When You Tell Me Not To Take Selfies, I'm Going To Take Even More

Photo: Lisa Marie Basile
When You Tell Me Not To Take Selfies, I'm Going To Take Even More

The first time I was selfie-shamed, I was 29 years old. That means I was a grown woman. That means that what I do shouldn't be questioned by any other grown woman, right? Wrong.

There I was, in my own home at a house party, when a person (let's call her Lucy) I considered a friendly acquaintance drunkenly mentioned how pretty I looked. Fair enough. I thanked her, but she somehow segued her compliment into selfie-shaming territory.

She said, in a way that was meant to be supportive but came off as judgmental, "You should be more interested in showcasing your brain, not your body. I don't know why you feel the need to look like that in pictures!" She launched into questioning my selfie-taking habits, which, admittedly, can be melodramatic at times (I'm a huge fan of glamour and, you know, having fun). 

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I try to ration the selfies (they say you're supposed to take one in every nine photos) but the reality is that if I feel like posting one, I'm going to. The unapologetic selfe is a good thing, so long as you're not hurting other people. 

In some ways, I can understand the case against selfies. Case in point: some people think the act of iPhone self-portraiture is a symptom of millennial narcissism and vanity. Maybe, just maybe, they don't understand that we've actually been doing selfies for ages, whether that means a princess commissioning an artist to paint her upon the throne or a photographer capturing their own obscured reflection in a glossy window frame.

It's not new, but it's morphed. Selfies are the digital age's method of storytelling; you wouldn't shame a caveman for drawing on the wall, would you?

Not everyone has a way of tangibly capturing who they are. As a writer, I have the good fortune of being able to craft my own story, which is a writer's way of making our mark on the world. But if you don't know any other way to make memories, why not capture them yourself? And if that memory is you looking incredible, you looking awful or you simply being you, why shame that? 

When Lucy asked me why I felt the need to show off my "looks," she disguised the shame element pretty cleverly. She said, "You're so smart and incredible! Why would you use your looks for attention?" I saw past that. How could I not see what she was trying to say? That I was too pretty (or wanted to be as pretty) to be respected or taken seriously.

I was offended; I told her that celebrating my looks in no way reduced who I was as a person and that, actually, my entire 20s were spent building my CV and accomplishments. Seriously, a pouty photo of me wasn't going to even remotely dismantle that.

I had, at that point, been working in a high-level management job. I had started my own magazine, published a book, been featured in Amy Poehler's magazine for women, and written for some of my favorite magazines and brands.

It took me years of work and school and trial and error to become the person I wanted to be, just like it has for many women. But I was confident that her questioning my selfie-taking behavior reduced me much more than I could have ever reduced myself by using Instagram.

The next day, still reeling, I did this: I went online, asked my Facebook network what they thought of selfie-shaming, and compiled their thoughtful responses into an article which I later published. It may have been seen as passive-aggressive, but for me, it was a way to start a dialogue around the idea that women should be ashamed of feeling good about themselves.

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A few of the responses I received:

"I was just thinking about how I've been changing my profile picture a lot this week. And thinking, 'I wonder if other people are judging me as vain.' And then I read this and it validated my 'f*ck that nonsense' feeling on it. My selfies *are* an extension of my art. And I'm glad you're championing that notion. Selfies can be incredibly self-affirming in a society where everyone else seems to have the right to dictate a woman's appearance except her. #selfiepride #allday"

"I LOVE this article and just reposted it. Our bodies, our choice. I love celebrating friends' unique beauty and I love the selfie culture that's come about. I love seeing the variety and I love celebrating the everyday. Why not?"

"I have always viewed your sexy selfies as an extension of your art. You f*ck with representation on all levels — in your writing, in your selfies, in life. You are never an Object (and none of us can control our own objectification anyway) and always a Subject, from my perspective. But I just felt the need to 'validate' (HA) what I believe to be your keen ability to be strong, brilliant, sexy, and vulnerable simultaneously. And I feel like your sexy selfies represent that synthesis."

It seemed that the majority of people said that there were major problems with the way selfies are perceived, but that they didn't care. They took all the selfies they wanted to.

A woman with a great deal of self-love is seen as radical, as pushing some patriarchal button (women ought to be pretty, but not too pretty, and they certainly shouldn't show it off). A woman with some confidence is seen as a brag. A woman who feels beautiful is seen as vain. 

But a selfie isn't a dangerous thing. Too much of our time is spent wondering if we're tall enough, too fat, good enough, skinny enough, toned, pretty enough, and so on and on and on. If we're having a good day, why not capture that? 

The funniest thing? I later published an article about a health issue I experienced. I took a selfie at the hospital for my boyfriend who was in another country and used the photo as an accompaniment to the article. The reality is this: I took the selfie once the pain meds kicked in and once I realized I didn't need surgery.

I felt sad, sick, happy, grumpy, delirious, and bored. That's what that selfie meant. And guess what? Readers pointed out my painted nails, my hairdo, my tank-top. Apparently, I was lying about being sick because I took a selfie. If women can live-tweet their baby's birth, I can take a photo of myself in a hospital bed.

We do it because we want to capture the moment. Just never read the comments. 

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Lisa Marie Basile is the author of Light Magic for Dark Times, Wordcraft Witchery forthcoming, 2020), a collection of poetry, Nympholepsy, as well as the editor-in-chief of Luna Luna Magazine. Her work encounters self-care, trauma recovery, ritualized living, and the arts.