By Dayna Mason
Although self-portraits existed long before the term “selfie” became fashionable, the advent of smartphones and the ease of publicizing our lives via social media has resulted in a self-promotion phenomenon which has led people to regard the practice with great disdain and to label others who do it as narcissists.
While the images of people posing with “duck lips” or Instagram filters that add little animal ears and nose can be incredibly annoying (especially the obviously inauthentic shots of yourself “sleeping”), there are potential benefits to the practice of selfie taking.
What is a ‘selfie’
Selfie is a word for self-portrait. A photograph you usually take of yourself using a mirror or a camera held at arm’s length. It’s believed that the term “selfie” originated in 2002 when an Australian man took a photo of his torn lip after a drunken night out and shortened the term self-portrait to “selfie” in reference to the photo. Shortening words and adding “ie” to the end is a common practice in Australia—barbie for barbecue, postie for postman, and firie for firefighter; thus “selfie” for self-portrait.
Understanding our selfie bias
According to the research company YouGov, over 63% of Americans take selfies and more than half of those who do express contempt for others doing it. Google statistics reports that on average 93 million selfies are posted each day.
So, if most of us loath selfies, who’s doing all the posting?
Jesse Fox, an Ohio State communications professor who has studied the relationship between selfies and narcissism, says, “Generally, people have a self-serving bias. That’s one of the reasons we may do a behavior, and we’ll excuse our own behavior, but hold it against someone else. We’re easier on ourselves than we are on other people.”
While many people are contributing to the 93 million posts a day, very few are proud of it. Nobody likes selfies, yet everyone has reasons to take them. Perceiving our own selfie behavior as justified and authentic allows us to fulfill self-presentational needs without feeling narcissistic.
Selfies and narcissism
Pathological narcissism or Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) is a rare disorder that affects less than 1% of the population. What we commonly label narcissism is the behavior of normal people with healthy egos taking selfies and bragging about their accomplishments. But loving on ourselves a little doesn’t make us narcissists. True narcissists have low self-esteem and deep down may loath themselves.
According to Psychology Today, “It’s a common misconception that narcissists love themselves. They actually dislike themselves immensely. Their inflated self-flattery, perfectionism, and arrogance are merely covers for the self-loathing they don’t admit — usually even to themselves. Instead, it’s projected outward in their disdain for and criticism of others. Emotionally, they may be dead inside, and hungering to be filled and validated by others. Sadly, they’re unable to appreciate the love they do get and they alienate those who give it.”
Pamela Rutledge, Ph.D., director of the Media Psychology Research Center says, “Healthy narcissism, recognizing that some amount of self-love or self-esteem and a realistic appraisal of and appreciation for one’s qualities is necessary for healthy development.”
Ego-centric self-presentation is nothing new. Long before we used selfies to capture our image, we obsessed (and continue to obsess) over our image with everything from designer-label clothing, to teeth-whitening, to cosmetic surgery. Selfies are just a method that makes it easier to have control over our best self-presentation angle.
Self-presentation is a part of our daily life
Every day we engage in self-presentation—the process of strategically concealing or revealing personal information about ourselves in order to influence others’ perceptions. We are able to explore our perceptions of ourselves through how we present ourselves to others.
Although people sometimes intentionally deceive others in the process of self-presentation, most of us want to make a good impression while remaining authentic.
Selfies are just one method of self-presentation.
Why we take selfies
Selfies feed our desire to understand ourselves better in a visual way. We want to understand how other people see us. We may even try different personas in our attempt to present our aspirational self.
In a study at Brigham Young University researchers identified three main types of selfie takers: communicators, autobiographers, and self-publicists.
Communicators use selfies to engage with their followers and promote discussion, with a goal of two-way communication. Autobiographers or scrapbookers focus on documenting and sharing significant moments that are important to them. They are interested in sharing, but less concerned with feedback. Self-publicists or self-promoters use selfies to document their entire life, from a trip to their cousin’s house to their new Gucci bag. These folks make up the smallest group and are the people we are thinking of when we associate selfies with narcissistic behavior.
Regardless of which group we belong to, according to a study published in Psychology of Well-being, taking selfies can boost your mood.
In this 3-week study, students were assigned to take one of three different types of photos daily: smiling selfies, photos of things that made them happy, and photos of things they thought would make someone else in their lives happy. Results of the study determined that people felt reflective and mindful when they took pictures of things that made them happy; more confident and comfortable with themselves when they took genuine (not forced) smiling selfies; and connected and less stressed when they took pictures to make others happy. And, when we post our selfie on Facebook we get regular reminders of our previous moments of joy—a selfie from our trip to the beach with our loved one or our birthday party with our favorite people—like a personal happiness repository.
Selfies can be used for good, in ways that help us feel good about ourselves and ways that connect us with others.
Selfies as a force for good
Turning 40 was a significant personal shift for me. I was finally able to look in the mirror and say, “I approve of you. You are beautiful right now, exactly how you are.” I’d reached a level of acceptance and appreciation—gratitude—for the woman inside of me that had been through some things and had done a miraculous job of continuing to show up for life, open to love and trust, again and again.
To express this new perspective, I decided to have an image of myself captured that I could display in my home. I had a professional photographer take tasteful nude photos (posed in such a way that you can see that the person is naked, but you can’t see the person’s face or any “private” parts of their body). I selected my favorite for framing. Whenever I looked at this image of my body, I no longer saw flaws, I saw art. This work of art—an expression of my self-acceptance—served as a reminder for myself as well as a way to share my evolution with those who visited my home.
My “selfie” was an outward expression of my inner transformation.
While selfies are often viewed in a negative light, they can have a positive influence in our lives. They can help us portray our best version of ourselves to the world—a statement that says “This is who I am.” Maybe we’ve been through some things, and our evolving image is an inspiration to others. Or maybe it’s just a way of fulfilling our basic human needs that feels good, reveals only what we wish to share, and allows us to present ourselves in our aspirational light.
A selfie may capture a moment in our life that means something to us, but it can also be a method used for getting to know ourselves better and leaving our mark on the world.
So, extend that arm, think of something that puts a genuine smile on your face (no duck lips, please, for the love of all that’s holy), and snap that selfie.
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