Earlier I happened upon an interesting question posed by the lovely Sarah Crossan, where she said:
I am genuinely interested in whether or not a woman can claim to be a feminist and yet also be committed to taking the perfect selfie.
Sarah is a lovely lady, and so the contents of this particular piece are not directed at her or in any way intended to be an attack on what she has posed. Or in any way directed at anyone who engaged in the conversation following the posing of said question. I am wholly focusing on the question at hand.
However, in answer to the question – yes, I believe a woman can.
Feminism is about equality. It is about women claiming their place in society, and essentially focuses on female empowerment, proving that we are worth more than just our faces. It is proving that we are capable, strong, valid. (
in addition to all the injustices towards men that feminism actively works towards eradicating, which are questioned and often a basis for attack from, uh, Men’s Rights Activists. So just throwing it out there – feminism is about men, too, but primarily about women because privilege. Moving on.)
Selfie culture is interesting in its own right – but I don’t believe it is anti-feminist. From the standpoint of someone (and by no means not the only one) who has experienced unsolicited objectification from the age of 14, selfies are, in a way, a form of taking back control over how others see you. By posting a selfie that may have come from a string of 15 or 20 photos taken, you are choosing to present yourself, online, how you want to be seen – which is no different from being selective about what one writes online. Indeed, the external presentation one obtains from a selfie is easier controlled than in, say, a group photo. As women there are many things we do not have control over but online presentation is one of the few things we do have. Selfie culture is synonymous with the application of makeup – they usually go hand in hand
(for females) – and often the sole purpose of a selfie is to show off how damn good a job a girl has done of applying makeup that day (it is an art in itself, after all). In many ways it encourages positivity – pick a girl’s Instagram feed. Any girl. And you’ll probably see an outpouring of emoji or words under a selfie of that girl which basically all say ‘this is a nice photo of you’. In the absence of a culture that encourages ‘My, Anna, your engineering skills are second to none!’ and other comments about ‘inner’ beauty (which I am not at all calling into question of its existence, as people can be ugly on the inside and inner beauty, such as talents or achievements or morals, are very much overlooked and therefore are probably wholly more important than what’s on the outside), the use of external beauty – which is subjective in itself – to encourage compliments, or to just encourage yourself, is probably not a bad thing.
As for the individuals who will assert it is attention seeking; I don’t see, personally, what the problem with that is. Feminism is, by extended definition, about empowering women, and so the issue here (for me) is wondering why anyone would have any issue with someone else seeking approval from their peers/whoever they may have on social media. To strip selfie culture down until one almost condemns those who engage in it as attention seeking, is to suggest that the women who take selfies are, somehow, unworthy of the protection feminism tries to offer. Just as women who don’t wear makeup aren’t in any way elite in comparison to those who do, or indeed women who choose not to shave are better than those who do, women who take selfies usually take them for their own benefit and are just as good as women who choose not to photograph themselves. Selfie culture might exist, but there is no particular force which insists that selfies must be taken. (
In the same way as drug culture or smoking exists, no one is particularly forced into taking part if they don’t actually want to.) It is, usually, the explicit choice of the selfie-taker to take the selfie.
Now, am I suggesting for a moment that the concept of the ‘perfect’ selfie isn’t damaging to young girls? Absolutely not. In the same way the proliferation of ‘thinspo’ material – usually black & white and heavily edited, and thus not at all an accurate representation of what the human form is meant to look like – is damaging, the ‘perfect’ selfie may, of course, have an effect on the self-esteem of individuals viewing selfies. However, it’s a difficult area. It’s especially difficult for me to define because growing up I had ‘friends’ tell me I wasn’t allowed be in photographs with them because I ‘made them look bad’, among other things, and so I find it incredibly difficult to say that someone who is perceived (either self-perceived or otherwise) as ‘pretty’ should…tone down(?) the way they present themselves online to spare the feelings of those whose self-esteem or self-perception is maybe not as positive. Indeed, the dark flip side of selfie-culture is the idea that to post a selfie implies that you like the way you look – and in turn, that you actually love yourself. Which is a big no-no, culturally speaking. We must love our bodies. But we must not love them so much that we ever mention how much we love our bodies. We must care for ourselves. But not THAT MUCH. Not enough that other people can see it. It’s an enviable quality, to love oneself. It’s even an enviable quality to like oneself. And so to purposely abstain from participating in selfie culture (if you were in any way inclined to participate in the first place) is to almost give in to the pressure of not appearing as though you are in any way comfortable with who you are as a person. Is abstaining from doing anything that is self-empowering, or self-praising, or self-loving, simply for the benefit of someone who may not be able to do any of those things for themselves really a feminist act? I think not.
An interesting thing I stumbled upon while writing this is that the dictionary antonym for ‘self-deprecating’ is ‘boasting’. I’ve always considered how women perceive each other to be incredibly interesting in that regard. For example, while writing the paragraph above about what it was like for me growing up, I can almost guarantee at least one reader rolled their eyes, or thought, for even the smallest fraction of a second, that this was a self-inflated statement, and that I am in some way up my own arse. If women are not immediately talking themselves down, they are boasting. For the record – I went through school thinking I was ugly. That I was fat. That I was unworthy. I already felt this way – but having friends make THEIR perception of how I look into a negative thing essentially crushed any remaining self-esteem I may have had entering my late teens. Basically, everything I often think about myself today is how I always felt then (and there was no selfie culture around then either), with the explicit difference being that today I can take a photo and keep it, or post it online, or send it to my boyfriend – and look back on it when I feel pretty crappy about myself and remind myself that I, actually, sometimes look pretty good. I don’t consider that boasting, though. I consider it an aspect of self-acceptance. It took me many years to even begin to tolerate myself, and I’m only now on the path of liking myself – I might actually, one day, love myself. But only time will tell. And I’ll only be able to love myself in a way that works for me.
Now. Inner beauty.
I do agree that it is beyond shitty that so much emphasis is put on external body image. Being good at expressing oneself, or having high emotional intelligence, or being a great writer or mathematician or almost anything anyone can think of are just not lauded the way they should be. We are more than our faces. We are more than our bodies. But physical attraction is a natural human instinct. We can’t help what we find aesthetically pleasing. Yet, what’s on the outside is not nearly as important as what’s on the inside. If someone is universally attractive, but has a terrible personality, no morals, supports meninists and punches kittens for sport, what’s on the outside ceases to matter. What I guess I’m getting at is that in the case of anyone who may be upset by ‘perfect’ selfies, reminding oneself that outer beauty is only a facet of what matters in attraction, plus its subjectivity renders any definition of the word ‘beauty’ in itself completely useless. To say selfies, or external beauty appreciation – no matter what form that takes, because some people like girls with blonde hair, some people like girls with dreadlocks and more piercings than their faces can hold. Each and every single one of those girls you see online and offline – each and every girl reading this – is, subjectively, beautiful to someone.
To put someone down because they like taking photos of their face is not particularly feminist, I would imagine. To suggest that taking selfies is objectification or encouraging objectification is in the same vein as suggesting a sex worker can’t be a feminist, because they are, by that definition, essentially objectifying themselves
(Although its all relative) – and that probably isn’t very feminist either. We have enough people in the world trying – vying – to tear us down; we’re probably better off not judging each other on whether we hold physical appearance in high regard or not.
TL;DR: I think you can like taking photos of your face that please you and still be a feminist. Please carry on with your evening.