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Social Studies

A Good Angle Is Hard to Find

The spread of the selfie produces daily turmoil, from columnist doom-mongering to celebrity scandals. Meanwhile, the world just took a billion more. Defense of a misunderstood phenomenon.

Danielle Julian Norton, Everything Is Fine, 2012. Image credit Shannon Benine. Courtesy the artist.

About 10 years ago, I was driving along the Pacific Coast Highway, one of the most glorious stretches of asphalt in the country, when I decided to take a picture of myself. I had a Polaroid camera then, which I carried in the front seat of my Honda Accord along with a high-zoom Nikon bought at a specialty store for more money than I’d ever dropped in one place. I must have looked bizarre, pulling my sedan to the shoulder of the road and perching in the wildflowers with that big, boxy plastic eye held in front of me, as picture after picture spit out like an angry tongue. Polaroids are expensive to screw up, by the way. About a buck a misfire.

But I am a short girl, and a vain one, and I could never get my arms far enough away to find a flattering angle. Pictures I took of myself were often blasted with flash, or marred by the funny mistakes of a photo aimed blind: Here is your left eyeball. Behold, your forehead. Still, it was worth all the effort to have some souvenir of the moment—an instant image!—which I could tuck into an envelope and slide into the trusty rabbit tunnel that was the U.S. Postal Service, where it would wind 1500 miles back to my parents’ place in Dallas and find a new home underneath a magnet on the kitchen fridge.

The word “selfies” didn’t exist then. It would take at least another three years—and the advent of digital cameras—for the word to become necessary. In 2005, Jim Krause used the term in his manual “Photo Idea Index” to describe the kind of on-the-fly snapshots he and his friends were taking, unburdened by the cost and labor of traditional film processing. The “selfies” tag grew on Flickr, and later flourished on social media sites, where #selfies and #me became an ever-trending topic. In 2010, the iPhone introduced its flip-camera feature, allowing users to see and frame a shot of themselves. In the selfie origin story, this was the eureka moment.

These days, the sight of someone pulling over to the side of the road—or standing at a bar, or flashing a peace sign in front of a building, or waiting at the drive-thru in the front seat of the car—and taking a picture of themselves is not bizarre at all. We live in the endlessly documented moment, and the arm outstretched with that small, omnipotent rectangle held aloft is one of the defining postures of our time. We’ve had selfie scandals, from Weiner’s weiner to Amanda Bynes’ meltdown. We’ve had a million billion cautionary tales about sending erotic selfies, though it doesn’t seem to stop anyone. Criminals take selfies and so do cops. The presidential selfie surely could not be far behind. (On this, Hillary was first.)

I have many friends who would never take a selfie. Never, ever. The practice is too conceited and unserious, and it would hurt them in their perfectionist bones.

But people are also worried about the selfie. Well, worried and irritated. Several trend stories have pondered the psychological damage on a generation that would rather take a picture of their life than actually live it. A recent study found that posting too many selfies annoys people (for this, they needed science?). Last month, the word made its way into the Oxford Dictionaries Online, but it has also become something of a smear, another tacky emblem of a culture that has directed all possible spotlights toward its own sucked-in cheeks. “Are you going to take a selfie?” a friend asked with mock derision when I pulled out my phone at dinner to check the time. And it was clearly a joke, but I wasn’t sure if he was making fun of people who do such things, or the fact that I was one of them.

I have many friends who would never take a selfie. Never, ever. The practice is too conceited and unserious, and it would hurt them in their perfectionist bones in the way that 10 mariachis showing up at the dinner table and singing “Happy Birthday” would hurt them. Sometimes life can be too embarrassing.

But I am a selfie enthusiast—I’m not yet ready to say “selfie addict”—who has to constantly monitor my own usage. I take selfies when I’m out. But I also take selfies before I leave my house, to make sure my outfit looks all right and my hair isn’t a mess. I take selfies with friends, like about 75 percent of women I know. But I mostly take selfies when I’m alone, and I’m alone an awful lot—I live alone, I work at home alone, I travel alone, and I wander around the city alone, going to dinner and movies alone—and the flip-camera feature solved a major problem of my solitary existence, which is that I often wanted pictures of myself in a certain place, but had no one to take them. I don’t like handing my cameras off to strangers, which always feels like tossing my fragile self-esteem to the nearest passerby. They never take the photo in the particular way I want, but I will be nagged by the stupid need to make them feel they’ve done a good job. Oh, this is perfect, thanks. Meanwhile, I’m dying inside. Am I really that fat? Jesus Christ.

Recently, a friend told me she didn’t like pictures of herself because she never looked the way she thought she did in her head. I think this pretty much describes the universal horror that is looking at your own photos, and that’s why I love the selfie so much. It gives you all the controls to the story you are telling. You can delete the unflattering moments. You can crop and flatter in umpteen ways. The cruel world never gave us the option of editing our own flawed human selves. Can we really be blamed for wishing we could?

The flip-camera feature solved a major problem of my solitary existence, which is that I often wanted pictures of myself in a certain place, but had no one to take them.

It’s no coincidence that today’s selfie masterminds are celebrities like Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian, who must be thrilled to have a forum in which they can craft their own mythologies in opposition to the tabloid factory. I know very little about Kardashian, but I find her Instagram feed (9.7 million followers) to be a rich vein of lush glamour and name-dropping. Last month, Us Weekly ran a cover story about her struggle with pregnancy weight with the headline: “Tortured by her body.” But you’d never know it from her selfies, which, on the same week, showed her posing in a fancy bathing suit on the side of a ship and flaunting her luscious backside in a photo shoot. Bieber’s selfies (10.5 million followers) tell a specific narrative, too. He often looks surprised, as though someone just wrested him from a nap, and he shoots pictures of his tattoos and his six-pack abs. Look how unscripted I am. Look how tough.

And, OK, this is a problem with selfies, because they can be so mannered and deliberate that they actually broadcast our insecurities instead of masking them. There is the girl who struggles with her weight and shoots every pic at that extreme tilt meant to make her look thinner (#fatgirlangle). There is the bald guy whose selfies all mysteriously stop right above his eyebrows. There is, of course, the duck lip phenomenon, installment 534,000 in Ways Women Make Themselves Less Attractive by Trying to Look Hotter. I find it painful to see someone take a selfie, because I start sensing their need to hide and disguise. It’s like watching them yank on a girdle. Selfies are inherently phony, because poses struck to impress and wide smiles flashed on command are not the stuff of truth and art (though I would suggest most of our family photo albums are also not the stuff of truth and art, either). Surely someone is taking selfies that contain the kind of vulnerability and emotional complexity that made self-portraiture a subject worthy of Van Gogh, but I don’t know that person. At the very least, there are definitely good satire selfies. See: Pretty Girls Ugly Faces.

Most selfies I take, I never show anyone. For about two months last year, I was trying to navigate some emotional whirligig, and I took pictures of myself every time I started crying, almost as if I by pinning down my suffering I could make sense of it somehow. The strange thing is that I ended up finding those photos funny—a person crying looks weirdly comic—and I’m not sure whether this odd experiment helped me, or distracted me, or just inflamed my own entitled sense of psychodrama (#problemihave), but I do know that I’ve been like this for a long, long time. My closet shelves are stacked with the legal pads and bulging scrapbooks of a very examined life. I have kept journals for as long as I can remember. “Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted at birth with some presentiment of loss.” Joan Didion wrote that in 1966, back when a “private notebook” was the only kind most people kept.

Fun fact: Auto-correct changes “selfies” to “selfless.” Not even close, auto-correct.

But so much of what used to remain private has become public. And how does that change its purpose? I spent an afternoon on Instagram, looking through selfies. What I saw was a familiar pole dance—women posting hot pictures, men drooling in the comments section. Ur hot. Ur gorgeous. (If nothing else, looking at selfies will leave you despondent over the state of the apostrophe.) And herein lies the magic of selfies: They are an insanely effective delivery system for ego gratification. Post a cute picture of yourself, and feel the sweet rush of soft hair strokes and hungry eyes. On one hand: How awesome is that? On the other hand: It’s a little too awesome. Maybe the toughest lesson of the social media age—dominated by all those machines of external validation—is that nourishing your self-worth on the thin gruel of strangers’ approval is a very dumb idea. It is so easy to confuse attention with love.

Which brings us to narcissism. That’s the slur lingering like a bad smell over our moment of endless documentation. (Fun fact: Auto-correct changes “selfies” to “selfless.” Not even close, auto-correct.) It’s worth mentioning that Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a diagnosis so squishy that the psychiatric committee appointed to update the DSM-V recommended its removal (it was later re-instated). But the rest of us keep slinging the term around with such sting and authority to describe all that is wrong and corrosive in our me-me-me world. That arrogant celebrity, that teen who won’t stop texting during the movie, that guy at work who’s always on Facebook. However, Narcissus was a man who fell in love with his own reflection, and nothing says “on the nose” like the hordes of humans entranced by the image of themselves reflected back in their phones.

Last Christmas, I went to an outdoor lights festival with my parents. It was cool, but even cooler was taking a selfie under each and every installment. I had just gotten an iPhone 4, and I was transfixed by the way my face would alter with the contrasting colors of the halogen glow. My poor parents. They’ve suffered through so many phases.

“I won’t be this vain forever,” I told my mom.

“Maybe,” she said, smiling. “Or maybe you will always be this vain, but it’ll show up in different ways.”

Back when I could not bear pictures of myself, I used to take artsy photos of buildings, of my feet in exotic locations, to show people where I’d been. Is it really less self-involved to take 100 photos of your dog, or your new baby, or your latest meal? Vanity isn’t simply the impulse to turn a camera on yourself. It can be the very intense impulse to get out of the frame. We all have to struggle with the tension between how much we share and how much we keep hidden, how we stay connected online without disconnecting from the world. I can’t figure out this line. Can you? That sucker is always moving.

I’ve stopped posting selfies to Facebook. I’m vain enough that I fear the silent eye rolls that must have been greeting my regular installments of Well Aren’t I Just Too Much. I try not to obsess about what other people think, but I still do. Another line I mess up, I guess. I treat selfies now like little postcards I can send to friends over text. I was here. I did this, and this is what it looked like. I wish you were here, or maybe I’m glad I’m all alone, but I thought of you, and it mattered.