You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone at Emerson today who doesn’t have an Instagram account. There’s a universal satisfaction that comes from posting a picture of yourself or photo you took onto the Internet and receiving a positive response. This experience is particular to millennials: never before in history was it possible to take and share photos and videos instantly.
Mainstream media accuses millennials of vapidity and self-centeredness based on this growing “selfie culture.” TIME Magazine called us the “Me Me Me Generation,” in an article with a cover photo of models taking pictures with their phones.
I think this argument is misguided. Selfie culture doesn’t stem purely from generational narcissism. Rather, I see this as a celebration of self-esteem, a new age in which young people are unafraid to share their faces with the world. I want to see how sharing these photos on social media breaks the cycle of self-loathing and releases us from the trap of beauty industries specifically designed to make us hate ourselves.
I’m not sure there is a way to make social media and selfie culture a purely positive, feminist experience. The best any of us can do is to analyze our own motivations for posting: rather than feeling good because of a selfie, we should take selfies because we feel good. The intent of technology isn’t to isolate, but to connect the world more profoundly than ever before in human history. Selfie culture, a natural extension of these emerging technologies, should celebrate confidence, difference, and variety in all of our lives.
There’s an undeniable dark side to selfie culture, however. Essena O’Neill, a 19-year-old Australian model, recently made headlines denouncing her fame and highlighting the façade of “Instagram stardom.” O’Neill’s message is that “Social Media Is Not Real Life.” She made her point by recaptioning several of her popular posts: in one, she discussed taking a photo hundreds of times until one made her stomach look flat; in another, she revealed how a clothing brand had paid her to pose and post a picture wearing their dress.
O’Neill revealed that the social media world was just as susceptible to perpetrating those damaging ideals for women as traditional media is. Beauty companies sell us desirable, yet ultimately unattainable images of women. We feel forced to pursue that image by buying products—an endless and exhausting cycle.
On the surface, selfie culture seems to subvert the unattainability of the beauty industry: if we’re posting pictures of ourselves, ideally, we’re not participating, and that tells us not to enjoy who we are, for what we are. Yet O’Neill’s story proves just how involved sponsorship, branding, and the unattainable female ideal have become in selfie culture.
Further, O’Neill expressed through her YouTube and Instagram accounts that her view of reality became warped in her pursuit of Internet fame. For years, O’Neill associated her self-worth with the amount of likes she could get on a photo. She spoke about the lonely and isolating effect that social media can have when your validation comes from an anonymous “like” button.
Most of us who have grown up in the digital age have stories about how social media hurt us in one way or another. In my junior year of high school, I deleted my Facebook after seeing pictures posted of girls I’d considered close friends hanging out at an event that I wasn’t invited to. Looking back, that moment seems trivial; yet I can say it was one of the most isolating and hurtful experiences of my high school career.
However, as proven by my eventual and inevitable return to Facebook, quitting social media doesn’t seem to be the answer. To abstain from selfie culture is a valid choice, but to try to eliminate it altogether would be fighting against the tide.
New technology didn’t create within us the instinct to share ourselves; it just gave us easier ways to do so.
Millennials will continue to share their lives and their faces; with luck, it will make us the most connected and confident generation on Earth. But Essena O’Neill’s story should be a cautionary tale for us all: we need to be mindful of our social media presences and the harm it can do to our psyches. I will always be a selfie-positive person, and I think there’s so much to be gained in this new form of expression and sharing. I’m learning, though, that as our modes of communication evolve, things aren’t always what they seem on the surface of a photo.