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A selfie is a self-portrait photograph.
We all know this. The word has entered our popular culture – and possibly every culture’s popular culture – to become as loved as Facebook, Costa and trolling.
It was someone you’ve never heard off – life and fitness coach Jennifer Lee – who first used the word selfie as an Instagram hashtag in 2011. Within 12 months the word was, like, everywhere.
Yes, there were selfies prior to 2011. Self portraits, as they were originally known, have existed since the 19th century; American photographer Robert took a daguerreotype of himself in 1839 (a daguerreotype is a complicated way to take a photograph, developed by Frenchman Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre). Even Vincent van Gogh painted himself once. What a naval-gazing tosser.
But it was not until front facing camera phones (2010) mixed with Facebook (launched 2004, massive by 2009) that self-indulgent, narcissistic, ego-flattering photographs of oneself truly became a phenomena. Photography has never been the same since.
I’ve spent decades taking photographs, mostly of people I don’t know, sometimes of close relations, but hardly ever capturing myself. I’m the missing face from my own family photography. I kind of liked it that way.
But thanks to cameras in mobile phones, imagery diversified. It became an instant language of communication. There are now billions of photos taken every year. Did you know there more photographs taken in 2015 than in the entire history of photography combined? You do now.
Somebody somewhere (Deloitte UK actually) worked out that in 2016 there were 3.5million images shared every minute on social media. That’s not images taken, that’s images shared. If everyone takes ten images of the same thing like I do, the number of images actually taken will be gigabytetastic.
Obviously not all of these will be self-loving selfies. Some will be of plates of food. Or cups of coffee.
Proper photographers (I use the term loosely) despair of selfies and the number of bad images swirling around our streams. Almost every night, I scroll down my Facebook timeline gorging on selfie after selfie until I puke all over my laptop.
But somehow, sometime between 2010 and now I lost my way. Before I knew what was going on, I was taking images of myself. I didn’t use the front-facing camera on my phone or a mirror, that would be like walking into the sea and never coming back, but I was taking self portraits. Of myself. They were grim-faced, non-smiling ones, mostly with my kids. They still are. I should point out that I’ve never had fluffy ears and a button nose.
While I was taking these tentative steps, I noticed a division in selfie evolution. On the one hand there were people posting ever more gratuitous images of themselves – overly plunging necklines, underwear full frontals – and on the other hand there were people who were not. I’m presuming these people not posting lo-fi porn selfies were, like me, slightly disapproving of everyone else (mostly because they were too scared to do it themselves).
This is not something I could ever do (so I thought). It’s too revealing, too promiscuous, too sexy. These other people are either super confident or attention seekers. And I’m no attention seeker (erm, well, okay).
As I trawl through my aspirationally annoying Instagram feed I see more abdominal muscles and naked thighs than a bloke my age should be exposed to. And there is part of me thinking: this is not really photography, this is self-promotion disguised as self-documentation.
[WARING: Next is the self-indulgent serious bit of this article]
But there are other issues here, aside from snobbish declarations of what real photography is.
Succinctly, they are:
Are selfies healthy?
Can men take sexy selfies?
There have been several research reports published linking frequent selfie postings to mental health issues like body dysmorphic disorders. That means self-hating, stuff like that. A number of academics have argued that the ‘likes’ gained from selfies have created an over-emphasis on people’s looks, which could adversely affect the self-worth of some people, leaving other attributes and skills almost worthless.
The selfie is now defining the idea of beauty in a way that glossy adverts once did. But the problem is, the most popular ones are still the ones high on conventional perceptions of beauty and sexiness. At least the person who is subject to objectification is in control of the image.
Over the past decade there has been a huge movement of objections to overtly sexual adverts and against adverts which put pressure on women to look a certain way. Selfies (shown through social media) seem to have undone some of this work because the reward – the number of likes a person gets – is frequently directly proportional to how good (desirable, sexy etc) that person looks in their image. It almost feels like a step backwards.
In an article titled Selfies Aren’t Empowering. They’re a Cry for Help, Erin Gloria Ryan argues that women were taking selfies in order to ‘rely on others to bestow their self-worth on them’ and that ‘selfies aren’t expressions of pride, but rather calls for affirmation’. I’d argue that we’re all addicted to affirmations on social media – likes, responses, views. This Guardian article says as much, and more.
The second question is more pertinent to me (Can men take sexy selfies?). Obviously, the short answer is, well, erm, er… Men can – and do – take selfies. But the male output is never as sexually appealing or as enthusiastically viewed as those gym women I follow on Instagram. Blokes will never get the same number of likes as women for a sweaty gym selfie. But does that mean a male selfie is less valid? In the world of likes, it probably does.
In advertising it has always been said that ‘sex sells’ – but they were always referring to the female form. The concept does not have the same impact when a man is the object of desire. So much of our lives still involves natural human desires, even if our forward-thinking, equality-based analysis tells us it is wrong. It’s that conflict of intellect and desire which makes all of this so uncomfortable.
And that’s why those ultra-attractive, selfie-taking, lifestyle bloggers and Instagrammers are nearly always women. Hardly any of them or men, or my age. Or if they are, they don’t have 50,000 followers. They have 500. Like me.
But should the fact that I’m a man, or old, stop me wanting to flaunt myself like Miss Flat Abs sitting in her bikini by a pool in Ibiza? Some of you would say, yes, it should. And you’re probably right.
As an advocate of photography, however, I welcome the fact that camera phones and selfies have re-invigorated image-making to the point where almost everyone on earth is now more visually thinking than ever before.
What I like about selfies – and what I have always believed is the most exciting part of most images – is that they have people in them. What I never thought would happen is that one of those people in a gratuitous selfie would be me.
Which is how I came to be standing here, before you, in my underpants.