Exploring Self(ie) Doubt

By Gabrielle Sierra

I don’t take photos of myself. This isn’t a principled stance, unlike my stance against using emojis. (I’m a writer in an ever-disappearing industry, let me use my words while I can, damn it.) I don’t selfie because I just don’t get it.

I am well-aware that I stand in the minority on this subject; a lone whiner against a sea of selfie-enthusiasts. The word itself has become so ingrained in our lives that it was added to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Celebrities and social media influencers make enormous amounts of money just by taking photos of themselves while wearing a product or selling a lifestyle. Even images from the recent election cycle regularly showed crowds facing away from candidates in order to take a selfie. According to a 2014 Pew research study, 55 percent of millennials take selfies and post them on social media, and a 2015 survey by Now Sourcing and Frames Direct calculated that millennials spend more than an hour every week on selfies.

As someone who feels awkward posing for photos in general, the desire to take a close-up snap of my face, and then ask people to judge it, seems strange as hell. I will never understand the impulse to take a selfie in a dirty bathroom mirror unless you just saw a ghost and want to document it. I will never relate to the motivation behind snapping a photo of yourself in a car unless the interior of said car is crawling with ants and you want to prove you are cool under pressure. I will never jump on board with the urge to pout or frown or “smize” for Instagram followers, because I just really don’t get how people can be confident enough to assume we all care about their faces. Subsequently, I have always assumed that people who are driven to take and share photos of themselves must be on some sort of alternate spectrum that runs from extremely confident to straight-up narcissistic.

“As someone who feels awkward posing for photos in general, the desire to take a close-up snap of my face, and then ask people to judge it, seems strange as hell.”

However, as I started speaking with people and doing research for this piece, I began to realize that verbalizing the motivation behind taking or sharing a photo of oneself is complex, to say the least. Most answers and statistics seem to show a struggle between overt self-confidence and inner self-doubt, a social media generation problem if there ever was one.

For example, a study published in Psychology Today did in fact suggest that narcissists, especially psychopathic men, are more likely to share selfies. However, the results of the study also showed that men who view their bodies as objects are more likely to edit them in shared images. This act of editing is a sign of self-objectification that is associated with low self-esteem, not high.

The combination of outward certainty and inward uncertainty is something I kept running into, even with those around me. My queries were met with defensive answers almost every time. Easy selfie questions lobbed at friends and colleagues resulted in several heated debates. Some people began rationalizing their photo activities, saying they only took “funny”or “ugly” selfies. At brunch, an argument broke out and photographs were feverishly scrolled through, presented as proof that this particular selfie was more reasonable than that one. In more than one instance feelings were hurt by casual remarks. 

“This act of editing is a sign of self-objectification that is associated with low self-esteem, not high.”

A 2015 paper authored by Brazil’s UFMG and Korea’s KAIST researchers explained that a number of theories exist when it comes to selfies. One is that sharing a selfie with the world is a means of “self-exploration,” a way to “re-see” yourself. “With the ability to control the aesthetics of a picture, selfies are a perfect tool for showing the world one’s subjective self-image,” the paper states. In an interesting twist, the research goes on to indicate that when presented with an edited selfie and an un-edited one, people tend to identify the more attractive image of themselves as the original picture.

“The amount of selfies you take isn’t something that you really think about. It is sort of like a sickness, it is something you can’t control,” said Ronald Ferret, a colleague I convinced to discuss his tendency to take and share a lot of selfies. “My friends recently made fun of me for taking so many, and I was like ‘no I don’t!’ but then I checked and I was like god damn it, yes, they are right. I realized I had stopped taking pictures of what surrounds me and was taking more of just me in the place. I deleted a bunch of shirtless ones. But my friends were right, and I still do it a lot.”

This selfie-doubt is intriguing, since the act itself still feels so inherently tied to confidence. Many authors seem to agree and have encouraged selfie-taking as a form of affirmation. A quick search around the interweb pulls up a number of articles hailing selfie-taking as a way to build up self-assurance, including the “I Took A Selfie Everyday for A Year and Now I Am Confident” piece and the “Take a Selfie to Feel Better About Yourself” portion of a self-help piece. There are even studies that indicate taking a selfie can lead to more positive feelings.

But a new report, published in Frontiers in Psychology, seems to suggest that while people enjoy taking confidence-building selfies, no one cares about seeing them. Researchers surveyed 238 people and found that while 77 percent of them reported regularly taking selfies, 82 percent reported that they would rather look at other types of photos. This seemed to be yet another instance where the motivation to take, possibly edit, and then share a selfie was less about looking at these types of photos and more about achieving something personal.

Regardless of the many motivations and emotions behind posting and sharing an image of yourself, it is clear the fad isn’t going anywhere. Google statistics estimate that about 93 million selfies were taken per day in 2014 on Android devices alone, a number that no doubt has gone up over the past few years. And as younger generations grow up testing the limits of what we share online, selfies are bound to become more socially acceptable, so much so that my selfie-aversion may soon be archaic.

Either way, I doubt my opinion will change. I took a test selfie while writing this and couldn’t fathom ever posting it. I will always be the person who would rather take a photo of a beach with a friend walking in the frame than a photo of a beach blocked by my big head. And maybe in the long run selfie-takers will fare better, as the process is clearly an attempt to work through something deeper than just “look at me!”

For now at least I will attempt to scroll through selfies with a more open eye, although I can’t guarantee I’ll ever cave to giving my “like” approval.