In Defense of Selfies (or Why I’m Skeptical of Mass Narcissism)

I come from the “Me Generation”, characterized by wiser elders as being selfish and entitled. We get married later (if at all), have less kids and do crazy things — like go backpacking around Europe for two years while working from a laptop — all in an attempt to satisfy our thirst for purpose or pleasure.

We also seem to take a lot more selfies than average. Our Facebook pages are littered with pictures of us posing with the Eiffel tower in the background or awkwardly craning our necks as four of our friends squish in the frame together on a beach in Cabo. “We’re having fun!” these pictures all seem to scream out. “We are living life to the fullest. We are to be envied.”

Sometimes when I’m shooting a selfie, it takes me a full five minutes to get the right pose, correct facial expression, expert lighting and manage to hit the button at just the right moment to capture it all. There’s so much pressure to get it right. I think of all my Facebook friends who will see my too-close, distorted smiling face. I think of the creative caption I will write. Sometimes I even catch myself going out to places or seeing certain friends ONLY because of how great the picture will look on Facebook.

I hate to admit this about myself. I mean, really, does it matter? Who cares? Do my friends really want to see every second of my life chronicled in minute detail? I went to the beach, I ate a steak, I saw a pigeon, I got my toenails painted… So what?

A few months ago I got an email from a Jewish newsletter I subscribe to. And, although I’m not Jewish, those guys come up with some excellent ideas. The newsletter challenged us to avoid taking and posting selfies for an entire month. This was in an attempt to dampen our tendency to be self-focused.

I thought it was a great idea. I mean who wants to be a narcissist anyway?

Then I started thinking about it. Are 99% of my friends on Facebook really narcissists because they post cool photos of a vacation or their latest progress in bodybuilding or them posing with their dog dressed up for Halloween? Seems rather harsh.

The Narcissism Myth

The word “narcissist” is thrown around all the time nowadays. Everyone wants their fifteen minutes of fame — at least, that’s the common misconception.

I think it goes deeper.

I’m sure there are straight up narcissists posting selfies and admiring their hair for hours each day, but for the majority of us, a selfie is not a narcissistic expression. It’s a plea for approval — a hope for connection. It’s that endorphin rush when someone “likes” your photo. It’s that feeling of significance when friends comment about how smart, pretty or interesting you are. We all want to be loved and admired. We all want to feel like our lives mean something to someone. That is why we post selfies.

It’s not about being selfish. It’s about hoping that someone, anyone, will validate our existence.

In his book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam points out that we suffer from a loss of “social capital”. Many of us don’t live in close communities with our families and friends anymore. We work too much. We spend too little time connecting and developing close relationships.

A survey done by the National Science Foundation back in 2006 found that the majority of people had less confidants in their inner circle than decades earlier and a surprising number had no one to confide in at all.

It’s a strange world we live in — where we have the technology to connect with more people than ever before, yet we feel more alone.

All You Need Is…

We need social validation to feel significant. Unfortunately, our consumer-driven culture is built around making us feel insecure. There is always a question of whether we are good enough. Spend a few minutes watching commercials or reading women’s magazines. They all say the same thing: you are not worthy the way you are. You must improve the shade of your teeth, your sex skills, your waistline, your income, your skin, your breast size, your clothing… That is what makes people like you.

Although selfies may seem self-absorbed at times (i.e. think of your ripped friend with his shirt off), I think it comes down to how we’ve been trained to gain acceptance. Whether we have friends who are super parents, jetsetters or foodies, we tailor our personal brand to appeal to those we want respect from. We just want to belong.

So, the next time I see a selfie (even an obnoxious one with too much cleavage), I’m going to remember that everyone is after the same thing: love.

All my love,

Laura

[Photo taken by Andrea Joi Bacigalupo Peterson, www.BaciStudios.com]
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