Who and what do we take selfies for?

What’s really in a selfie?


The ascent of image-centric social media platforms such as Instagram have given rise to a fascinating phenomenon: selfie culture. The social and cultural ramifications of this are, as yet, unclear. Are we witnessing the dawn of a revolutionary new age in which women can openly proclaim their confidence and self love to the world? Or is this simply a socially acceptable manifestation of hyper vanity? Worse yet, does it prove that we are more image conscious and approval-hungry then ever? 

 The answers may lie in the question: who are we really taking these selfies for?


Are Selfies Feminist?

Instagram as a platform for self expression and representation

woman wearing bright pink lipstick and a shirt that reads "feminist" takes a selfie while making a peace sign
@carolinaronquilloluna via #thisiswhatafeministlookslike

Instagram can be a platform for proclaiming confidence in yourself and taking ownership of your own image. The rise of social media has handed a mic to the people in a way that has never before been seen. In years gone by you would have needed a printing press, or at very least someone else’s approval to publicise an image or your opinion. Now everyone with an internet connection can be both the artist and the muse, you hold the camera but you’re also the model and, surely, that is empowering. This ability to broadcast our thoughts and opinions, and yes, images of ourselves on our own terms could potentially be revolutionary in terms of self expression and representation.

As Emma Bracy points out in her article for Man Repeller, loving yourself  – including the way you look – in a world that insists on women’s self-depreciation can be a defiant act of rebellion. This is of particular importance for marginalised people, bodies of colour, queer bodies. Using selfies to represent our own image could have a hand in the diversification of what is considered beautiful, it can create a sense of community, of strength in numbers, of mutual inspiration. In a related article for Man Repeller, Bracy delves deeper into the meaning of selfies, exploring the selfie and Instagram as an opportunity to “proclaim self-love in public spheres”. It’s pointed out that prior to the selfie movement, women were encouraged to be overly modest and make a show of disparaging themselves, lest they look too confident. The prevailing ideal of women as being beautiful but inexplicably low in self-esteem is demonstrated in the sentiments of popular culture, in songs like One Direction’s ‘What Makes You Beautiful.’ 

Vanity by Frank Cadogan Cowper, 1907
Vanity by Frank Cadogan Cowper, 1907

This annoying double standard has often been alluded to in regard to women recognising and acknowledging their own beauty. An oft-quoted excerpt from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing comes to mind,

“You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘Vanity,’ thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”


Patriarchal norms dictate that a woman’s acknowledgment of her own beauty is intimidating, unattractive or repellent. Then it stands to reason: when we post a selfie, we are presenting a stiff middle finger to that familiar belittling echo in our minds that tells us we shouldn’t like the way we look.

Winnie Harlow posing nude for a selfie in a mirror
@winnieharlow owning her own self image

Glamour, citing a recent study from the University of Toronto, claim that regularly taking selfies can make the participant feel more attractive and well-liked that individuals who don’t take selfies. The habit, though often considered vain, can actually contribute to building a healthy level of self esteem. Although, it is unclear whether the actual act of selfie-taking is the root cause of the increased self confidence. It could be that people who already feel confident (and like the way they look) are simply more likely to take selfies in the first place. For people who already see themselves in a favourable light, posting selfies and receiving the gratification of likes and compliments fortifies that positive self image. Which, in turn, creates a positive cycle that contributes to a healthy self esteem.

Some psychologists have even suggested selfie taking could be more significant than simply learning to admire yourself, it could also be an act of self exploration. Self portraits have been a medium through which artists can explore and express themselves, using their own image as art. For instance, Frida Kahlo’s most celebrated paintings primarily deal with her own image which she uses to express the most significant aspects of her being and experiences, her injuries, her ethnic identity her politics. Of course your standard duck-face, peace-sign selfie isn’t very comparable to this, but it is possible to use selfies as a form of self expression and many people actually do. Being the subject of our own art is no new thing. Self portraits have existed in various forms for centuries, even millennia. Selfies could be the self portrait of the digital age.

Self portrait by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889
Self portrait by Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

In any case, selfie culture could provide women with an opportunity to show public support for other women. Gassing (boosting another’s ego, in this case posting compliments on others’ pictures) on social media could actually be a very real way that girls publicly support one another and tackle traditional mentalities about female competitiveness particularly in regard to looks. Gassing on social media may not seem like much but it is actually a mutually rewarding experience. It promotes positive emotions and a sense of camaraderie and togetherness, often with people you don’t even know.


But what about when we’re not being supportive?


As we all know, we don’t live in a perfect world. It’s not all girl power and gassing and mutual support. We might actually find ourselves rolling our eyes at others’ selfies rather than leaping to compliment them and inflate their self-esteem. Studies have shown that while we generally have a positive attitude towards our own selfies, we often view other people’s selfies in a decidedly more negative way. This phenomenon has been observed in both men and women. At the heart of this “selfie paradox” is selfie perception.

Participants in the aforementioned study were consistently shown to perceive their own selfies as ironic and authentic, while they almost always – about 90% of the time – considered others’ selfies superficial, self-presentational and narcissistic. (Interestingly, participants also regularly assumed that others were having more fun than they were while taking selfies.)

Kim Kardashian wearing activewear posing in a mirror selfie with protein shakes

This paradox is further explained by a simple psychological theory dating back to the early 1970s, as Leah Fessler illustrates in an article for Quartz: “the self-serving bias, an ego-based attribution. ‘We naturally try to explain our behavior in terms that flatter us and put us in a good light,’ says Sarah Diefenbach of Ludwig-Maximilians-University in Munich. ‘Self-presentational motivations may be associated with narcissism and regarded as less reputable, and therefore attributed to others rather than to oneself. For oneself, one prefers relations to be more reputable character traits such as self-irony or authenticity.'”

Indeed, this apparent double standard when it comes to selfies may also be partially responsible for the social phenomenon known as the “hate-follow.” That is the somewhat strange (but quite common) act of following someone whose online presence irritates you. Hate-following does the exact opposite of gassing, it contributes to a culture of shaming and breaking-down other people’s self esteem. This is certainly not doing feminism, ourselves or others any good.

And what about when we don’t get the approval that we

are craving from posting a selfie?


The negative impact that social media often has on our self esteem has been well documented. In an interview with The Huffington PostDr. Suzana Flores, author of Facehooked: How Facebook Affects our Emotions, Relationships and Lives, explains “when someone interacts over social media for prolonged periods of time, inevitably they feel compelled to continue to check for updates. I call this the “Slot Machine Effect” in that when we receive a like or a comment to a post, or when we come across an interesting new post from someone else, we experience what psychologists refer to as intermittent reinforcement—sometimes we get “rewarded” with an interesting post, and sometimes we are not, but the rewards through external validation of our posts, cause us to remain digitally connected.”

 According to The Huffington Post, 51% of social media users report feeling more self conscious about their appearance. Flores further explains “research has also shown that Facebook users are becoming increasingly depressed from comparing themselves to their own profile. Meaning that if a person’s reality does not match the digital illusion they post on their profiles, emotionally, one may feel they are not living up to the “best” form of themselves.” Emotionally secure people don’t tend to struggle with such issues. However, a large portion of our population do suffer with at least some emotional insecurities and therefore most of us do suffer the consequences of social media’s negative effects.

There is a constant sense of self comparison on social media. Negative self comparison with others is made easy by social media’s format. Your popularity and the popularity of others, our public approval rating, is quantifiable in the number of likes we have. If a person posts a selfie and gets only a handful of likes, or no likes at all, it could be devastating to their self esteem. Especially when contextualised against instagram models and influencers whose selfies get thousands or even millions of likes. Or even non-famous but generally popular and good-looking people with a couple of hundred likes.  The increasing tendencies of social media users to base their sense of self worth on likes and comments surely cannot be healthy or sustainable.

Kylie Jenner wearing a swimsuit and sun hat posing on a yacht in a blue ocean

But the self comparison doesn’t stop there, not just in regard to selfies and the way we look, but equally in regard to “life envy.” We all get “life envy” from time to time, we start scrolling through someone else’s feed and wanting to be more like them, dress like them, go to fancy restaurants and on expensive holidays like them, be more successful like them, the list goes on. It happens to everyone. But we’re also guilty of doing it to others, setting out with the intention of making others envy us. We often find ourselves only posting selfies in which we think we look our best and in situations that make us look good, when we get a promotion, for example, or when we’re on an exotic holiday. But of course this isn’t our day-to-day reality. So what is it doing to our sense of self? Are we becoming more narcissistic? More eager to show how great and pretty and popular we are? Craving other people’s admiration and jealousy?

Are we, when all is said and done, becoming more insecure and ultimately more reliant on the approval of others? 


 It’s not all bad


There’s a glimmer of hope. Even blatant self promotion on social media can actually help us with our personal development. According to Pamela Rutledge, director of the nonprofit Media Psychology Research Center, “aspirational” selfies (those intended to present your “best self”) aren’t simply about gathering likes and garnering the approval of others. In addition to that, they also have an effective way of helping people to see a path towards behaviours and qualities they desire for themselves: “Posting high points in life increases confidence, empowerment, gratitude, and appreciation through mindfulness, and the ability to visualise desired outcomes.”


Final Answer: It’s Complicated.


Is this all in the name of self empowerment? Of feminism? Are selfies revolutionising the female/femme image? Or is this all just vanity masquerading as female empowerment? Are we simply seeking approval and acceptance? Are selfies just a socially acceptable way for us to present a curated, “best” version of ourselves, submitted for the envy and admiration of others? Or, worse still, another vehicle for the ubiquitous male gaze? 

The answer is probably a bit of all of those things. And totally dependent on circumstance and intention. Yes, selfies can be about self-empowerment but they can also make us feel a lot worse about ourselves (as can the over all effect of social media).

It seems we’ve come full circle. At the beginning I asked “who are we really taking these selfies for?” The answer to the question, then, boils down to the individual: who and what are we really taking the pictures for? And, perhaps most crucially, how does it all make you feel? If it makes you feel good, then it’s got to be good, if not – you’ve got your answer.

What do you think of selfies? Do you take them? Have

your say in the comments section below.


*Images are not my own. All images have been sourced from instagram and/or have been credited. No copyright infringement intended.

%d bloggers like this: