Selfie power: Humans have always liked a good self-portrait
President Obama and Vice President Biden in a selfie from the vice president.
This January 2014 screen grab shows a photo collage provided by Brandi Koskie of her daughter, Paisley, 3, in selfies that Paisley shot on her mothers phone in an unsupervised moment at her Wichita, Kansas home. An increasing number of parents of toddlers are finding their tech-savvy 2- and 3-year-old kids are obsessed with selfies. (AP Photo/Brandi Koskie)
This combo image of six undated images shows self-portraits taken by Nikki Anderson, 19, of Massachusetts. The practice of freezing and sharing our tiniest slices of life in "selfies" has become so popular that the granddaddy of dictionaries, the Oxford, is monitoring the term as a possible addition.(AP Photo/Nikki Anderson)
This June 14, 2013 photo released by Chelsea Clinton shows former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, left, posing with her daughter Chelsea at a Clinton Global Initiative America event in Chicago. The practice of freezing and sharing our tiniest slices of life in "selfies" has become so popular that the granddaddy of dictionaries, the Oxford, is monitoring the term as a possible addition. (AP Photo/Chelsea Clinton)
This photo taken and provided by Ali Luthman, left, of Worcester, Mass., shows her with Bryant University President Ronald Machtley on the school's campus in Smithfield, R.I. on Friday, April 18, 2104. Although Machtley, who is active on social media, loves posing for pictures with the students, the university has asked graduates to resist the urge to take a selfie with him when receiving their diploma this year, saying it will greatly prolong the graduation ceremony. Machtley says he is happy to take some after the service though. (AP Photo/Ali Luthman)
Lady Gaga, Bill Murray and David Letterman in a selfie.
Rembrandt van Rijn
*oil on copper
*15.5 x 12 cm
*inscribed t.l.: R[...] 1630
Ellen Degeneres selfie at the Oscars.
This June 18, 2013 photo released by Andrew Palladino shows Andrew taking a self-portrait with his 4 year old daughter at their home in Weston, Conn. The practice of freezing and sharing our tiniest slices of life in "selfies" has become so popular that the granddaddy of dictionaries, the Oxford, is monitoring the term as a possible addition. (AP Photo/Andrew Palladino)
Mathew Brady self-portrait
Narcissus staring at himself in a pool.
This Sept. 18, 2012 photo released by NASA shows international space station astronaut Aki Hoshide taking a self-portrait while in space. The practice of freezing and sharing our tiniest slices of life in "selfies" has become so popular that the granddaddy of dictionaries, the Oxford, is monitoring the term as a possible addition. (AP Photo/NASA)
I bet you’ve done it. I have too. And believe me, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
I’m talking about taking pictures of yourself with a cell phone camera, of course. The resulting pictures, nicknamed “selfies,” have been all over the pop culture landscape. Ellen DeGeneres took one with a bunch of celebrities at the Oscars. Red Sox slugger David Ortiz took one with President Obama. Joe Biden took one with President Obama, too.
But with ubiquity comes the inevitable backlash. Much of it has been directed at teens and twentysomethings, who besides being younger and better-looking than the rest of us, apparently can’t help but post constant visual evidence of the fact on social media sites. How dare they! The backlash has gotten so intense that University of New Hampshire senior Olivia Whitton recently started a website called #ForYourSelfie, which takes “back the power of the selfie for the greater good.”
Whitton told the UNH student paper, The New Hampshire, that “most people had a really negative experience with (selfies), which I found interesting. They either felt weird taking a selfie or they weren’t comfortable with themselves or whatever.” She hopes her site, which posts user-submitted selfies, will counter that perception.
In other words, over the span of a few years, the selfie has gone from harmless novelty to a fad embraced by celebrities to occasional embarrassment for young people. This is nonsense, and it’s time for it to stop.
There is nothing wrong with taking pictures of yourself. It’s human nature. The urge to document what we look like (preferably in the most flattering way possible) goes back to primitive times. The only things that have changed are the technology available to make the images, and the way in which we’re able to share those pictures with others.
Some 10 or 15 years ago, taking a picture of yourself was tricky. If you wanted an image of any quality, you’d be pointing a real camera at yourself, for one thing. Unless you had an especially fancy model, you’d then have to wait for the film to be developed to see how the pictures turned out. And if you wanted anyone to see those pictures, you’d have to have extra prints made, or scan the results into your computer and email them to friends and relatives.
Even then, I shot a few selfies during my college days. Most people did. We just didn’t use the cutesy name.
Think of how much has changed in the last decade or so. Cell phone cameras gave us an endless roll of film and an ability to review our shots instantly. We can send those shots to our Facebook or Instagram or Twitter feeds seconds after they’re taken. Our own interest in ourselves hasn’t changed – we’ve always been self-centered – but we can now share that interest with everyone else.
Let’s not claim this is a new development. A host of great artists, including da Vinci, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Mary Cassatt, Matthew Brady and so on, have painted or photographed themselves. Some, like Rembrandt, did so repeatedly and to great critical acclaim.
Self-portrait or selfie? You decide.
We could go all the way back to cave paintings in our search for that elusive first selfie, but let’s not stretch the point. If nothing else, the myth of Narcissus proves that we humans have liked to look at ourselves for a very long time. We can’t stop it. And frankly, we don’t want to. A culture that makes college students feel guilty for taking selfies is a culture that has lost sight of that fact.
We all enjoy looking at our reflections in the pool. It doesn’t do us any good to criticize the water.
(Clay Wirestone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ClayWires.)