[Content note: This post mentions struggles with self-acceptance and self-sacrificial mindsets.]
On my way out the door, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Something about it–maybe my outfit, maybe the way my hair is doing a thing–makes me smile. Before I step out, I pull out my phone, thrust out my arm, and–selfie.
Last week, I finally got around to one of those tasks I’d been putting off and went through my cell phone photos from the last nine months. Most were quick snapshots that I freely discarded; the rest I tagged and categorized on my computer. In doing so, I confirmed what I’d been strongly suspecting: I’ve been taking a lot of selfies.
Oh, selfies, the phenomenon we love to hate. Scroll through the opinion section of any site frequented by readers over 35, and you’re guaranteed a column decrying selfies and the narcissistic, tech-addicted generation that takes them. Occasionally, when a researcher at the University of Everything’s Changing and I Don’t Like It or the What’s Wrong With the Youths Institute publishes a study confirming Millennials’ inflated egos with Science, you’ll even find selfies outside of Opinion.
“Selfies are for the selfish,” opines Kelly Iverson, senior at Kansas State. At Jezebel, Erin Gloria Ryan calls them “a cry for help,” arguing that “young women take selfies because they don’t derive their sense of worth from themselves, they rely on others to bestow their self-worth on them.” Gizmodo declares that the selfie stick–a monopod that allows you to take pictures of yourself from farther away than arm’s length–is an “enabling device that deserve[s] a permanent ban“.
In other words, smartphones and Millennials are ruining everything. Again. Pass the salt.
It is May 2014, and I am miserable. I’ve tagged along with Rachel to an outdoor school in the middle of Washington State for a long weekend of relaxation, but my respiratory system is in full-scale revolt thanks to my worst cold in years. I sleep on a paper towel so my nose doesn’t ruin my pillow. When I’m awake, my head is a pressure cooker. Dripping, groaning, mouth hanging open; I need no mirror to tell me I look like the walking dead.
On our drive back home, we stop at a supermarket and I stare dumbly at the medicine aisle. A blue box winks at me and I pick it up.
“Nasal Congestion,” it says. “Runny Nose. Headache & Body Ache. Sore Throat. Sinus Pressure.”
I want to kiss the box. It understands. It gets me–and by god, I’m not alone.
When the shrink-wrapped stack of flyers I’d designed finally arrives at Walla Faces, I’m ecstatic. I email my parents, grandparents, and friends. I put a picture on Instagram.
As soon as I put the final touches on my redesigned manual for 1000 Blank White Cards, I throw it into Dropbox and share it on Facebook.
It’s high school. Somewhere between the AIM chat windows and the threads of my friend group’s online discussion board, word seeps out that folks close to me think I’m full of myself. I’m an arrogant ass.
I panic and crank my sensitivity up to 11.
Real or imagined, I apologize for slights, then apologize for apologizing. I quickly cultivate a sense of deeply self-deprecating humor. Though I’m given numerous lead roles in plays, I can never take them without agonizing over the thought that this is further proof of my massive, out-of-control ego–and the fact that I never detected my ego on my own means I can’t trust myself.
Being in proud in public, I tell myself, makes me an arrogant ass, so I forbid it of myself.
Today, I am 24 years old and still learning how to recognize my worth.
The display in the hallway has finally cycled to something new, so Mrs. Torres wraps a rubber band around my painting and hands it to me as I walk to the bus. Mom’s face lights up when I show her what I made.
It is fashionable to hate my generation. On the cover of a national news magazine, you can call us “lazy, entitled narcissists,” and everyone will nod, happy to fault our technology or us but never the crumbling society we inherited. “You Millennials have to learn that not everyone gets a trophy,” they sneer.
But we did not ask for trophies. In childhood, it was not six-year-old Millennials responding to disappointment with, “You’re a winner just for trying!” That was another generation’s candy coating. We’re just the ones with rotting teeth.
When we failed, they told us failure didn’t exist. When we lost, they said we were winners. We were wrong for not being happy with our performance, wrong for not seeing our perfection, wrong for ever doubting that we were shining stars.
So we learned to perform, to curate the perfectly acceptable image. We learned to hide our insecurities and doubts behind lists of achievements–carefully tailored, of course, so as to not commit the sin of pride. Harder, faster, stronger: to cut corners on our work was unthinkable, so we cut our own corners instead, driving ourselves to exhaustion, sacrificing sleep, tearing off pieces of ourselves to keep the fire burning because in a world of brightsiders nobody taught us how to be in the dark.
We do not want trophies. We do not want our struggles to be met with uniform praise. We want, desperately, with an ache so ancient it predates language, to be heard.
They’re just seeking attention.
Ignore an infant enough and they are far more likely to develop depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and oppositional-defiant disorder. As if we are social creatures or something.
Yes. Only attention. What an alien thing to want.
When I was younger, I thought I was ugly. I didn’t wallow in it, simply accepted it as fact. I was lanky and goofy-looking; I didn’t know how to smile correctly; I was prone to cartoony facial expressions. When people called me attractive, I knew they were lying. When they expressed desire for me, I just reclassified them as “pleasantly deluded.” That I was awkward and unattractive was a self-evident fact of the universe.
I’m a man. I’m white. I’m slender. I’m cisgender. No industry or institution was built to convince me my body is imperfect. As far as beauty standards go, I was dealt an easy hand.
Yet even with that easy hand, I could legally drink before I came to peace with my body. It’s been barely three years that I’ve been able to look at myself and not feel my heart wince, hear a compliment without assuming deceit. It has taken me years to own my goofy smiles.
Maybe Narcissus fell in love with his reflection because, for the first time in his life, he didn’t want to hurl stones through it.
“Look,” my Instagram picture says. “I made this. It was hard and took a dozen iterations,” or, “it was easy and I loved the process,” but either way, “I made it, and I like it. I am happy and excited that I was able to achieve this.”
Why is that a sin?
My pride does not come at the cost of my empathy. By sharing my joy, I am not asserting your inferiority or declaring my perfection. My glee and achievement are not weapons I deploy against you.
I painted a toucan, and I’m very happy with it. I am rocking this scarf today. Why must I feign indifference or disgust in order to see my delight validated? Why can’t I be happy with what I’ve done and share my happiness with you?
Imagine if it were socially acceptable to publicly say, "I'm really proud of this thing I did and wanted to share that with you!"
— Miri 🌈🌈🌈 (@sondosia) May 8, 2014
Why is loving myself more taboo than hating myself?
When I started tagging my photos last week, I realized I had never used the tag “selfie”. Instead, my earlier photos of myself were labeled “self-portrait”.
Did Van Gogh paint selfies? What of the countless families who commissioned salon portraits, the daguerrotype ghosts who held poses for rigid minutes just to memorialize themselves, the emperors and kings rendered exquisitely in marble? How will you convince me it is self-expression in paint, but vanity in pixels?
Today, more than ever before, we have the ability to make images of ourselves on our own terms. We need not bother a stranger for a picture. We need not wait for film to develop. And though the technology is modern, the impulse is ancient, primal.
“I am here,” I write on the wall. “It is now. This is me.“