When Academy Awards host Ellen DeGeneres gathered a group of megacelebrities together in the front row of the show’s star-studded audience, where they crouched together and posed as she took the “selfie heard around the world” it made for one of those moments when a frowned-upon pocket of youth culture goes 100-percent mainstream. Selfies are the photo-finish product of the act of taking a picture of oneself with a smartphone, arm held aloft, lips pursed (the fabled “duck lips”) or grinning. The trend has traveled from the Instagram (photo-sharing service) accounts of young people up to the biggest stage in the world, with a stop to elevate “selfie” as the “word of the year” in the Oxford English Dictionary for 2013.
Never mind that DeGeneres’s Oscar selfie stunt was mostly a promotional tool for a corporate camera sponsor. More important, the moment signaled the zenith of the kind of trajectory that happens so much in popular culture it isn’t even quantifiable. It goes like this: Teenage girls start a trend (it may be the vampire books they’re reading, or the way they talk, a jargon, a phrase, a way of taking pictures); the trend is derided and causes handwringing; and then it becomes part of the larger mainstream.
Take the Beatles, for instance. Or, like, “like.” Or dystopian adventure films, like “Divergent,” a “Hunger Games” imitator that opened recently to mainstream success. And then take selfies, which were popularized by young women using Tumblr, Instagram, and other social media.
My initial reaction to selfies was negative. For one thing, I found the parade of self-styled glamour shots irksome. They rubbed up against my somewhat sappy belief that if we judge each other, it should be on something more important than our looks. The idea also bothered me as a feminist: In addition to being accomplished, witty on social media and in person, groomed and forever able to fit into our skinny jeans, must we now also be the creative directors and subjects of our own cute pictures?
I stepped back and realized I shouldn’t impose my own judgments on a form of communication invented by young people. I wondered what value they got from this medium. I looked beyond my own Instagram feeds to the theoretical: The act of selfie-taking is really about seizing the reins on our own image. Thus, it can almost be radical to take a picture of oneself in the best light possible. It’s a way for young women, particularly young women who might be voiceless or excluded from traditional, stick-thin and white definitions of beauty, to re-center the conversation. There’s even a feminist selfie movement.
And in some ways, that conversation has already shifted. Among the most prominent users of the selfie are Kim Kardashian, Beyoncé, and selfie-made star (the very Jewish) Jen Selter, a fitness guru who is known primarily for taking selfies of her derriere. All of these women are redefining beauty standards. Some young women have gone beyond the cute selfie and started taking ugly selfies, distorting their faces, mugging, and generally showing themselves at their worst. There’s something about that trend-upon-a-trend that really confirms the pro-selfie philosophy. Whether making themselves more or less beautiful, young women are saying: “This is me and I control how I appear.”
In the past year or so, my husband, my close pals, and I have started sending each other selfies via text or direct messages as a more intimate way of saying, “Hi.” “Here’s me, locked out.” “Here’s me, sunburned.” “Here’s me, far away and missing you.” In that sense, the form isn’t just a trend, but a new and powerful and touching way of communicating.
Young girls have led the way.