CultureCulture
But First, Let Me Take a SelfieWhat’s beyond the filters?
Kim Yeon-seung  |  yeonseungkim@yonsei.ac.kr
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승인 2015.12.05  23:59:06
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LET’S BE completely honest. Who has never taken a selfie? Never participated in a trend so ubiquitous that 93 million selfies are taken every day, according to CBS local? What seemed like a passing fad has become more of a cultural phenomenon, stimulating the creation of hundreds of apps for modifying selfies and the “selfie stick,” a stick that enables a selfie from farther away, to become one of the most omnipresent items of 2015. How did this prevalent trend come about and why are so many people seemingly addicted to this simple activity?

 

Following the footsteps of a selfie

A selfie is “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media,” as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary. Selfies have been available to the general public since Samsung revolutionized the functions of phones by installing a front camera onto their cell phones. The word selfie actually was first used in 2004 and its roots trace back to one Australian man. Nathan Hope, after taking a photo of himself with the front camera, shared his photo via Flitto, an SNS website quite popular at the time. In his caption for the picture, he defined his picture as a “selfie.” Placing “–ie” as suffixes is actually common in Australian English and is seen as a linguistic trend. So through this characteristic of the Australian language and one man’s creativity, the word selfie was born: a word that has gained such a wide popularity today that it was even newly added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013.

Even before the invention of cameras, portraits were popular among the nobility to indicate their social status, power, and wealth. The purpose of selfies nowadays is actually not that dissimilar to earlier portraits. As impressionism started to shape modern art, self-portraits gained in popularity, with artists like Van Gogh, Picasso, and Matisse drawing depictions of themselves where their true emotions were expressed through vivid colors and rough brushstrokes. But the first real selfie was born in the 1830s, where Robert Cornelius, a pioneer in photography, took a picture of himself in his studio, using a daguerreotype.

Flash forward to the beginning of the 21st Century, when taking pictures no longer requires a whole studio and bulky equipment. With the advent of front cameras in cell phones and social networking sites like Flitto and MySpace on the rise, 2004 was a busy year for selfies. The selfie popularity boomed as these websites rose to popularity along with Facebook, one of the most successful social networking sites today. Taking selfies and sharing them on the Internet became such a massive global phenomenon that apps like Snapchat and Instagram, designed specifically for those who could not resist the urge of sharing their selfies with the world instantly, were created in 2011. The world had no choice but to succumb to this great trend.

 

Selfie trends

Among these massive amounts of selfies posted on the internet, only the most glorious and beautiful will be commended. As individual’s beauty standards are different, their perception of beautiful selfies differs, leading to different selfie styles and trends. One common trend that characterizes all cultures is perfect lighting, with a tilted 45-degree angle, which causes the effect of flawless skin and accentuated eyes. But with many Asians embracing fair and light skin tones with slender chins, they tend to show an effort to exemplify those facial features. Covering the jawline with a hand or an object is a common pose used when taking selfies. Asian photo-editing apps endorse this type of trend with added features like skin whitening and sharpening jawlines. For some Westerners, thick, luscious lips have become the ultimate goal and, as a result, trends like duckface, smooch, blowingkissface, where lips are generally accentuated, have become dominant in social media.

These beauty trends are harmless, but some of the selfie trends that exist today seem to have gone too far, as some might have damaging effects. After-sex selfies, a selfie taken after sexual intercourse, or nude selfies can be considered as a few of these examples, as they seem to compromise future relationships. Or disaster selfies, a phenomenon that actually exists on the Internet, which are selfies taken right after or before an actual disaster took place. This is disturbing in multiple aspects. First, it exposes an individual to danger because he or she is wasting time taking a picture rather than fleeing the site of a calamity. It also reveals the negligence of an individual who would take a dangerous situation so lightly that he or she would take a photo of a disaster only to receive attention from social media. A picture posted online is rarely private even with the extra precaution of the person posting. Some of the thoughtless pictures shared may create a glitch in one’s past, haunting one longer than they expect. A result of blindly following these trends may expose an individual’s privacy to everyone online, and may have a greater ripple effect in one’s life than one would intend.

 

The danger of selfies

Then how damaging are selfies, really? Starting from the most basic psychological damage selfies can do to individuals, body dysmorphic disorders can be seen as a major side effect. As defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, a body dysmorphic disorder is “a psychological disorder in which a person becomes obsessed with imaginary defects in their appearance.” In extreme cases, this psychological disorder may even lead to depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and possibly suicide. Celebrities with an admired appearance frequently post selfies, with their supposedly perfect hair and looks. Their ardent followers, mostly teenagers, are prone to hold themselves up to an unrealistic ideal when they look at their pictures, without realizing that these celebrities’ selfies are professionally staged. In one extreme case, The Independent, a British national newspaper with a global readership, reported that Danny Bowman, a 15-year-old British teenager, even attempted suicide after being dissatisfied with the way he looks in selfies. Reports claimed that went to the lengths of spending 10 hours taking 200 selfies a day to acquire what he thought of as “the perfect selfie.” This one case is very extreme, but a study done by professors in La Trobe University and published in Int J Eat Disord shows that body dysmorphic disorder is more prevalent among young teenage girls who edit their selfies than those who do not. They tend to hold themselves to idealized and unrealistic body standards and felt deep stress when this ideal goal could not be reached.

Posting too many selfies has also been proven to compromise and damage real-life relationships and professional lives. According to research done by Dr. David Houghton, people felt less intimacy with those who post more selfies than those who do not. The study was done on 508 Facebook users in England and has proven that “those who frequently post photographs on Facebook risk damaging real-life relationships, because people don't seem to relate well to those who constantly share photos of themselves,” according to Houghton. Dr. Ben Marder, one of the contributors to the research “Digital Crowding: Privacy, Self-Disclosure and Technology,” has commented, “think twice and share once,” for when people share pictures online.

 Professional environments also evaluate individuals by the contents they have posted online. According to a survey done by *Eurocom*, 40% of hiring companies confessed that they judge the first impression of their candidates through what they have posted online. The *Daily Mail* has reported that “74 per cent of respondents consider online PR to be important for their company’s search engine optimization, with 37 percent saying it is very important.” Then why would people persist with this type of behavior of posting uncensored selfies online even despite the possible social and professional drawbacks?

 

Psychological reasons behind the selfie

   Many psychologists say that taking and posting many selfies online can be a sign of narcissism. Narcissism is rooted in a lack of mirroring, a psychological term in which one imitates their parent’s behavior during the formative stages. The lack of mirroring results in an obsession with looks, alongside constant seeking of attention and approval from others, according to psychologists. Similar to the purpose of artistic portraits, selfies are taken mainly to display one’s social status by showing off beauty, one’s range of activities and social events, or possibly even wealth status. As American writer John Paul Titlow stated, “the selfie trend is a high school popularity contest on digital steroids.” This type of behavior of excessively wanting to boast about their lives through posting selfies and expecting positive feedback, according to psychologist Tracy Alloway, is typical narcissistic behavior.

Body dysmorphic disorder can be a leading cause of excessive selfies as well. With an unsatisfactory facial feature, people often take pictures concealing their insecurities. Standards of beauty have a lot to do with the media and the idolized figures of celebrities. In order to follow this unrealistic ideal, people often take selfies trying closely to imitate a certain glorified image, but when they realize that their actual appearance differs from what the selfie portrays, it may lead to a sense of frustration. Obsessively trying to imitate and feeling insecure about a particular facial feature is a sign of body dysmorphic disorder, commonly found in young female teenagers. Some psychiatrists go to the extent of viewing selfie addiction as a newly arising pathology, closely related to low self-esteem. Psychiatrist Dr. David Veale, who treats selfie addiction as a mental illness, has said that, “since the rise of camera phones, two out of three of his patients suffer from Body Dysmorphic Disorder and compulsively take selfies.” Lucie Hemmen, a clinical psychologist, has also claimed that, “teenagers are often driven by insecurity to construct a desirable persona.” This shows that many psychologists judge the obsession with selfies to be associated with body dysmorphic disorder and low self-esteem. These mental health issues could also possibly be deemed as causes for this obsessive addiction.

Psychopathy can also be one of the psychological reasons behind the obsession excessively to follow the selfie trend. According to research done by Dr. Jesse Fox and Dr. Margaret Rooney in their study, “The Dark Triad and trait self-objectification as predictors of men’s use and self-presentation behaviors on social networking sites,” those who take and post selfies more often than an average man exhibited features of the dark triad personality and this was related to some extent with narcissism and psychopathy. Professor Fox defines the dark triad as three antisocial personality traits: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellism, a lack of consideration and empathy for others. She claims, “these traits aren’t pro-social or beneficial for society,” and that “dark triad individuals are usually pretty adept at getting their social needs fulfilled, but this is without regard for others.” However, the results show low correlation, and psychopathy and narcissism were only measured in subclinical amounts. Also, this is a correlational study, which means it does not address causation. However, the study is worth noting because there was some correlation between psychopathy and posting selfies online.

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This article is most definitely not seeking to condemn anyone who takes a selfie as narcissistic, psychopathic or just insecure. The selfie trend is fun. It is the new way to keep memories of your past, recording events, social gatherings, and creating a moment of beauty in an everlasting testament online. However, some do take this too far, which risks sacrificing their future professional careers and human relationships or falling into a pit of depression or even body dysmorphic disorder. The psychological reasons mentioned above are just a glimpse of why this might be the case for some and why it seems rather difficult to withdraw from the selfie addiction. It’s a great and fun trend, but as the old saying goes, “too much water drowns the miller.”

 

Box 1:

Supposedly more people have died this year trying to take a selfie than by shark attacks!

Let’s take a look at some of the peculiar cases, reported by *Digital trends*:

-      One American woman died trying to take a risky selfie on a cliff

-      Two Russian men died in an explosion after trying to take a selfie with a hand grenade

-      Three Indian teenagers were run over by a train while they were trying to take a selfie on a train track

-      A Russian woman shot herself in the head while trying to take a selfie with a gun

 

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