We’re all control freaks now. Today the Oxford Dictionaries announced the Word of the Year 2013: “selfie.”
Even if you’re not familiar with the term, you’ve almost certainly seen a selfie on Facebook or Instagram or, heck, perhaps even in a hip Christmas letter. Oxford defines “selfie” as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.”
No doubt selfies have grown more popular in recent years. When I lived in New York, I was astonished at how many tourists shamelessly took selfies in front of famous buildings and spots. (Note to tourists: No matter how much you shift your phone and play with angles, you’re not going to be able to get the top of the Empire State Building in a shot with you standing at the bottom of the building. Never gonna happen. So stop hogging the sidewalk and move on.) In August, Michelle Obama took a selfie with her first pup Bo and, like any social-media guru, tweeted and instagrammed the shot.
Selfies have become a fixture in pop culture. Recently, a website that collects selfies ostensibly taken at funerals went viral. “Love my hair today. Hate why I’m dressed up today. #funeral” is the caption below one such selfie, depicting a woebegone-looking young woman dressed in black. On an episode of Fox’s The Mindy Project that aired earlier this month, the protagonist, Mindy Lahiri, shrieks when she’s dropped her phone on the subway tracks. “My phone! That has like eight years of photos on it! All my selfies!” she wails.
Sure, the upswing in narcissism plays a role in the prominence of selfies, as does new technology. (An iPhone, for instance, allows you to change your phone camera’s orientation so that it faces you while it takes a selfie of you.) But selfies are primarily about control.
If you take a photo of yourself, you can wait to press “click” until you like the way your features are arranged. You have time to fix that smudged mascara, to ensure your smile is wide (but not too wide), to tilt your face just so. (It’s quaint to think that once only movie stars were able to insist that they be filmed exclusively on their better side.) You can manufacture an expression, tweaking your eyes and mouth and lowering and raising and quirking your eyebrows until finally you’re satisfied with your depiction of yourself as playful or hot or surprised or bored or grieving. And if something is amiss in the photo, why, you just take another. And another. And . . . but you get the idea. The only thing stopping you from achieving that perfect look is the amount of memory your phone has to store your selfies.
Look, I’m no selfie virgin. I took my first ones in college, exasperated by the difficulty of finding a photo of myself someone else had taken that I liked enough to make my Facebook photo. My personality, I thought staunchly, wasn’t what those photos others had snapped showed: I wasn’t self-conscious and stiff and awkward. It was only, I told myself, being photographed by another person that made me look that way.
Image control is nothing new. Just consider Jackie Kennedy’s astute borrowing from the musical Camelot to frame the memory of her husband’s presidency after his assassination: “Don’t let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment, that was known as Camelot.”
Earlier this year, Beyoncé — likely influenced by an unflattering photograph of herself, performing at the Super Bowl, that had gone viral — decided to ban press photographers from shooting her tour concerts.
But we’re all pop stars and presidents now. We may not be worried about preserving our glamour to ensure selling enough tickets or to get favorable mentions in the history books, but we are intent on keeping up with the number of Facebook friends and Instagram likes and Twitter followers the Joneses have, and photo curation is a key component of depicting ourselves as leading enviable, fabulous lives.
Self-portraits aren’t. Near-universally flattering self-portraits are. But I have yet to see a selfie — even a humorous one — where the subject didn’t appear attractive. They can exist (see deleted photos from iPhones), but no one’s sharing them. We’re not trying to present who we really are, warts and all, with selfies. We’re presenting who we want to be seen as. Like pop stars and presidents, we’re salesmen — of ourselves.
There’s something sad and lonely about that. Sure, we can project some feelings onto an image (there aren’t exact figures on how many of us are under the delusion that we’d be best friends forever with, say, Beyoncé or Kate Middleton, if we got to meet, though I’m betting the figure’s high, given our collective cultural obsession), but we can’t have a genuine friendship or bond with an image. Real relationships aren’t based on illusion. They’re based on knowing a person, both his flaws and his strengths, his weaknesses and his traits that suggest the promise of a better someone developing in the future.
Photographs taken by others can capture traits and aspects of ourselves we’d rather not highlight, whether it be acne or awkwardness. Sure, allowing such photographs may decrease how many online “friends” or “followers” we have. But they’ll also liberate us, allowing us to be the kind of people who would rather be befriended and loved than admired and envied.
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.