The Self Behind the Selfie

How the selfie culture impacts self-esteem

By Lucy Thomas

Behold a well-known law of Instagram: for every flawless selfie posted, three offcuts are shelved.

This is not just a matter of vanity, it’s a practice also built on the photographer’s deep artistic process (cough, cough). Naturally, the very act of posting online relies on an expectation that somebody will view our content and appraise it. Here lies the paradox of the online world—we are at once completely vulnerable to judgment while at the same time being shielded behind a screen. This is how social media seduces us into uploading ourselves with the possibility that people may “like” us. On this topic, I feel qualified to speak from personal experience. Aren’t we all? If you can honestly say that you have never sought gratification from social media then you’re definitely more evolved than I am.


Twiggy, 1965 Source:

On the surface, the proliferation of digital self-expression seems to be a recent by-product of camera phones, photo-editing apps, and the culture of NOW NOW NOW. One thing is for sure: the innovation of the technology used far outweighs the originality of our content. At any given moment, your newsfeed will loop you into a stream of selfies, sunsets, cat memes, and sloppy home-cooked meals. Unfortunately camera phones do not come with inbuilt artistic ability; instead they generate a cycle of homogenized life vomits on high rotation. Keep in mind also that many of the most emblematic “trends” of social media are nothing new either. I give you the early master of the selfie (Andy Warhol, 1974), the awkward lean (Twiggy, 1965), the duck face (Marilyn Monroe, 1954), and of course, the mirror selfie (Paul McCartney, 1963). In fact, the taking of “selfies” predates these examples back to the early 1900s.

Photographers on the roof of the Marceau Studio, New York_1920

Photographers on the roof of the Marceau Studio, New York, 1920. Source:

Then there’s the treasure that I unearthed at the local St Agnes Church Yard Recycle, a 1945 novel by Grace Moore titled, You’re Only Human Once. It appears that before YOLO, there was YOHO. More broadly, YOLO (you only live once) is the 21st century’s recapitulation of carpe diem (seize the day) and memento mori (remember that you will die). But in contrast to its ancestors, YOLO is now more widely used as an ironic catchcry to excuse reckless, selfish, or meaningless stuff uploaded to social media. We throw around this timeless idea to capture the banality in much of what we see online.

These artifacts highlight that while our technology is disposable, our ideas are recycled. Believe it or not, narcissism did exist before Instagram, poor body image predates #thinspiration, and girls were sexually performative before sexting. These trends are not as catastrophically pathetic as we might believe. What we are actually seeing online is the convergence of technology with some of the most pervasive themes of Western individualistic culture: personal identity, achievement, and recognition.

Marilyn Monroe

Marilyn Monroe poses for photographers in New York in 1954. Source:×2-940×627.jpg

In recent times, there has been an explosion of commentators examining where social media pressures fit within the current climate of Western culture. My personal favorite is Australian schoolgirl Olympia Nelson’s brilliant insight piece published in The Age, which pierces right to the core of selfie culture and the two-faced dealing of likes and compliments she has seen among her peers:

“It’s tense because it’s duplicitous. We’re faking it, so that we get to be among the most popular, get to be ‘liked’ by the most popular and thereby gain popularity.”

Paul McCartney

Paul McCartney, 1963 Source:

This idea is so spot-on. Both the content we post and our interactions with others seem to rest on an underlying contest for mass approval. Isn’t this is why we flog our wares with a side of super-clichéd hashtags? Indulge in a quick investigation of these tags and you’ll discover an allegiance of participants extending into the millions. Yes, likes and follows are a currency of popularity, which goes hand-in-hand with social power and conformity. As a result, people are increasingly flaunting their shiniest selves through selfies, snapchats, and status updates, making it is easy to assume that we have devolved into more overtly sexualized, shallow, and competitive beings.

Putting competition aside, there is a real, multi-dimensional person behind every online profile. We reach out for kindness and support in spaces that at the same time enable us to behave however we like with minimal real world consequences. This visible subject / invisible audience dynamic is problematic because it is rife with opportunities to hate on people without having to face them. As somebody who has built a career in tackling cyberbullying with teens, I have witnessed firsthand the devastating real life effects of online hate. Yet I still feel compelled to play the game, upload my photos, air my views, and hopefully pick up a couple of likes along the way. Why? Because it’s fun.

Fox Photos staff photographer_Getty Images

Vintage classic: A Fox Photos staff photographer captures his own image in a mirror, circa 1948.

Perhaps the very action of posting for others’ approval is the communication itself—an embodiment of Marshall McLuhan’s slogan, “the medium is the message.” Staging and posting a photo of oneself says ‘I am seeking validation.’ To be compassionate digital citizens, we need to learn and recognize this subtext. Let’s consider an example. I once dated somebody who sent me over 300 selfies in the two months that we were seeing each other. I saw each photo as an artifact of fragile self-esteem to be handled delicately and so responded with great care. I’d say, “gee you’re amazing” or “I can’t wait ‘til I see you for real on Friday!” While we do receive this level of care from a familiar audience, it is naïve to expect such understanding and sensitivity from total strangers.

One the one hand, the digital world galvanizes us with a confidence to broadcast parts of ourselves that we would never share offline. On the other, the more we share, the more we reveal our need for validation and thereby expose our deep insecurities. We also tend to praise surface appearances online rather than speaking to the root of what people are really saying. When one of our girlfriends uploads a selfie, we comment, “this is hot” or “you look beautiful” rather than, “you’re a wonderful friend” or “I’m glad you’re in my life.” When we think about it, the potential to give more genuine affirmations in these spaces remains largely un-navigated.

ellen_oscars selfie

The now infamous Ellen selfie taken at the Oscars in 2014.

The way I see it, we can and should expect more from our online interactions. We are the creators of all digital content and we have somehow sculpted a cyber world that is currently unworthy of its inhabitants. The culture does lean towards the superficial, but amid a feed of food porn, selfies, and sunsets, you occasionally find a winning gem that makes you laugh or reminds you that you are a tiny but valuable fleck in a vast and wonderful universe. There is nothing to prevent us from reclaiming social networking as an instrument of connection, joy and encouragement, but this means that for every post, we have to consider what it is that we’re really communicating. It’s time to acknowledge that there is an actual person behind every device whose need for real love and acceptance cannot be satisfied with vapid flattery. After all, while there will no doubt be countless iterations of the iPhone, YOHO.


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