By Paromita Vohra
In 2013, ‘selfie’ entered the Oxford English Dictionary. By 2015, with front-facing phone cameras available on the cheapest of smartphones, the selfie is no longer a novelty, and is practically a social ritual. Despite its ubiquity, the selfie, still has something of an image problem, so to speak, and constantly struggles with being seen as somehow suspect, shallow or simply B-grade.
A Personal Stamp
The Indian Post Office, not the raciest of institutions, has just announced a new scheme called My Stamp. You can take your selfie to the Central Post Office and for 300 rupees, they will scan and print a dozen legal stamps bearing your image. Should you not have a selfie camera, one will be provided for instant selfie-taking on the spot.
I learned about this from Twitter. Of course. It was accompanied – of course – with some weary commentary about the culture of vanity and shallowness that this scheme was endorsing.
When people shake their heads at the decline of ‘the culture’, they position themselves as believing in larger values and the greater good. It would be not unfair then to assume that they would approve of most anything that involves “democratization.”
What could be more democratic and in fact more appropriate, than a selfie stamp? After all, letters are personal exchanges. Lovers have sealed them with kisses, personalized them with perfume. Children have made special stationery to write on for their parents and besties (I certainly have done all of the above). It seems entirely appropriate that letters should be stamped with an image of the sender or someone significant in the mini-story of the epistolatory exchange. It’s better than democratic. It’s tender and a little sweetly funny.
The fact that private communiqués have mostly been stamped with figures, monuments and symbols of nationhood is a neat little metaphor for how the public has always encased the personal, keeping it veiled from view. As if the entire space of the personal was itself a zenana, a parda nasheen1.
It’s certainly quite cool to be able to stamp your letter with, say, a Begum Akhtar stamp or a Gandhi stamp or a stamp with the ruins of Hampi on it. These figures may well be personally dear to the public. But we also know that while the term ‘public’ implies commonality, there will always be someone whose preference and belief is left out of the idea of the public, and, by implication, the re-public, making this a selective idea, an imperfect composition, a work-in-progress.
The selfie stamp is an intriguing disruption of this seamless notion of the public; a recognition that the public is also made up of the private, and that the personal may have some place in how we understand it. The constant blurring of the boundaries between the public and private is one way in which we assert ourselves, break free of what is permitted, to what feels permissive and so, freeing. It is then not only the public which defines what is private, but the private which redefines what is public. The selfie is like a membrane, a diaphanous, sequinned curtain, on this fluid threshold of public and private. And that is partly why it makes those more comfortable with neat categories uncomfortable.
What does this discomfort revolve around?
Statistics and Stereotypes
Recently, I got into a small debate online about whether men take more selfies or women do. Research based on data from Selfiecity indicated that women take more selfies. A more recent survey indicates men might have overtaken women.
In reality it might be very hard to know who takes more selfies. Human beings reportedly share close to one trillion photos a year. Whether more men than women take them may possibly depend on access and cultural specificities.
If you asked me for an anecdotal impression, I would say more women than men take them – or so my social media timelines indicate. And yet, your impression, based on the combination of people you interact with might be quite different.
The question may be: why does it matter?
The person who argued with me about this ‘fact’ seemed agitated by my statement that women take more selfies than do men. It was important for them to establish, that it was more men – and gave a link to an article about the survey I mentioned above.
The debate was not, as I understood it, however, about factuality. It carried a sense of urgency about meaning. As if selfie-taking was a suspect activity that marked selfie-takers as inferior.
What is this anxiety rooted in?
Well, how about the response to this question posted on Quora: “Statistically, who takes more selfies, men or women?”
The top answer was written by a man:
“Ask yourself who do you [sic] think is more vain, men or women? Next time you’re in an optometrist’s office or somewhere like Walmart, look at who’s trying on the glasses the most.”
To a question about statistics, the answer was given in stereotypes – apparently it was obvious that women take more selfies because they are vain.
The derision of selfies does circle a lot around the idea of vanity – of displaying yourself only for your looks. Mocking comments about women making the ‘duck face’ or the selfie-pout come easily.
This is a curious thing when one considers the majority of images of women we find in the mainstream media. They are in fact the prototype on which the selfie-pout is based. Models and female actors offer their faces in a slight upward tilt, with plumply pouting lips, “making love to the camera” as, no doubt, instructed by some rangy photographer on the other side, some eternal, alleged, wind-burnt, sun-kissed “lover of women” photographer.
True, enough people, even if they don’t identify as feminist, increasingly critique these objectified images of women made by, usually (but not only), stereotypically self-glorifying male photographers. But in general, these images of appealing womanhood become the norm of image making when one wants to indicate attractiveness.
Why are certain kinds of sexy/sexualized images of women all right if made by others, but not all right if women make them themselves?
If we live in a world where appearance is a currency and women use the selfie to bring themselves admiration, social media followings and ‘likes’, a sense of social importance and power, why judge the women? Why should they not be the ones to exploit their own sexuality within the system we live in, if that’s what they want – rather than someone else?A similar blanket discomfort is not evoked by those who advertise their public achievements or political opinions on social media, sometimes with a patently false tone of humblebrag as excessive vanity for instance.
The discomfort with sexual expression, but especially women’s sexual self-expression, runs deep among all people. And only slightly below the surface of this conversation is the knowledge that women increasingly take nude selfies and sext with their partners. A US-based survey by psychologist Jeff Temple of the University of Texas Medical Branch indicates that 28% of teens use cell phones to send each other nude selfies.
In India, we don’t have access to such data yet, and moral policing being a routine part of life (even without recent fundamentalist excesses) might make this data hard to reliably gather. But certainly, teens here do take nude or partially nude selfies and some I have spoken to find sexting a safer and more accessible form of sex than bodily sex where they may not feel as much sense of control or the confidence to express their consent or non-consent to different things.
The discomfort with nude selfies found dramatic expression in the fact that recently, in North Carolina, USA, a 16-year-old girl was listed on a warrant as having committed two felony sex crimes against herself by taking a nude selfie, sharing it, as well as having it in her own possession.
Without dismissing concerns about the context in which the sexualisation of minors takes place, one would have to ask how taking a nude selfie and owning it could possibly be considered criminal or immoral acts?
In talking about the male gaze, there is an allied concern – an important one – about selfies forced on you, such as dick pics or selfies forced from you, as in an insistent partner not taking no for an answer. But these are inherent problems of patriarchal relationships. The desire to pin it on the selfie, is at best a paternalistic, at worst a moralistic one which panics that unregulated acts do not take the shape of our ideals, left or right, progressive or retrogressive.
The act of women taking nude selfies – whether for purposes of art, expression or sexual engagement – unravels the notion of women’s passive sexuality. Women supposedly submit to a gaze and to a desire – and apparently do not have one of their own. This makes it easy to constantly portray them as innocents, as victims, as incapable of sexual choice, and so, of needing to be saved from sexual predators and in fact the predatory gaze of all unknown and half-known men, of needing to be kept within a paternalistic boundary.
The idea of women as desiring beings, who also wish to be desired, asks us to look at all the ongoing narratives of sex, morality, censorship and consent very differently – with some attendant messiness. The selfie is emblematic of some of these questions, desires and responses.
Good Selfies, Bad Selfies
A feminist-inflected critique of the selfie is that women internalize the male gaze and so, rather than being expressive of themselves, are simply objectifying themselves in line with the masculine notion of sexiness. This seems, at first glance, to be true enough.
This is often countered by another kind of feminist response which says that while this may be true of women with privileged or normative identities, the selfie allows women of diverse backgrounds (class, caste, race) and appearance (fat, thin, not-smiling, ‘weird’ by any mainstream standards) to represent themselves. For, as we know, the mainstream does not represent them, their ideas of beauty or sexiness or, far more basically, just that diversity of bodies. They add other images to the mix of images in the world.
While the second response is one I identify with strongly, perhaps we might also question if we do not inadvertently set up through such differentiation the dichotomy of good selfies and bad selfies.
Which is to say, at some point, we might well start to justify selfies via political significance, turning what is a highly ambiguous form into a politically correct and instrumentalist form. To do that would be to rob the selfie of its layers, and fix its meaning.
The selfie’s power lies in its ambiguity – where even the classic duck-face selfie is an interplay of how others tell us to be and how we decide to be – just by virtue of the poser and the taker being the same person. Is this performance? Is this earnest? It is hard to say and pin down. And why, in fact, are we so keen to pin down? Does the pinning down make it easier to categorise and control things? Maybe. Sometimes.
For instance, there is the selfie which others advocate we take. The recent Prime Ministerial exhortation to take #SelfieWithDaughter was one such. Advertising campaigns and social awareness campaigns alike advocate the taking of selfies to prove your support for an idea or image.
In some ways this reframes the idea of the selfie – other people tell you how to present yourself. It also desexualizes the selfie and disconnects it from the primary activity of pleasure and self-representation or self-communication. It aligns it to a purpose, a cause, a ‘greater good’. In doing this, it seeks to relocate the selfie in the space of the public, the unambiguous, the knowable. A selfie for good becomes a good selfie.
By implication, other selfies become a little bit B-grade, a little on the edge and are often framed in terms of being either risky and risqué.
Some of us desexualize the selfie on purpose, making funny faces or acting exaggeratedly sexy to parody the idea of sexiness. Perhaps we once did that to ourselves as feminists, too – dressed down because we wanted to push back against the norm of being dressed up in a certain way. As we have found a way back to ourselves where dressing up and dressing down co-exist and inter-mingle, so too we might in the selfie-taking find a new way to have both options – the pouting girl and the frowning girl, too, to experiment with the gaze and its meanings.
On the Other Side Of the Selfie
In some ways the selfie has become almost institutionalised – it is a souvenir of social encounters, and in a sense a touching way in which we do not want to leave anyone out of the picture. There is no implied presence of the one behind the camera. We are all together before it, no one left out. There is a sweetness of community expressed through this. The opposite is also true, that there is exclusion of those not in that image, a posturing of lifestyles, in some group selfies.
All that this proves is that technology is not an answer. It is, like feminism and like art, a way of asking the questions afresh, a tool of re-configuring conversations, to arrive at ever newer, interesting answers.
But sometimes the selfie does make me wonder – what about that implied presence? The one behind the camera, who looked at us. What about that person? What about that gaze? Is someone else’s gaze always a problem? Do we not want it at all?
A Picture Of Me/Badli Teri Nazar Toh Nazare Badal Gaye
As a young person I never liked being photographed. I was, and continue to be, fat. I felt I looked ugly in my pictures. A retrospective glance at them reveals that I did not look ugly and even looked quite good at times. This is an experience we all share. Looking at our old self through the new self’s eye yields a different truth. Those photographs were taken by other people. Yet my eye made different meanings of them at different moments, for I myself had changed, as all of us are changing every day.
With my first digital camera I began taking what I call semi-selfies, casual self-portraits of myself in the mirror, or with the camera on timer. To tell the truth, after the first flush of entertainment passed, I lost interest in this practice. My unease with my appearance combined with my desire to express myself to take on a more formal iteration by performing different characters in the films I made.
Over the years, through this partial selfie-ness, my discomfort with myself eased and I become less uneasy about having my picture taken. And yet, until today, I find I do not uniformly like pictures people take of me. I even look – or feel I look – completely different in different pictures taken by different photographers. Sometimes I feel, “This is not a picture of me! Who was the person seeing when they clicked it?” At other times I feel loved and recognized through the picture someone has taken, even beautiful, something I cannot imagine on most days. Who knows what I will think of these images in five years? But is my gaze the only factor here? Perhaps it is truly true that the gaze of the photographer changes the photo of me.
Perhaps it is the habit of taking pictures of myself that has made me meet the gaze of another’s photo differently? To see myself as others see me is not always uniformly a bad or constraining thing. It may be a different liberation too, from one’s own internal prisons.
Each of us prepares “a face to meet the faces that we meet” as T. S. Eliot’s poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, says. Our gaze and the gaze of others are in a constant tangle, and a constant tango. So, yes, we may internalize the gaze of others and perform for it when we take a selfie – that feminist fear that we are posing for selfies in the image others made.
But as we take selfies, will we not also get some practice seeing ourselves through our own gaze? Will we not also learn to distinguish between the gaze that fixes us uncomfortably, pinned and wriggling on a wall and the gaze that reveals us to ourselves, a desiring gaze which we desire rather than speaking of every gaze as problematic? What might this reveal? Why not wait to see before deciding about right and wrong selfies, and good and bad girls?
1Refers to a woman in a customary veil.
Paromita Vohra is a filmmaker and writer who works with fiction and non-fiction on themes of feminism, desire, urban life and popular culture. More at www.parodevipictures.com. Less @parodevi.