On Selfies: The Modern Day Self-Portrait, Female Empowerment & Beauty

We have witnessed the rise of ‘The Selfie” over the last five years, most notably on Instagram. A ‘selfie’ is a picture of one self, often taken at arms length, sometimes filtered and doctored up to present your best you. As it relates to photography, the popularity of selfies inspired me to think about the intersections of the self-portrait, female empowerment and beauty.

Women of all ages have taken to selfies in record numbers.  At first, it feels easy to scoff at. It’s vain. It’s silly. It’s narcissistic. I myself have often poked fun at women who post countless selfies. I have also been made fun of for posting my own. Self-portraits have long been heralded as a recognized form of fine art photography. So why is there so often contempt for those who post selfies? Could they mean something? Are we simply after approval, or is there something more to it than that?

I had a real 'Aha!' moment last night when I realized how empowering it was to control my own image, to capture myself looking exactly as I want to look, as I want to feel. I get to say what is beautiful to me, and for me. Not a magazine, billboard or music video. Not the narrow definition of beauty the mainstream media forces down our throat. Not the decades-old tradition of male photographers capturing female beauty. Me, capturing me.

I came across this article, “Selfies as Self Love” and it completely changed the way I felt about selfies. “The real anxiety with girls and selfies is that selfies might provide girls with the means to create their own positive image of themselves, thereby severely diluting the impact of outside opinion.” Boom! We get to decide how we look, at any moment of the day. Women feeling good about themselves and controlling their own images is incredibly powerful thing. Perhaps even revolutionary. Maybe these selfies aren’t so bad after all.

In the art world, male photographers have take photos of women for decades. These photos have filled the walls of the world’s top museums and galleries.  When women take photos of themselves, it's a "statement"  (a la Cindy Sherman) or considered vanity. We are supposed to be subject to the lens, unquestioning. We have been the object of the Male Gaze for centuries in the art world, and women artists and photographers have long challenged that, albeit with much less fanfare from the art world. Now women of all walks of life are able to challenge that too.

We are told since birth that beauty is one of the most important virtues a woman has.  We are taught that beauty is a currency. The beauty that is fed to us by the mainstream media is heavily manufactured, and we are taught to do everything we can to achieve that very narrow definition of beauty. For many of us, we look nothing like the women we are told we should look like. For others, our identities are underrepresented, distorted, over-sexualized or absent. If we don’t look a certain way, there is a multi-billion dollar industry built on feeding our anxieties about our looks and bodies, and only the right products, surgeries, creams, or clothes will help. Many of us know this is bullshit, but sometimes it’s hard to ignore the messages, and we turn to judging ourselves, our friends and other women as a result.

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I've had a complicated relationship with beauty for most of my life. I was taught not to be too concerned with my looks, and when I was caught spending too much time in the mirror, I was admonished for being vain. I'd quickly drop my stare, or deny I was looking at myself for too long.  But I couldn’t ignore society’s pressure to look good, to look beautiful, to always be better. My teen years into my early 20s was very rough. I dealt with braces, weight gain, bad acne and a short haircut that did not flatter my face. My self-confidence was as low as it could get. I hated my reflection, and I started to hate myself. My early 20s were a time of religious exercise and calorie counting, but a slow easing of my self-hatred. My mid to late 20 I finally gained some confidence in my looks.  I balanced working out and eating what I wanted. I started to really enjoy my looks and body and having fun with fashion. I learned to enjoy being a woman and eased into my skin as I got older.

Turning 30, (and now 31), has been a time of reflection for me, in all aspects of my life. I'll be honest, some of that time has gotten me thinking about my looks and how they're changing as I get older. Some days I feel quite beautiful and confident, and I am happy with my looks and my body. Other days I fall into a dark hole of self-loathing, finding fault in everything from fine lines on my forehead to a body that could use a bit more curve.  Aging terrifies me, and I'm ashamed to admit it. I am a proud feminist and pro-body acceptance, but sometimes it isn’t so easy to practice what you preach. Society tells me I'm at the point in my life where my most beautiful days are behind me and it's a downhill battle from here. Some days I buy into that wholly.  

I am not advocating prioritizing your looks over everything else. Certainly, your passions, friends, family, adventure, career, travel and self-fulfillment are crucial to our self-worth and happiness. But I am for feeling good about yourself, on your terms, and loving your face and body the way they, at any age, shape or size. And if part of that feeling good is taking a selfie or two, then why not?

I hope to challenge myself from buying into the notion my best years are behind me, and continue to love myself into my 30s, 40s and 50s, and beyond.

I'll probably take lots of selfies along the way.

Erica Reade