‘With what purpose do you take selfies?’
It’s the question Frances Borzello posed to me during a Q&A at the Cheltenham Literary Festival after I had (rather unsuccessfully) tried to explain that young people don’t always take selfies out of vanity, or because we want to share them and gain a following. My response at the time was somewhat unsatisfactory (in part because the panelists were being unfairly heckled by an angry Danish woman and thus we ran out of time) so I thought I’d elaborate here.
I stand by what I said at the time, that selfies are an easy form of documentation It’s no surprise that in a world where smartphones and cameras are ubiquitous, selfies have seen their rise. Unlike in the past where immense skill was required in order to recreate a likeness, self-documentation is perhaps more accessible to many of us. But I can’t help but feel there is something more to selfies than just the mechanics of self portraiture.
What I failed to elaborate upon was the fact that selfies – for myself and many young people that I have met – are a reclamation of sorts. I know this doesn’t fit with the narrative perpetuated by the media, who seem to quite enjoy writing headlines about how selfies are damaging us and a waste of time. Seems a bit rich coming from the Daily Mail.
Sometimes when I feel particularly shit, I will stage a little photoshoot in my room. It’s a ritual I’ve taken part in since I got my first camera aged 10 and although the equipment has improved (I no longer sellotape cameras to music stands in place of a tripod, for example) the principle has remained much the same. I sit there and take photos of myself.
Call it vain. Call it a waste of time. Just know it’s one of my most basic forms of self-care.
Maybe I’ve had a crap body day and would like to be reminded that it doesn’t matter that my thighs touch, or I’m not as thin as some other people and that ultimately I am more than the sum of my parts.
Maybe I want to try a new look, or to play a character, a different version of myself.
Maybe I’m trying to remind myself that my flesh form is actually doing a good job of keeping me alive no matter how much I’ve tried to damage it.
Maybe I’m teary or angry because, guess what, I’m human and I want to know that photos of myself don’t have to make me look like I have my life together.
Maybe I’m genuinely enjoying life for once and want to remember it before that happiness is lost again.
And sometimes – shock horror – I take selfies because I like my face.
Do you know how hard it is to like your flesh form when the world is hell bent on eradicating your self-esteem in favour of turning you into a consumer?
It’s very easy in a world permeated with toxic ideals fuelled by consumerist capitalism to feel like your body is not your own. You are a consumer, you are commodifiable and you are exploitable. Trying to retain any semblance of self when you’re constantly being sold to is really difficult when your insecurity is exploitable.
If nothing else, my selfies are a reminder that I am my own property and no-one elses. I know it doesn’t always feel like that, particularly if you’re a teenager and puberty has done fuck knows what to your body but you are more in control than you think. Trust.
Do I always know what I’m trying to achieve with my selfies? Not all. Sometimes I don’t know until the end of the process.
This was a set of photos I took on National Coming Out Day, mid breakdown as I watched the ending of Pride. At the time I was crying too much to be thinking, but looking back I know those images act as a prompt for an actually quite helpful dialogue.
I always feel like my idea of selfies will never really fit in with what is the popular census – though when has anything I’ve done ever conformed?! 90% of the selfies I take never end up anywhere. They’re not for fame or popularity, because as we know I care little for the latter.
Even if selfies are vain, or selfish, neither of those are the worst things you could be, at least in my mind. Having a high opinion of oneself is hard, as is putting yourself first above others. They’re also coincidentally both qualities which are vilified, particularly in women.
However, looking after yourself is important because you can’t help anyone else if you’re not in a good place first and its nothing to be ashamed of. I reckon people are so often made to feel as though being insecure is somehow endearing (I mean, how many times have you rebutted a compliment because you didn’t want to seem arrogant) but there is power in knowing yourself and being confident in who you are.
So call me selfish, call me vain, call me stupid. I’ll be sat here looking after myself the ways I know how and refusing to let you get to me. Even if my looking after myself involves crying in front of a camera for half an hour, at least I’ve taken the time to know what works for me.
PS All the panelists were really cool and you should definitely check them out. Do it. Now.
Michelle Thomas: michellethomas.org
Emma Gannon: emmagannon.co.uk