My daughter has Instagram and is obsessed with posting photos of herself. She even takes selfies in the car as I drive her to school. How do I make this stop?
The general consensus seems to be that young women who take photos of themselves (“selfies”) and post these on social media are vacuous narcissists, deeply insecure or possibly both. Academic, Dr Susan Carland, articulated these schools of thought when she declared in her 2015 review of Kim Kardashian’s book, Selfish, that selfies are a “loud and desperate shout into our own ponds: please validate how I look.”
It’s important to note that despite the popular rhetoric linking selfies to either insecurity or vanity, the verdict is still out on whether social media does actually contribute to poor mental health (some of the factors that we know do effect mental health include genetics, illness, and experiences of abuse).
Studies repeatedly do show, however, that users of social media report feelings of isolation and loneliness when online. Seeing other people’s filtered highlight reels, or observing their pages flooded with likes while we only score a few, can certainly make us feel less worthy at vulnerable moments in our lives.
If your daughter’s selfie-posing seems obsessive, then you’re right to feel concerned. It would be worthwhile to have some important conversations with her, not only about how she feels before and after posting these, but also on contemporary representations of beauty, and indeed on how social media platforms are addictive by design.
But I also want to offer you some alternative perspectives to consider as I do believe that selfies may be more interesting, and important, than they appear at first glance.
Yes, there are a plethora of pictures on social media that seem to be desperately seeking attention and validation. But is that really so hard to understand? We have immersed our girls in a culture that has convinced them that their looks are their currency, then we act surprised or indeed scornful when they chose to play with that power.
Critic John Berger reflected on the ways in which women have always been objectified by men in art in his book Ways of Seeing: ‘You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for you own pleasure.’
It’s valuable to remember that self-portraiture isn’t a byproduct of mobile phones.
Since the 15th century women artists have used this art form women to challenge the male gaze – from Judith Leyster, to Frida Kahlo and Zanele Muholi (it would be brilliant to explore some of this art with your daughter and use this as a means to begin some of the conversations around how women are represented by others, and how they choose to represent themselves. At the very least, this exploration might prompt her to take more creative shots than those of her posing in the back of the car on the way to school).
I also see girls post plenty of pictures of themselves that do not scream of vanity or a need for reassurances; these pictures speak instead of wanting to share and connect. ‘Here’s me looking relaxed after studying all week.’ “I have a new dress and I feel so happy about that!’. ‘Look guys – I have glasses now. They’re actually really cute. Huh?’
Canadian feminist blogger, Anne Theriault, once wrote an open letter to her friends who took selfies which I found powerful and perceptive,
It’s easy for people to roll their eyes at selfies and make jokes about girls who just want attention, but the truth is that for lots of women – especially women of colour, trans women, disabled women and all the other women who see their existences erased in mainstream media – posting pictures of themselves is a way of challenging our culture’s narrow beauty standards.
Selfies are a way of saying, “I love myself, and I will fight anyone who tries to change that fact.”
Selfies are not a question. They’re not asking “Do you think I’m pretty?”
Selfies are a statement: “I am here.”
We are often too quick to condemn the pursuits of girls and women as either frivolous or troubling. A nuanced, compassionate conversation might prove illuminating for both of you and will ensure your daughter doesn’t feel judged, but rather empowered to make her own informed choices.