The bigger picture: Selfies are about so much more than vanity

It’s too facile to brush off selfies as little more than wanton narcissism. They’re also about owning your own vanity, being ironic, or just about having plain old fun with a camera, says Tanya Sweeney

If you’ve already taken your summer holiday, it’s quite likely you’ve seen the much-maligned selfie stick at close range, getting in the way of famous landmarks and panoramic vistas.

Also, with all the new photo angle possibilities conjured up by said sticks,the inevitable selfie-stick injuries have started popping up online. Russian schools are reportedly teaching classes the practise of “safe-selfie taking”. This comes after the Russian police issued a selfie-safety brochure in response to a growing number of stick-related casualties.

Yet more proof that we have veered dangerously toward Peak Selfie: Earlier this year, a London college began to offer a course on “self-portraiture”. For the sum of £132 (€177), pupils can amass a “coherent” body of work for all to see on social media.

Elsewhere, a set of beaches known as The Garoupe in the South of France have brought in “no selfie zones”. Some companies are even attempting to make selfies work for the greater good: MasterCard are hoping to implement a system whereby online transactions can be authorised not with PINs, but with selfies.

In recent times, variants on the selfie itself have followed: Now we have the Belfie (butt selfie), the Welfie (a selfie showing how wealthy you are) the Melfie (male selfie) and the Shelfie (a selfie taken next to a bookshelf, ostensibly to demonstrate intellect). It’s enough to drive anyone to despair but really there is no sign of them going anywhere soon.

So far, so fun… but the selfie phenomenon can quickly get out of hand. Kim Kardashian admitted that she took 1,200 selfies in the space of a two-week holiday. That’s about 86 a day.

Naturally, this sort of barmy behaviour has prompted academics into a frenzy of research about what it all means. Some academics and psychologists have hinted that excessive selfie taking is a sign of narcissistic personality disorder, and other mental health conditions.

Earlier this year, psychiatrist Dr David Veal told the Daily Mirror: “Two out of three of all the patients who come to see me with Body Dysmorphic Disorder since the rise of camera phones have a compulsion to repeatedly take and post selfies on social media sites.”

Meanwhile, Kardashian’s book of selfies, entitled Selfish, virtually walked out of bookstores on its release earlier this year., British writer Carrie Barclay beat Kim K to the punch though and released her own tome (co-written with Malcolm Croft), entitled The Selfie Book, in April.

“As a pretty prolific selfie-taker myself, I loved the way these simple little pictures were making such an impact across the globe,” she says. “More than that, I became fascinated by the way that the selfie phenomenon offered a single platform accessible by all — from little old me, to my mum, my boyfriend, my friends; all the way to popes, presidents and princesses. Seeing a selfie is a bit like seeing the human side of another person, sharing this platform of vanity is like sharing a commonality.”

Still, though, the question looms large: Isn’t there something a little bit, well, awful about how much we’ve come to embrace what is ultimately a narcissistic pastime?

“Well, I don’t think so,” says Barclay. “For me, selfies are about owning your own vanity. We all know by now that some simple angles, the right makeup and sympathetic lighting make the world of difference, and why shouldn’t we use these to our advantage?.

“One thing I love is, if you’ve taken a few selfies, you know that it takes a few attempts to get it right,” she adds. “It’s not a huge leap to realise that it’s exactly the same for the celebrities we hold in such ‘high’ regard... imagining Kim Kardashian trying over and over to get that duck face just right makes her more real; she’s just a human with a face; she’s just like us, really.”

Truth be told, few can escape the lure of the selfie. I’m guilty as charged of taking the odd one myself. My Facebook profile picture is a bathroom mirror selfie (taken right after a trip to the hairdressers, obviously). I defy anyone not to fall for the siren song of compliments and oooh-gorgeouses that follow when one posts a carefully-choreographed selfie on Facebook or Twitter.

In an unpredictable and uncertain world, curating our online selves is as close to feeling in control as some of us could ever hope to get. The truth is, however, that humans have strived to control and curate the impression they give to the world since time immemorial. It’s really just the technology that has changed things.

“For me, I think sharing a selfie is about sharing a level of intimacy,” explains Barclay. “ It’s about controlling your message, as well as having fun! I think their popularity stems from this control. Remember the days when anyone could tag you in a picture on Facebook? Gosh, those were dark days! Your selfies belong to you, they’re the image of yourself that you choose to share. I personally don’t do them for compliments or validation, I do them for fun.”

Of course, a bathroom mirror selfie (one of about 15, granted) is one thing. Quite another is the Kardashian-style serial selfie-taker… and they do exist among us. I have several friends who post multiple selfies in a week; often one a day, in some cases. They are fine artists of the form: No visible arm, bad lighting or 45-degree angle guff for this lot. In one friend’s case, she posts selfies after a bad date, when a fling goes awry, or after a brief relationship has hit the skids. Scarlet of lip and steely of eye, my friend wants her selfies to say one thing: “I am over you.” The barrage of compliments to her bruised ego doesn’t hurt, either.

“There are myriad reasons why people post multiple selfies,” reasons Barclay. “Maybe they’re trying to build their personal brand, maybe they have too much time on their hands; perhaps people use selfies like we used to use a mirror. Don’t forget that in a mirror you’re always the reflection of your self — not so with a selfie.”

However, the serial selfie-taker should proceed with caution: “Make sure there’s some variation in location, pose, composition — too much of anything and people will soon grow tired of it. Variety is the spice of life, after all. I suppose the key is, if you scroll back through your selfies, are they boring? Duckface after duckface doesn’t make for engaging content.

“As a blogger by trade, and writer by profession, I know that varied content is key to engagement. This is just as relevant in the world of selfies.”

With no small amount of field research done in the area, Barclay has hit upon the winning formula for the perfect selfie.

“Angles and lighting,” she says. “Hold your camera at a slightly raised angle, and move it slowly around until you’re happy with the shot. Natural light, and never a flash, is the best way to highlight your features. You’re unlikely to get it right the first time. Keep trying, and use the back camera (on your smartphone), as it’s set up to produce a better picture! If you’re holding the camera down low, think twice about it. We’re going to see up your nose, and you’re going to produce chins that aren’t there any other time.

“However, I think it’s bloody good practice to post a #sh**selfie every now and again — let’s keep it real.”

Pop culture commentators have already predicted the demise of the selfie, but with the world waiting on a technology that will usurp the humble cameraphone, the death rattle is some way off yet.

“Well, everything has a shelf life I suppose, but I think the way selfies have ingrained themselves into our psyche means they’re not going anywhere just yet,” agrees Barlcay.

Meanwhile, she suggests that those seeking inspiration should skip Kim K and take a peek instead at another famous selfie taker.

“No question, Patrick Stewart is my favourite,” she says. “There’s a man who knows how to have fun and take the mickey out of himself — all fabulous traits in a selfie-taker. He also doesn’t overdo it, and each selfie tells a story. What a hero.”


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