I understand, and have historically agreed with, the mainstream’s all-consuming hatred of the selfie. I was once terribly uncomfortable with the idea of a photo that was taken by me, just of me, and shared with the world. I assumed this was because I was afraid that people would judge me to be a narcissist.
But, as it turns out, this isn’t the case. I’m not actually worried about anybody thinking I’m a narcissist, because I know I am not one. I realized the idea snaked itself into my mind because of how society (e.g., old people) has dictated the dialogue about my generation, and our supposed “problem” with narcissism.
This isn’t to say that we’re not a self-interested, self-centered, self-fascinated generation — but how could we not be? The rise of consumer technology has cultivated behaviors that force us to reflect upon ourselves both physically and psychologically, and in a pretty extreme way. If it’s not the ubiquitous front-facing camera, it’s the thousands upon thousands of socio-digital touch points we make — with everyone from our closest friends to complete strangers — that act as relentless little mirrors, giving us (often unwanted) feedback about ourselves. It’s an incessant dialectic that I would argue is impossible to completely rise above or exist completely without.
So, yes, we might be interested in ourselves. We might even exhibit certain traits of narcissism. But this doesn’t automatically make us arrogant, unfeeling, and desperate for admiration; it doesn’t make us pathological.
Are you confident and assertive, but decent at accepting criticism? You’re not a narcissist. Do you like to talk about yourself, but also care for others? You’re not a narcissist.
*(Disclaimer: I am not a licensed psychiatric professional and cannot, in fact, diagnose your narcissistic personality disorder or lack thereof.)
It’s weird to me that an interest in self has become equivalent to narcissism. I don’t know about you, but I’m rather curious about my existence in the universe. All that I know, and all I can ever know, is that which I experience — as a subjective consciousness framed within a human’s body. There’s no way for us to know what this unique experience is like for any-body or any-thing else. We can attempt to imagine it, but we can never, ever know.
(For argument’s sake, I’m using Susan Blackmore’s re-appropriation of Ned Block’s definition of phenomenal consciousness: “Phenomenal consciousness is experience; what makes a state phenomenally conscious is that there is something ‘it is like’ to be in that state”).
One of my favorite thought experiments is that famous question from consciousness studies: What is it like to be a bat? It seems simple enough, but if you start to think about it, your brain hurts with the impossibility. To know what it is like to be a bat isn’t as simple as transforming your body into that of a bat — because then you’d still just be yourself, trapped in a bat’s body, with your own human memories and thoughts and consciousness still in place. But then…if you were somehow able to actually assume a real bat’s consciousness in a real bat’s body, you wouldn’t have the ability to assess your conscious experience — let alone communicate it to your human self, or other human beings. Conun-fuck.
I can’t even begin to understand the question of how our private, unshareable experiences relate to the real world and real objects in space (assuming you believe such things exist). All I can circle back to is what I experience myself.
…And thus, also circle back to selfies. My squeamishness about selfies is 100% rooted in the fact that I am not comfortable in my own skin — in the flesh and bones that contribute to my conscious experience. I don’t like the way I look. Sometimes the image of myself in a mirror or in photos makes me want to collapse into a cosmic implosion. When we’re teenagers, we’re told that having hangups about your face/hair/size/shape/skin is a normal part of adolescent growing pains…but what happens if they stalk you through to adulthood? How can you live a life mired by such an exhausting pattern of self-hate?
Two years ago, I reached a very low point in that pattern. My health had taken a turn, and upon its descent it collected every insecurity in my arsenal and drilled me down into the dark and twisty place. I felt hatefully trapped by my body. I was angry at it for bringing me down. So with nowhere to go but up, I turned on it — I said FUCK you to my captor, and exposed it to the world via selfie.
Having witnessed thousands of girls (and guys) from around the world post daily photos of their Black Milk outfits on Instagram, I figured that my love of clothing and geekdom would be a logical place to start. This was my crutch: if nothing else, people would be too distracted by my beloved R2D2 leggings and Bosch triptych dress and original-but-colorized John C. Tenniel art to notice the anxious girl in the photos. If nothing else, there were thousands and thousands of people around the globe who would share my appreciation of these badass clothes, and the idea of getting over your self-ie in the interests of fashion and fandom. I could try and find a place to belong in this community, and even derive satisfaction from having a “creative” outlet. And besides — I could always delete my photos if they proved TOO awful. (Although, as I often remind my best friend with regards to our unscrupulous “off the record” digital jaunts — the Internet is, indelibly, forever).
It’s two years later and I’m still not sure where I am. Do I love myself any more? Nope. Do I accept myself any more? Maybe…sort of. I’m struggling to take stock of what has actually changed. I suppose I tolerate myself more than I used to? I give less fucks about the expectations of others? Is this the same as self-acceptance?
It turns out that validation from others really CAN’T create or replace self-love (source: @meganemckenz). I haven’t learned to love myself any better from selfies, or from selfie likes or selfie followers or selfie comments or selfie reposts. I have, however, changed how I feel about them. Selfies are not all evil and Bieber and basics and vainglory, as others might have you believe. They’ve been a surprisingly useful tool for me in the attempt to be myself. For the first time ever, I am trying to be the person I’m supposed to be. I’ve always been in here, somewhere, but I think years of emotional harm and conditioned self-destruction had me surviving for so long as a series of shadows and silhouettes, flip-flopping between different personas to elude myself and anyone who was looking for me.
And so I salute the selfie: a lot of people may hate you, but I don’t. You’re teaching me to let go, grow, and not take everything so damn seriously. You’re teaching me that this, right here, is the only body I have, and will ever have. It is the physical vessel carrying me through my conscious experience. It’s both real and unreal, a literalness and a metaphor, and I don’t want to glorify or diminish it. If at all possible, I’d like to try to understand it.