positive message and when there isn’t. That is increasingly hard to do.”
Self-portraits have been an outlet for feminist expression, and subversion, for a long time. Renowned Mexican artist Frida Kahlo can be considered one of the most pioneering—and prolific—modern female “selfie artists,” as a majority of her work consisted of self portraits. Questioned on why she always painted herself, Kahlo, who died in 1954, replied: “I am my own muse, I am the subject I know best. The subject I want to know better.”
Selfies feature heavily in Montreal-based artist Rebecca Storm’s work too. “I like the idea of being my own subject,” she says. “Often it’s just parts of my body; I only recently started casting myself as the subject of my photos.”
Storm’s work juxtaposes the objectification and sexualization of everyday objects in today’s world. Like Jansen, Storm believes that selfies are most interesting when they’re rooted in a concept rather than mere aesthetics. “I feel selfies are most successful when they communicate an emotion or an idea, rather than just ‘look at me,’” she says.
The “look at me” factor, for Storm, is where selfies become problematic. “Whether someone is conventionally attractive or not, they shouldn’t feel the need to censor their selfies, and the implication that it’s necessary to do so can be categorized as body shaming, which is fundamentally awful regardless of how anybody looks. But at the same time, I understand that a homogeneous stream of pretty faces isn’t saying much beyond ‘pretty.’”
Storm talks about the selfies place in art, especially for female artists, and in its power to subvert existing conventions of beauty. “It seems like more and more female artists are achieving a level of celebrity, and there’s a subsequent interest in the artist herself as opposed to just an interest in her work,” she says.
“There seems to be a problem with how we’re viewing selfies too. I feel like an artist’s work is sometimes discredited or taken less seriously if it includes her body, and that needs to change.”
Peggy Phelan, a Stanford University art and English professor and the author of an essay about feminist selfies, says their place in the art world is fascinating because they combine elements of solo and digital performance. “At Stanford, and elsewhere, I have argued that selfies are an important aspect of the history of performance art,” she says.
Phelan argues that such images, essentially, see the subject offering themselves to an audience because they are made to be shared. “Indeed, I think a selfie is distinct from a digital self-portrait only in this way and as such they remind us of how thoroughly performance has come to define our age.”
Phelan says that, like all technologies, selfies are not either good or bad, disempowering or empowering in themselves. But they can be put to empowering or disempowering purposes,” she says.
“For women and other people who have been narrowly represented under the regime of the white male gaze, selfies offer opportunities to circulate much wider and more complex self-representations. Overall, that is a good and useful thing because it expands our sense of what it is to be human, how it is we might look, and why it is we want to see ourselves and others,” she explains.
So, what then does the future hold for the selfie, and how should it reinvent itself? “I would like to see the selfie approached with more humor and irony… most of the selfies you see are people taking themselves far too seriously,” says Jansen.
Or perhaps selfie mania will saturate itself and fade away with time, like so many other lifestyle tech trends. Jansen envisions a future in which the selfie moves into oblivion: “I hope that we can steer away from this environment of techno-narcissism eventually and focus on things outside the self and body that can connect us in more radical and subliminal ways.”