But Wait; First Let Me Take a Selfie...

Written by: Heather Corbally Bryant, PhD and Lecturer at Wellesley College 

How many times have you said that yourself, or to a friend? How many selfies do you have on your phone right now? Did you know that “selfie” was the word of the year in 2013, the same year it made it into the official Oxford English Dictionary? And, if you search the word “selfie” on Google, you get 481,000,000 results in 48 seconds.  You can even purchase a toaster that will make selfie toast, literally stamping your own image on your personal piece of toast.

As a Lecturer at Wellesley College I began to wonder if a fundamental cultural shift was taking place.  Are we beginning to think of ourselves in front of the world rather than as looking out at the world? Are we becoming more concerned with recording our attendance at an event rather than being involved with the event itself? Is the desire to document a moment taking precedence over lived experience?  These are just a few of the themes we explore in my summer class for high school students at Wellesley College.

Of course, the impulse to make one’s mark on the world is not new. The discovery of the red hand prints made on the walls of a cave in El Castillo, dated at 40,800 years old, make it “Europe's oldest dated art by at least 4,000 years” (By Ker Than, for National Geographic News 6/14/12).

Self-portraiture thrived in the Renaissance, and has continued throughout the ages, taking various forms and shapes over time. Think of Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo, and many other artists and writers, especially women and people of color –-many of whose works have not survived.  But then there is Neil Armstrong -– as he stepped on the moon, he took the first selfie from space.

Selfies have permeated every aspect of our culture at a rapid pace. In the recent presidential election, people wanted selfies taken with the candidates rather than simply taking pictures of those running for office. Expectant parents now post pictures of their babies in utero, as though they are already preparing for a life of selfies.  Doctors are reporting a spike in visits to emergency room for small children. Did you know that, last year, more people died taking selfies than from shark attacks?

At playgrounds, parents and caregivers are often preoccupied with taking selfies rather than watching their children.  Even toddlers, if given a smart phone, snap selfies. A marriage proposal is now often accompanied by the requisite selfie of the happy couple, or simply of a disembodied hand wearing the new ring.

How many of us are living our lives based on an idea of how we can present ourselves to others? And how much anxiety is that instilling in us?  How many selfie snapchats do you share in an hour? In fact, does the ability to make an image of our face distinguish us from other animals or species?

David Slater, a British photographer, found out the hard way.  In his work with the female crested black macaque monkey, the monkey got ahold of his camera and took a classic selfie, with the requisite smile, and the perfect centering.  An international copyright battle ensued about who owned the rights to the image.

The next time, stop and ask yourself why before you take a selfie. For women, how has the desire to compose oneself in front of the world reinforced classic stereotypes about gender and body image? The ability to see oneself at any moment throughout the day, simply by turning the camera around, has altered our sense of self, for both women and men.  Perhaps it is time to wonder why that self-facing camera has become so indispensable.

“The Selfie in American Life” is just one of the many courses offered in the Wellesley Pre-College Immersive Programgeared towards female high school students seeking a unique, immersive college experience. Students will enjoy academic, social, and intellectual opportunities that cannot be found in a high school program.

Heather Corbally Bryant is a Lecturer in the Wellesley College Writing Program.  Her relevant and timely work with high schools students is one of the outstanding elements of Wellesley’s pre-college summer programs.