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What Selfies Tell Us About Ourselves And How Others See Us

Ramona Martinez is under no illusion that this selfie is a work of art.
Ramona Martinez
Ramona Martinez is under no illusion that this selfie is a work of art.

Ramona Martinez is a production assistant at NPR who worked on an All Things Considered story earlier this week about the culture and meaning of selfies. Here, she offers a selfie postscript that further parses philosophical issues not covered in the piece.

We can probably all agree that smartphones are now an inseparable part of ourselves (if you can afford one, that is), and so is the Internet. Whether that's a good thing is still undergoing intense philosophical scrutiny.

What is not up for debate is that a lot of our socializing occurs online, and as we interact with others, we leave behind a curated "digiself" — the links you post on Facebook, the comments, the selfies. This concept is even more clearly demonstrated on platforms like Tumblr — a way to socialize and digitally scrapbook whatever interests you.

Millennials do not use social media just because it's addicting — it's practically a career requisite. Many organizations want to know that you are "social media savvy" — and many companies expect you to have an online presence (or personal brand). Public relations, publishing houses, journalists, even small business — it's pretty much in every young person's favor to be online.

Both the interviewees for the piece (tech writer Sarah Purewal and digital artist Molly Soda) use selfies in this utilitarian way: Sarah's readers expect her to be well-versed in all forms of social media and therefore trying out selfie apps. And, as a self-employed artist, it's natural that Molly would want attention, lest she go the route of the lonely Van Gogh.

But the utilitarian justification for the selfie is not our focus — nor was it the focus of the piece. We hear a lot about why the selfie amplifies our deep-seated vanity. Given that, I asked Molly and Sarah, and many other women: What is the value of the selfie?

Although not every selfie is art, the selfie is tangential to the traditional self-portrait. Although this is self-evident, Molly pointed out that perhaps the ease of the technology makes some people consider selfies worthless. (For more on this, see the Dada movement — artists who used everyday objects, and who believed that almost anything could be art. Also see Cindy Sherman for more on self-portraiture.)

The selfie is a way to quickly relate: Where you are, how you are feeling, perhaps what is happening?

The selfie is a way for you to have control over how others see you, and to be seen. People can become famous through Instagram without actually being famous, and that is democratizing even if ethically weird.

In an age where a private picture sent to an ex-boyfriend can ruin your career, the naked selfie is a way for women to take back control from those who wish to shame them for being sexual. Instead of thinking, "Please God, don't let him put that online," these women instead say: "Now you have nothing to hold over my head, and furthermore I have nothing to be ashamed of."

The selfie is a way to challenge unfair beauty standards. For example, young women all over the world are no longer shaving their body hair, rejecting a patriarchal beauty standard. When a celebrity or instafamous girl posts a picture of her hairy pits or her makeup-free face — that's a big deal. Populating the Internet with images of girls as they truly are (not how a male-dominated society expects them to be) is a politically subversive form of resistance.

Yes, but what about the edited selfie? That is trickier.

Neither Molly nor Sarah thought there was anything wrong with editing your selfies, and I don't either. I would never tell a woman that how she chooses to represent herself is wrong (there are enough people doing that already!). There are women who participate in mainstream standards of beauty, women who completely reject them, and women who take a middle path (Molly obviously loves makeup and also has visible armpit hair).

Regardless of which path they choose, people should not be shamed for merely participating in social media, our new arena for camaraderie and political resistance. Even if you personally don't post selfies, everyone wants to leave this earth having been noticed or remembered, and we try to ensure that in our own way. If that is the mark of narcissism, then we are all narcissists (although I think the correct word is human).

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Ramona Martinez