Musings of a feminist English graduate from Louisiana

Why Selfies are Problematic (or, Fear and Selfie-Loathing in LA)

Posted on August 11, 2013

Recently, I went on a shopping trip with my mother to our local, relatively small-town mall. It had been a long time since I had been to any mall-type establishment, but the place was just what you would expect from any mall, filled with the usual mall-goers: scary-looking teenagers, older women walking with their arm weights, and mothers pushing baby strollers looking hurried.

Hans Memling's Vanity  (c. 1485), reimagined for 2013.

Hans Memling’s Vanity (c. 1485), reimagined for 2013.

It was the middle of the day, so Mom and I decided to stop for lunch in the food court. Since options were limited to the pizza place that sells giant slices of droopy pizza and other unappetizing food court staples, I ended up settling on a California roll from a sushi place where 70% of the menu was fried.

As I was sitting at our table, spreading wasabi with the end of my chopstick, I noticed a group of construction workers nearby looking in our direction. A tilt of my head confirmed my suspicions — they were staring at me. Now, without sounding like Samantha Brick, I’ll just say that this is something that I’ve gotten used to over the years; despite my aura of awkwardness, I’m plenty used to being ogled by strangers. But this time it was different. Instead of looking me over until settling on another, more nubile target, the men wouldn’t look away.

The staring got so bad that my mom noticed, and told me to hurry up and finish eating so we could leave. As I got up to throw my styrofoam cup into the trash, I consciously avoided looking over at the men, feeling an all-too familiar anger at not being able to go straight to their table and curse them out. I knew the safest and best course of action was to dump my plastic tray and walk off — and that’s what I did.

This story is probably so familiar to women everywhere that it hardly seems worth telling. But I was angry — so angry that I did tell some friends about the incident. And you know what most of them told me? “Take it as a compliment. It means you’re hot!!”

The Male Gaze 

The male gaze is everywhere, and it is so omnipresent as to be considered a reality of modern life to be dealt with, tolerated, and ultimately, accepted. So much so that women themselves perpetuate it by encouraging other women to welcome and enjoy (or even to invite) the stares of strangers. Which brings me to the subject of this post: selfies.

male gaze

In Meghan Murphy’s essay entitled “Putting selfies under a feminist lens,” the author notes that selfies abound on the Internet, and that girls and women in particular are drawn to post these camera-phone self-portraits on social media sites.

Murphy writes:

If you Google selfies, you will find hundreds upon hundreds of shots of young women, often in various states of undress or attempting to capture the perfect face-to-cleavage ratio. There’s the odd shot of a teenage boy, looking confused or intentionally stoic, but there’s no doubt that the selfie is a gendered trend.

Vanity, Thy Name Is Woman

To put Murphy’s claim to the test, I did a quick stalk of profile pictures of men on my friends list. My boyfriend has never posted a selfie. My brother has never posted a selfie. None of my male cousins (with the exception of one photographer) have ever posted selfies. Instead, these men all choose profile photos from pictures taken at bars, at weddings, or on vacations. They’re depicted hanging out alongside their friends, girlfriends, or wives — who have either been left in the picture or cropped out of the frame, smiling somewhere just outside the photo’s scope.

In contrast, out of my 28 profile pictures, 12 are bona fide selfies — and I don’t consider myself the kind of person who takes pictures on a regular basis, let alone of my face.

That leads me to another observation: Is it a coincidence that we call narcissists “attention whores” and not “attention assholes?” The latter is certainly more alliterative, and just as fitting. But no, vanity is viewed in our society as a particularly feminine failing. During the Renaissance, this deadly sin — a manifestation of pride — was always represented as a naked woman, combing her long hair and gazing into a mirror. It appears that our conception of this vice has only changed slightly in the past 700 years — we’ve merely replaced the hand mirror with an iPhone.

A quick Google search of “how to take a selfie” yields 48,600,000 results, including links like “How to Take a Sexy Selfie: Tips From Sports Illustrated Models.” And, as Murphy points out, selfies are overwhelmingly taken and posted by women.

Murphy’s piece, while eye-opening, draws some conclusions that leave much to be desired — namely, that the biggest problem with selfies is the fear that they could become pornography, and that feminism has “capitulated.” I take issue with these conclusions for many reasons; namely, I don’t think it’s fair to place the blame on women for what men might do with their pictures, I definitely don’t think feminism is in any way irrelevant, and I think there’s more at play with the selfie trend than Murphy acknowledges.

Selfies: More Than Narcissism 

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I understand why people post selfies, and it’s not just about vanity. We live in a world where women and girls have to constantly deal with all sorts of conflicting expectations — and a great number of those expectations have to do with how we present our physical selves to the world. Obtaining the correct balance between hot, sexy, and cute is nothing short of an imperative — so much so that a fourteen year old girl wearing the “wrong” outfit can be seen as “asking” to be raped. So to me, it makes sense that women my age would feel the need to post pictures of themselves as a way of “performing” their gender and as an attempt to gain control over their own image.

Taking the right selfie can send a message. Think of all the different permutations of selfies that you’ve seen. There are the “Myspace”-style shots of yesteryear (or should I say, of freshman year?): in these, the camera is held over the head to optimize the ratio of face to cleavage and to assure that the girl pictured looks as doe-eyed as possible. There are the duckfaces, the “sorority squats” (not actually selfies, but the girls are still basically taking pictures of themselves), the “no filters;” the list goes on and on.

Performing Our Gender 

We use selfies to show that we are adept at presenting ourselves as today’s modern women. We know how to toe the line, how to present ourselves properly. It’s not enough to be educated, outspoken, successful — we also all have to be desirable in order to be taken seriously, whether we like it or not.

This isn’t just speculation; it’s scientifically proven. The sad, ugly truth is that we live in a society where a woman’s appearance is tied up in her worth. We live in a society where “conventionally attractive” women are more likely to be taken seriously, more likely to succeed in the workplace, and more likely to be considered competent, generous, and trustworthy.

Contrary to what you might think, selfies aren’t just about vanity, insecurity, or narcissism. I really believe that the trend of compulsive online self-portraiture is a response to society’s expectation of today’s modern women, who know that in order to succeed, they must present their best face to the world — literally. Looks are everything but arbitrary.  If social media is all about “branding” yourself as an individual, expressing who you are by creating a profile centered around your carefully-curated likes and interests, it makes sense that your face would be the logo for your personal brand. And unlike in the real world, where we’re seen in three-dimensions, with all of our flaws and our bad angles, Facebook and Instagram give us the opportunity to show only our best angles, to retouch our imperfections, and to decide which “filters” through which we will be seen.

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Selfies are a way to access the unique power that comes from being a beautiful, desirable woman. I understand why people would want to tap into this power and take advantage of it, but it still makes me uneasy, for all of the reasons I’ve listed above. So I posted this “anti-selfie” on my Facebook and Twitter accounts, because I felt the need to assert that images of my face and body do not define me or constitute my identity, and to remind my friends that they are more than just pretty faces. It’s my hope that other women will similarly find ways to empower themselves that don’t involve posting pictures of themselves — through things like writing, creating, or doing whatever it is that makes them feel strong and good.

But as a feminist, I believe that it’s a woman’s right to do whatever the hell it is she wants to with her body, and I’m sure not everyone views this issue the way I do. So hey girl, go ahead and post those selfies. But you might want to think twice about calling them “empowerment.” ▄

Why I Have Mixed Feelings About My College 4.0

Posted on May 20, 2013

Just a few days ago, I graduated from LSU with a B.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing, a minor in Latin, a thesis under my belt, and a 4.0 cumulative GPA. While I am super stoked about finally being finished with my college career and being awarded a shiny medal for my academic achievements, I’ve been thinking a lot about the implications of my accomplishments and the cost of my success.

I Have a Life, I Swear

First of all, when people find out about my GPA, they often assume certain things about me — namely, that I have no social life and am a super boring and uptight person who “missed out” on the best parts of college. That is just not true. Listen: I LOVE partying. I can party with the best of them. I went to frickin LSU, guys. Please invite me to your party. I am a normal human who enjoys social events, and I will not be a buzzkill. [Disclaimer: Now that I'm 22 I have significantly slowed my roll. Shots are a thing of the past, and most nights, I forego the bar scene altogether in favor of pajamas and Netflix.]

My University Medal. Not sure if I went after this distinction because I'm a perfectionist, or because I am just super attracted to shiny objects.

My University Medal. Not sure if I went after this distinction because I’m a perfectionist, or because I am just super attracted to shiny objects.

Now for the more serious aspect of my argument. It’s scary to me when I realize just how many people think that I’ve never experienced failure. It’s scary how many people have told me things like, “Your life looks so perfect.” It’s scary because it’s so far from the truth.

* * * 

Here’s the thing: I am a perfectionist, and like many young women my age, I hide my failures well. I was raised with all of the conflicting expectations that girls in our society know so well: be sexy, but not slutty, smart but not too smart, modest but not too prudish, outgoing but not obnoxious, funny but never vulgar, competitive but never aggressive — lest you be cast off as masculine or (God forbid), “bitchy.”

Looking at my CV, it’s clear to me that my life on paper — while certainly impressive — is a shimmering lie of omission. I don’t say this to trivialize or undermine my accomplishments, but to acknowledge that there are certain things you just can’t put on a resume. In all my years as an overachiever, I have also racked up such impressive credentials as Extreme Self-Loathing: 2004-2012, Obsessive Striving to the Point of Mental and Physical Exhaustion, 1995-present, and a Lingering Sense of Inadequacy/ Crippling Self-Doubt.

Mental illness manifests itself in many ways, and it’s easy to forget that it can bring about great profits as well as great peril. Some of the most successful people I know are also the unhappiest. Everyone wants to be successful, but few people understand that the people who push themselves the hardest are often those individuals who are driven by their own insecurities, and that their accomplishments are (at least in part) the fruits of their anxieties and compulsions. Ask any successful person to divulge their secret, and they will invariably say something like, “I never stopped trying.” What they probably won’t admit is, “I couldn’t stop. Ever.”

The Cost of Success

I’m not trying to say that I’m not proud of what I’ve achieved. I just think that it’s easy to forget that great success comes at a high cost. Perfectionists are never satisfied with what they’ve accomplished; their dissatisfaction is what fuels them to keep going above and beyond. Impossibly high standards, distorted self-image, and unrealistic expectations bring about untold anguish — all masked by an increasingly perfect facade that seems too good to be true, because it is.

I have failed in many ways that others overlook, because my failures often serve to make me the ideal student, employee, and friend. I am a fantastic people-pleaser, and I am willing to put your needs before my own. And while I have gotten better at accepting my own flaws and allowing myself to slow down once in a while, I am constantly surrounded and saddened by the reflections of myself I see in my high-achieving, increasingly unhappy peers.

I doubt that I’ve said anything here that hasn’t already been said, and I don’t think you’d have to look far to find examples of the phenomenon that I’m describing (think Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Beyonce, etc.). And I could write an entire blog post arguing that while my age group is often described as the “most narcissistic generation,” we’re actually just the most practiced at cultivating self-representations; we’ve learned to showcase only the carefully-constructed versions of ourselves that we want others to see and admire.

I think it’s safe to say that our society worships success, and that our fixation with perfection sets us up for a lifetime of disappointment and unhappiness. As I finally enter into the so-called real world, I’m realizing that I have to change; I have to do the hard work of unlearning what I have learned up until now, or risk being trapped in a life driven by the pursuit of gold stars and praise rather than by the pursuit of my dreams.

So while my friends and family are congratulating me on my shiny impressive medal, I’ll be congratulating myself on deciding to take some time to myself after college, rather than rushing headlong toward the next series of accolades. I think it might be my greatest accomplishment so far.  █

An Interview With David Horton

Posted on May 30, 2013

Among the many pieces of original artwork displayed at the bed and breakfast where I work, one of the most eye-catching is the brightly-colored and highly symbolic painting by David Horton. His work has been favorably reviewed in The International Herald Tribune of Paris, L’Oeil International art magazine of Paris and many other international publications. Recently, I was lucky enough to be able to sit down and chat with him about his work.

In this interview (originally published here by The Stockade Bed & Breakfast), Horton talks about his current exhibition at Baton Rouge Gallery, his artistic influences, and how his artwork once saved a marriage!

hortonHow did you decide to study art and become an artist?

The truth is, it was just kind of a desperation move. I had already had a good career in design. But I hated advertising. It was stressful and very, very stifling, in terms of your own ability to express yourself. I just decided to go back to school [at LSU] and study fine art as kind of a leap of faith, and you’ll find that theme —’leap of faith’— in all of my work. And it worked out.

You’ve traveled all over the world and done research all around Europe. What was that like?

I spent more time in France. In the eighties, I had a studio in the south of France and I had a studio in Paris. My paintings were quite different back then. They were more serious; my theme at that time was confession. They were not as colorful either.

Spain in the nineties was an eye-opener. I had a studio on the southern coast, and the light and the whole atmosphere was so much different. Spanish are fun-loving people — I can’t say the same about the French … They are in a lot of ways very serious people.

And you’re not a serious person?

I am if I have to be [laughs]. That’s what my paintings were all about. But I found out I could enjoy making work that was more fun and less having to have a heavy philosophical meaning.

You’re having an exhibit at Baton Rouge Gallery this month. Tell me about the pieces that are going to be displayed.

I’m showing new work done in last three years. They’re along same themes that I’ve been exploring in the past. There are twelve pieces. The Baton Rouge Gallery is good for letting people you know see what you’re doing, and it provides an opportunity just to talk to other people about it when they come in.

Can you tell me about the painting that we have on display at The Stockade (pictured above)?

It’s called “Diversions.” If you look in the painting, you’ll see a lot of things that are diverting. She’s carrying a mask, which could also be considered a diversion. The fish represents freedom of choice.

How do you think living in the South has influenced your paintings?

There’s more of the South in there than I care to admit. I’m really from New York, but growing up in the South, you don’t realize how infected you become. It seeps in everywhere. It really would be hard to pick it out in my paintings. Occasionally I’ll be more specific, like including a watermelon in a painting. I spent a lot of time fishing as a child, so fishing comes into my paintings quite a lot.

What do you want people to know about your artwork?

That it’s accessible. People can enjoy it without feeling like they have to get some deep meaning out of it, even though they may have more fun with it if they read my symbols dictionary — then it’s a puzzle.

I had one guy in New Orleans who spotted me in a gallery, came up to me and said, ‘You saved my marriage.’ I said, ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ His wife had bought him a painting for his birthday, and in his words, when he got that painting, he said, ‘I had no idea she knew me that well.’

Wow. Is that the weirdest thing anyone has told you about a painting of yours that they bought?

Well actually, the weirdest thing anybody ever told me about my work was a woman who wrote me and said, ‘Your work made me think of my father for the first time in twenty-five years. It made me very sad and happy at the same time.’

That’s not so weird. Why is that so weird?

Well I can’t imagine anything in any of my paintings that would make anyone think of their father.

I would say, you’re using all of these symbols and it’s all very Freudian and very dreamlike.

I suppose so.  █

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