#BeautyIs Selfie-Esteem?

Dove’s new ad campaign uses the hashtag #BeautyIs, and features a video of young women and their mothers taking selfies of themselves, alongside discussion about how they feel about their appearance.

Rather than discuss many of the interesting features of this video, such as the glaring incompatibility between a project promoting self-confidence, and its use as an advert to hock beauty products, I am instead going to consider the choice to feature the selfie, and its construction as a tool for generating self-esteem. The comments I am including here are from my research into the selfies discourse, as evident through user-generated comments on social media.

After some discussion of anxieties and insecurities, and the need to fit in with a certain mold of beauty standards, the selfie is introduced as a means for the young women and their mothers (both of which are identified as having troubled relationships with their looks, suggesting an endemic, long-term problem rather than something that can be so easily fixed as is presented here), to look again at themselves.

Focus on ‘Beauty’

The selfie is here described as being a means for redefining beauty. It is interesting that the conversation never moves away from beauty, to consider what else the photograph can capture, or construct. The young women’s achievements or personalities is not discussed, as an antidote to the corrosive effect of the beauty tyranny. the advert’s construction of these women is one-dimensional, in that only once do we see a glimpse of an interest beyond their looks, when a series of rosettes features on the wall behind a young woman looking at her phone.

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Instead of looking beyond beauty (or even besides beauty as the persistent binary of ‘looks’ vs ‘brains’ is particularly damaging) these young women must be encouraged to join the fold and see themselves as meeting the criteria for social validity. But after all, this is an advert, and it is selling a democratic ideal of universal beauty, so it is not that surprising.

The photographer in the advert suggests that her pupils incorporate things into the image that they might not necessarily like about themselves, prompting a discussion of the worries these young women have about their face shape, colouring and dental braces. There follows a sequence of mother-daughter selfies, with the younger women showing their mothers how to use their camera, and making statements about their mother’s beauty. The selfie here, therefore, is a marker of agency and knowledge, where younger people can be shown to guide their parents through an affective issue.

At a photography exhibition, large prints of selfies serve as a point of interaction, where viewers attach comments and bestow praise. This use of selfies to elicit positive group feedback is significant, and testifies to the importance of social approval in the development of individual identity.

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Reflection on oneself, particularly via a medium which enables control and choice, is shown to be a means for generating confidence. One young woman states that: “I was looking through my selfies last night and I realised that I am beautiful. I’m pretty cute.” The photograph, here, prompts a particular kind of positive self-awareness.

Objective Self Awareness

Objective Self Awareness is a useful theory for exploring the potential for photographic sharing and viewing to be a subjectivity building practice (Duval and Wicklund, 1972). Viewing oneself, whether in the mirror or as depicted in a photograph, adds to a subject’s capacity to reflect on the self as “the object of its own conscious attention”, and in so doing develop reflexivity (Ickes, Wicklund and Ferries, 1973: 202). This theory suggests that stimuli which cause the subject to become self-aware can prompt “a temporarily impaired self-esteem” by highlighting any “real-ideal discrepancies” (Ickes, Wicklund and Ferries, 1973: 203).

Research by Gonzales and Hancock (2011), however, indicates that selfies and social media more widely have forced a rethinking of this theory, as rather than prompting a lowering of self-esteem, viewing one’s online image and profile was found to be of benefit to the subject. The camera, unlike the frank and brutal reflection in the mirror, is within the subject’s control, allowing angle, pose and crop to be altered at will. Subjects frequently reference this sense of power over constructing their positive self-presentations, viewing selfies as:

an empowering tool that grants us a modicum of control (or at least the illusion of it) over our own ephemeral identities.[i]

For young people actively developing and experimenting with their identity, the photograph is a vital tool in gaining a sense of acceptance and even pride in their emergent identities:

i get into a weird headspace where i don’t even want to look at myself in mirrors because i hate how i look. taking selfies helps me work against those feelings. [ii]

By enabling the user to control their self-presentation, and to overcome the otherwise negative aspects of reflexivity, selfies demonstrate the potential for photographs to be used as “a unique source of self-awareness stimuli”, where the degree of control positively affects the subject’s satisfaction with the self (Gonzales and Hancock, 2011: 82). This is particularly important for subjects who otherwise might have a particularly problematic relationship with their appearance:

A large part of my own journey in learning to accept myself and what I look like (as a fat, “unconventionally attractive” woman) came with sharing photos of myself… It’s an experiment in interaction and self-reflection. [iii]

As the commenter above suggests, this self-knowledge does not occur in isolation, as social approval and acceptance are vital components in the development of self-esteem. Sharing one’s images, and the feedback one receives, is therefore both a deeply social and personal experience. Therefore, the use of photographs as part of “a series of performances strategically chosen by an individual” is not evidence of insincerity, but a logical wish for control over the impressions such images convey to others, and our selves (Papacharissi, 2011: 254). As this commenter suggests:

we’re all documented online so relentlessly … why wouldn’t you want to control the narrative of your own image?[iv]

Agency and Confidence

The connection between photography and agency is evident in the joyous uptake of selfies, and in the contrast they make with photographs taken against the subjects’ will:

I grew up having my picture taken all the time without my consent, and/or being cajoled into posing for pictures I didn’t want taken. Selfies feel safe to me in a way that most photographs don’t.[v]

As a guarantee of consent, where the subject has not had their boundaries ignored or transgressed, and as a vehicle for the expression of personal agency, the selfie is the potentially the ultimate expression of feminist goals possible in photography.  A key component of this feminist potential relates to the attainment confidence:

selfies = vanity = confidence = fuck you, patriarchy? [vi]

As a reaction to the negative images of women which populate the public sphere, and as a reframing of one’s own image in contrast to such messages and demands, the selfie acts as a statement of, and conduit for, personal confidence:

I see every proud selfie as an accomplishment and a step in the right direction in the fight for body positivity. [vii]

The positioning of selfies as part of a quest for self-worth directly challenges the understanding that marks low self-esteem as attractive:

What makes us beautiful? When we don’t know we’re beautiful … in a world where women spend decades just learning to like ourselves, I consider succeeding an accomplishment, not an embarrassment. [viii]

‘Not knowing we’re beautiful’ implies a reduction in self-knowledge and agency, where the subject remains ignorant and unable to capitalise on their personal attributes. Emily McCombs, above, angrily challenges this celebration of female ignorance and disempowerment, rejecting the idea that women “liking themselves” be considered anything less than “an accomplishment”. She continues by questioning why women’s quest for self-esteem is so routinely maligned, with cultural norms of the ideal, self-reliant subject acting to penalise those who display vulnerability, or an interest in and care for the self:

I sort of don’t get why it’s worthy of ridicule. “You have low self-esteem and need people to remind you not to hate yourself! HAHAHAHA WHAT A JERK!” [ix]

In contrast to the sense that only certain themes and subjects are ‘worth photographing’, selfies reappropriate the legitimacy that photography conveys. Rather than passively waiting for legitimation, the selfie is an active declaration of worth, taking for itself the power to decide what is beautiful, and directly engaging with cultural notions of value.

The Politics of Visibility

Aside from enabling subjects to develop a sense of agency and self-confidence, selfies are also a means for considering the politics surrounding acts of looking and making oneself visible. Some subjects simply report that without their selfie-taking, they would not be photographed:

I take my selfies because I am that guy who, unless he takes the picture or suggests it, doesn’t get his picture taken…[x]

The photograph serves as evidence of “that which has been” (Barthes, 1981), making the act of taking images a defense against being absent from this important visual record:

Sometimes I take selfies just so I can remember I existed. I mean, there is nobody else who is taking photographs of me so when I look back on these years, the only photos that will exist will be my stupid selfies. [xi]

On a wider level, selfies have the important effect of promoting a broader representation of society, consisting of “images of real people – with beautiful diversity.”[xii] This process of enabling people to become visible within the public sphere has political implications, in that it allows voices and faces that were previously hidden, and marked as ‘other’, to be brought forward. With these implications, the selfie becomes anything but trivial:

When you belong to a group that’s oppressed or derided, the selfie becomes something else entirely. [xiii]

In normalising diversity, and, as Rutledge suggests, making it ‘beautiful’, selfies challenge the narrow prescriptions on women’s bodies and identities:

I think it’s valuable and important to post photos and be visible online as a fat lady like me. Selfies…help to normalise fat bodies… [xiv]

Negative Constructions of the Selfie

Returning to the Dove advert, the video concludes with one mother stating that her daughters have taught her that social media is “widening the definition of what beauty is”. But despite the positivity, and the encouragement to use selfies in order to see oneself as valued and attractive, the wider discourse concerning selfies discredits this practice of self-validation.

The value of such presentations, however, is often undermined by two key criticisms. Firstly, even within an context that seems designed to promote a shifting, postmodernist conception of the self, there exists a strong rhetorical drive towards the modernist self – stable, reliable, and ‘authentic’. The selfie is presented as embodying a wish to be deceptive, through enabling self-conscious posing and styling, implying that the only way to be ‘really you’ is to be, or at least give the appearance of being, unaware of doing so. Other images appear to imply deception purely based on the clash of incompatible concepts, such as ‘looking good’ and ‘exercising’:

OH PLEASE, no one looks good when they’re actually exercising. Give it a rest. [xv]

Secondly, a concern with one’s appearance, even within an environment where encounters are primarily visual, is still associated with narcissism. The reliance on using one’s appearance to communicate certain values, despite being a necessary and obligatory factor in defining one’s position and identity in society, is held to be typical of the poverty of the social media environment:

Social media has become image/visual based much more than text based. It’s also very much a brag-a-thon. The most accessible thing to brag about in a visual medium is your own appearance… You can’t [as] easily demonstrate how intelligent you are, say, or how funny, or how kind, in a photograph. [xvi]

The use of images is interpreted as subjects communicating in a devalued and crass manner (constituting a “brag-a-thon”), about limited aspects of their person (i.e. appearance) which are of less importance than others (intelligence etc.). Selfies, therefore, are both beneficial and problematic for their subjects – performing important functions in everyday identity work, and useful for generating confidence and a healthy relationship with their body, but also marking them with negative connotations of insecurity and narcissism.

Running counter to the potential for personal and political advancement as exemplified by the selfie, exists a demand that women somehow ignore the significance of their appearance, and instead ‘rise above it’:

Wow, I feel really sorry for you. Imagine all you could get done if you didn’t spend so much of your thoughts and mental energy on how you look. … You can choose to just not think any of these things.[xvii]

Here, the selfie is maligned as reaffirming negative expectations of women, and perpetuating unhealthy expectations. Meghan Murphy suggests that instead of showing approval for women’s sexy selfies, men should seek to support self-presentations which “are witty, interesting, smart, stupid, or that include puppy dogs and donuts”. By encouraging the men to stop ‘liking’ sexy selfies, Murphy suggests that women will begin to shift their self presentations towards those that focus on themselves as rounded, complex people – but people, one supposes, that do not express their sexuality. No matter how well-intentioned this kind of advice, it nevertheless perpetuates the core assumption that certain behaviours are universally ‘bad’, rather than questioning the logic behind such value judgements.

Against this proscriptive advice, which urges young women to present their achievements and personalities instead of their appearances, numerous commenters express a wish to have both:

I still like being told that I’m smart and witty, but sometimes I feel especially cute and I want people to tell me I’m pretty[xviii]

This presents an interest in one’s appearance as being part of a balanced whole, rather than conceptualising it as self-defeating behaviour. In the previous example, this would mean encouraging the male viewer to click ‘like’ on the sexy selfie and the images with dogs and donuts. Rather than prescribe an either/or division of human subjectivity, this approach would encompass a much wider idea of what subjects could, rather than should, be. It also acknowledges the enduring legacy of women’s relationship with their appearance, and the very real effects that this has on their life. The alternative, to just ignore the importance of one’s looks and how they affect others’ perception, creates further problems:

Much as you may raise your children with an ideal, you mustn’t forget the fact that you’re also preparing them for a society which has certain systems…telling girls they’re only good for their looks is shit, but the opposite/never telling them they’re pretty is JUST AS SHIT. [xix]

The comment below demonstrates the degree to which selfie taking can be used to shore up a sense of self that is somehow missing. To dismiss this person’s use of selfies as narcissism or insecurity they should shake off, is to dismiss the complexities of each others’ lives, and to expect that everyone has the same life experience. Here, the selfie fills a lacuna, giving the subject the perspective on herself which her upbringing failed to do:

I was brought up never being praised for either my looks or my achievements… The result has been to make me feel angry, alienated, and not worth very much…I take tens of selfies a day… and spend a lot of time mentally comparing my looks to other women’s. [xx]

The selfie reflects the character of much of the identity work which is carried out both on and off social media, in that it is symbolic of the inter-personal nature of identity, in which a performance of self (the image) requires an audience (such as Instagram). Ultimately, in terms of mediating identity, the selfie-taker is negotiating between the importance of social acceptance, and the resistance of social norms – creating both push and pull factors towards and away from selfie taking. In this way, the selfie is not a simple case of either / or, but demonstrates the complexities of self-expression within a wider social context. The following comment support the selfie-takers right to share, supporting the wider cause for subjects to represent themselves within the public sphere:

It is no one’s place to reply to the selfie-poster, “don’t you think you’re objectifying yourself by sharing this photo?” …It is the poster’s right to put up any content of themselves. [xxi]

It is revealing that the search for self-awareness is subject to repeated criticism and accusations of narcissism. Politically, the reframing of a process which can empower the individual, as evidence of vapidity and weakness, suggests a wish to prevent subjects obtaining knowledge and power.

In using selfies for their advert, the advertisers for Dove have tapped into some of the issues I have discussed here, such as their potential for generating confidence and self-esteem. It is unlikely, however, that their intention relates to the wider political implications of representation and the restrictions around visibility. Nevertheless, this video is an interesting contribution to the discourse of selfies, and demonstrates that as a practice, it is much more complex and important than its critics might maintain.


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