In December 2015 Prince Harry declared he was “anti-selfie”, refusing to be photographed with a young woman in South Africa. But this was the not the first time he objected. On his tour of Australia, earlier that year, he also urged a young woman not to take a selfie with him, and proffered a photograph instead. His action suggested a clear distinction between a selfie and a ‘normal’ photograph, but Prince Harry isn’t the first to draw attention to this.
The proliferation of the selfie at an initial glance suggests a narcissistic epidemic, but this interpretation overlooks the fact that selfies are a social phenomenon and there is a social reality to be understood. People aren’t taking the photos for themselves never to see the light of day, the intent is to share them in a wider social context through the technologies available.
The selfie however, like any other social construct, is a mirror through which to understand ourselves and our time. People have always captured images of themselves. The interesting thing here, which researchers exploring the selfie have discovered, is that the individual tends to take the same pose repeatedly, fun pic, sexy pose, etc.. This suggests the selfie is a deliberate act of negotiating identity. It is a tool of communication to signal to the world how the individual wants to be perceived. This is why we don’t tend to see selfies of the worst moments that might convey something the individual isn’t wanting to share or to show.
That said, if we consider the most common kind of poses on Instagram (the kiss face, beauty guru, fish gape, duck face, six-pack, model pout, gym, bedroom, bathroom, beach legs, OOTD (outfit to show how perfect I look), best assets, naughty, and just woke up selfie) we can see, that more often than not they are sexualised to various degrees, and always flirtatious. This suggests, to me not the negotiation of individual identity, but instead an internalisation of sexual objectification for both sexes as they both pout their way through each moment. A promiscuity of the self and exhibit of sexual promise. This particular presentation of self is intended to guarantee visibility, because today to be seen is to be ‘hot’. A clear message conveyed in the proliferation of sexualised images in the media and everywhere else, in which not career, not achievements or the particular merit of an individual is valued. Sexual allure is the much sought after golden ticket. Hinting at the success of the harvesting and grooming of insecurities over the past many decades, because beauty is lucrative and sex sells. And while on the other hand the selfies also present a way to equalise power dynamics by giving diverse voices the stage, these new voices are no easy find in the endless streams that pout and click.
Of course we all want to make the most of what we have, but have we reached the stage that only a degree of perfection in every moment will guarantee acceptance? If so, this would seem to suggest dangerous territory ahead, when we consider today there is a generation who have grown up with the internet. Their expectations and experiences of the world are significantly different to earlier generations who may have a foothold in both camps. Prince Harry’s reasons are his, but it does make me consider what the implications might be of a world where the stakes are increasingly getting higher? What does it teach young people about who they are? And what to value? What they are being asked to offer and deliver to this world? Pause the next selfie and take the opportunity to think about what it is we want to communicate with the world and why, because each selfie is, whether we realise it or not, is in the very least an act of negotiating our identity to ourselves as well as others.