Selfies: empowering or just plain self-absorbed?

The word “selfie” is defined in the Urban Dictionary as “A picture taken of yourself that is planned to be uploaded to. . .[a] social networking website…usually accompanied by a kissy face or the individual looking in a direction that is not towards the camera.”

I wonder if there’s an entry for the word “kissy” as well.

Not that any of us would need one. These days selfie kissy-faces are pretty much standard fare on Facebook, Instagram and wherever else social networking happens. We all know that unmistakable pucker. Generally, a raised eyebrow completes the look, as well as a feigned look of oblivion to the fact that you’re holding the camera a few inches from your face.

It is now completely normal for people to take the most inane pictures of themselves—in the car, in the bathroom, in bed, at the store or wherever it seems necessary to document what you look like. Taking photos of or with other people is becoming rarer and rarer. You page through some people’s photo albums and find the same close up photo of them—just on a different day.

Some suggest that the phenomenon of selfies, which are generally, but not exclusively, taken by teenage girls, is a sign that they are embracing their bodies, celebrating their beauty and proudly asserting themselves. Research psychologist Peggy Drexler, Ph.D., points to examples like Lena Dunham of the TV show Girls, who is the queen of selfies in real life as well as on her show. Drexler discusses her tendency to appear “naked or in various states of undress” in pictures that “aren’t necessarily flattering by typical standards. They challenge the ‘Hollywood ideal’ and that…is a good thing, especially when size zero celebrities dominate so much of the modern day visual barrage. The more we see a range of body types, the better.”

Pamela Rutledge Ph.D., director of the Media Psychology Research Center, even goes as far to say that the intimacy of selfies gives them a “level of self-conscious authenticity that is different from even a candid photograph—they are more raw and less perfect.”

On the one hand, there’s truth to the idea that the more we are exposed to varying expressions of beauty, the more our appreciation will grow for all types. This is important. Very important. But, on the other hand, why does beauty still have to be defined physically? Just because more girls are snapping their looks doesn’t mean they feel any more beautiful inside. Chances are, they’re not taking selfies when they’re bloated or on an especially bad hair day. It’s still based on looking beautiful.

Further, I disagree with Rutledge’s assessment that selfies are more “raw and less perfect.” In whose world? Selfies are carefully orchestrated shots. Even when someone looks like they’ve just rolled out of bed, the sexy, tousled hair, dewy eyes and rosy cheeks scream anything but “raw.” I wake up with crusty eyes, matted hair and traces of dried drool across my cheek. I’m not reaching for the camera.

No, selfies are beauty shots that are not meant to look like beauty shots. We’re supposed to think the subject has been caught in the act of just being naturally beautiful. Which is only slightly ridiculous. Catching yourself pursing your lips and looking off into the distance is the epitome of unrehearsed, right?

Drexler goes on to suggest that rather than an expression of confidence, the selfie is a “manifestation of society’s obsession with looks and its ever-narcissistic embrace.”

I couldn’t agree more. There’s nothing liberating about this trend. If anything, it’s sucking people into the continued deception that they are the center of the universe and it’s their beauty that makes them special. As Drexler comments, “It’s like looking in the mirror all day long and letting others see you do it.”

Imagine that! No one would be so vain, right? People checking the mirror and primping every few minutes? That’d be embarrassing. So, why is it perfectly normal if it’s on Instagram? It’s funny how technology seems to do away with so many social etiquettes. Like, say, talking.

Technology makes it okay to bully people, “chat” away to a screen, befriend and un-friend people, and now, to be publicly obsessed with how we look. I like the phrase “ever-narcissistic embrace” because it’s just that—a fake hug. When we constantly glorify our physical beauty and allow it to define our worth, we may feel a slight burst of comfort and reassurance for a few minutes, but then we have to rush back into the race of staying perfect.

We don’t need any more of that. Instead, truly seeing others, allowing them into our frames and building a community of authentic and kind people around us is so much more beautiful. So much more.