It’s a familiar drill: Berry lips pucker, smokey eyes squint, the front-facing iPhone camera is raised and a photo is snapped.
It doesn’t have to be a girls’ night. A quick cross-eyed picture before an 8 A.M. class that feels especially early, captioned with a Beyoncé-referencing #Iwokeuplikethis is fair game. A pair of excited faces photographed minutes before a Celtics game counts, too.
Welcome to the age of the selfie. Scroll down your Instagram feed and you’ll see them; log into Facebook and they’re rolling in likes; sift through your Twitter followers’ photos and you’ll peep at least one or two. The self-taken portraits have become so omnipresent that the “selfie” made headlines in November, when the Oxford Dictionary named it 2013’s word of the year.
No matter the number of high school pregames or Tinder profiles that have incorporated the selfie, there’s more to the phenomenon than is initially clear. Despite the Buzzfeed listicles or Esquire columns that suggest otherwise, the act of taking a selfie isn’t always desperate or selfish. What may seem like a shameless attempt at social media attention is really an important statement of individualism and often a contemporary feminist declaration of agency. This is where a selfie, defined as “a photograph that one has taken of oneself,” becomes especially relevant.
When comedian Jenny Johnson (who made headlines for an infamous Twitter brawl with R&B star Chris Brown in November 2012) took to the pages of GQ to give a “Guide to Instagram” in June 2013, selfies were her first target. “Ladies, put on full makeup, fix your hair, put on a T-shirt with a large collar and Flashdance it off your shoulder, get in bed, and take a selfie like you just woke up,” she advised. “Write things like, ‘Ugh. So tired.’ or ‘This is my exhausted look’… It really will lead people to believe you wake up looking good, and not like your usual bag of shit.”
Buzzfeed ideas editor and Twitter-famous writer Ayesha Siddiqi chastised Johnson’s childish humor and eventual cavalier dismissal of the selfie game. “Women feign humility with self-effacing hashtags on their selfies because our decisions are still vulnerable to more extreme judgment than a man’s,” Siddiqi reasoned, via her blog Pushing Hoops With Sticks. “Especially the decision to take the agency of admiring ourselves, looking at others look at us, instead of being solely the unaware subject of others’ gaze.”
Johnson’s sarcasm referenced an oft-ignored fact of selfie enthusiasts: Rarely are selfies impromptu, just as they seldom capture their subject in a state of true vulnerability. Selfies are tightly controlled images of their focus, positioned just so.
That being said, Siddiqi’s retort held a more weighty truth: There is no dictum demanding that selfies be relegated to embarrassing or unattractive photos. It’s with this logic that a selfie becomes not evidence of unpolished desperation, but an important statement, one of personal validation in the face of a sexist or racist culture.
Scan any tabloid headline decrying Kim Kardashian’s latest “booty selfie” or Beyoncé’s near-nakedness in her “Partition” music video, and it’s easy to see the pro-body, pro-woman perspective that is being left out. Instead of subjecting themselves to an entertainment industry and a larger, gendered culture that insists on playing within a voyeuristic fantasy, Kardashian and Beyonce play without it. A Kardashian “booty selfie” is more than tabloid fodder, it’s Kim Kardashian actively presenting her often-objectified body under her own gaze, not under that of a paparazzo or magazine editor.
This privilege—the ability to present and accept your own beauty on your own terms—was largely unavailable to women of previous generations, but can now be taken advantage of by Kim Kardashian and Instagram users who post selfies similar to hers. In an age when technology makes images more accessible than ever, this availability provides a gift and a curse: The curse, that a human body can be objectified constantly and often without permission, and the gift that the ability to present controlled images of one’s body or humanity is just as possible.
Even more than an ability to present an image under one’s own gaze, a selfie is a way to vindicate one’s own beauty. As a 5-foot-3-inch, brown-eyed, African-American woman, my selfies—and those of women with similar features that are often labeled as “ethnic,” “exotic,” or “unconventional”—is an important message of inclusion and an assertion of agency. In the face of magazine covers and fashion ads that feature a plethora of Jennifer Lawrence lookalikes, opening Snapchat to find a selfie from my Filipino sorority sister is a critical reminder that there is more to being considered beautiful than having blonde hair and large breasts.
In a December New York Times op-ed, actor/director/writer James Franco suggested that a selfie is “the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, ‘Hello, this is me.’” And that’s true—beneath the awkward angle or misguided wink lies a digital reckoning between contemporary objectification and 21st century empowerment. The next time you scroll past a selfie, look again. There’s more to that duckface than meets the eye.