By: Taylor Stinson

Ahh, the beloved Selfie. It’s no secret that western cultures have long valued individualism, hence the self-centred act of self-photographing.

In an age where self-representation is increasingly complex, a relatively new trend has emerged that constantly photographs the transforming self, intertwining new forms of technology with old, self-serving ideals.

Considered a form of superficial self-expression, the selfie is actually a modern take on an old practice. This infamous and somewhat addicting medium of self-portrait has much deeper roots than it’s given credit for.

Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget developed the term “egocentrism” to refer to children’s tendencies to be overly invested and interested in the self. As they grow into adolescence, this self-centredness becomes more self-reflexive. The self develops socially as teenagers share their personal growth and self discoveries through photographs and blurry iPhone pictures enhanced with Instagram filters.

Selfies are often regarded as controversial and scandalous because of their self-indulgent nature. In keeping with this idea of instant gratification, social media platforms have revolutionized the act of selfie-taking⏤now individuals expect an audience.

“We are inherently interested in other people and social media platforms are rife for social comparison,” said UofT social psychology professor Ashley Waggoner Denton.

“We like to look at other people’s selfies to inform our own evaluations about ourselves and others. I feel like there have always been selfies: going back in time to when people had portraits painted of themselves, they were asking to have themselves purposefully represented in a specific way,” explains Waggoner Denton. “It’s easy to just dismiss Millennials as more narcissistic than other generations, but smartphones have made it easy to incorporate selfies as a part of everyday life.”

Social media is indeed influential in cultivating a sense of self-branding, which includes the art of self photography. Specific smartphone apps that heartily encourage the snapping of selfies have enabled subcategories of self-promotion: there now selfies in the form of fitness girls, makeup queens, and Instagram style icons, all of them managing to re-define celebrity status. The selfie allows ordinary people to reclaim various social media as a way to experience a sense of self-importance. This is most evident in the attention and credibility afforded to those social media icons, who are more relatable than an unreachable movie star.

This selfie culture can also be viewed as dark and self-exploitative. Young people are facing increasingly intense forms of social media that permeate all aspects of social life from LinkedIn to Snapchat to Twitter, all requiring drastically different kinds of selfie etiquette. Self-deprecating double chin photos and explicit nudes are relegated to the Snapchat sphere, while more carefully planned and professional headshots appear on LinkedIn.

And while the definition and performance of selfie-taking remains subjective and personal, it becomes worrisome when the act of photography limits one’s presence in real life.

Taking selfies at funerals is a recent phenomenon where teenagers and young adults take pictures of themselves before, during, or after the ceremony.

“It’s such a disgrace, selfies are meant to present yourself in a positive light and show the creative side of self representation . . . what do you put as a hashtag, RIP sadface?” said Nathalie Sehgal, a recent UofT graduate now specializing in social media and marketing.

“I can only image a negative reaction from your peers if you are taking selfies at such a sad and serious occasion. It shows that some people care more about their physical appearance at a public event—being seen—than about a sad thing that has happened to another person. In that sense social media can be dehumanizing.”

The act of taking selfies, however, also has a more complex personal meaning. Prospective student and twenty-something, Kaye Reid, views selfies as a means of glamorizing everyday moments while realizing her own self worth.

“I use selfies to see the person I am. I was constantly told I was worthless and ugly, and to have pictures where I can reflect on my jaded sense of self and still think I’m a beautiful, strong woman is amazing. And I want to share the woman I see in those pictures with others,” said Reid. “I post them and keep them so that on those bad days I can remind myself of who and what I am.”

Self representation is a liberating process of choice and control which extends far beyond an egotistical rhetoric of self-promotion. The selfie is ultimately self-indulgent, but it simultaneously reflects a nostalgic desire to capture as many of life’s small moments as possible.

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