21 Aug Fariha Roisin
I HATE SELFIES, THAT’S WHY THEY’RE NECESSARY
A few days ago, many feminists were appalled to see that #FeministsAreUgly was a trending hashtag on Twitter. A few got up in arms about this tired fixation on women’s looks—but as it turned out, the hashtag was made by two women of color, @LilyBolourian and @Cheuya, who were making a statement about our obsession with a standard of beauty that is calibrated to white women (and often unachievable even by them). They asked for selfies, from all feminists, trying to expand the definition of feminist beauty—and selfies they got.
This approach didn’t convince everyone. Some have responded by asking “why objectify yourself if you’re trying to fight oppression?” Even I wasn’t sure; by the time it expanded into trending-topic territory, #FeministsAreUgly had gotten away from its roots, and to me it just seemed like a fun thing to do on the internet for a couple of hours, with no lasting message or inquiry. But I do believe “feminist” and “selfie addict” are not mutually exclusive, and we need a more nuanced discussion of what exactly is ugly, while also extrapolating the insidiousness of the beauty industry in stylizing the ideal woman”—an ideal that’s unfriendly to trans women, queer women, and women of color. Sometimes wanting to be (outwardly) beautiful and still declaring that you are a feminist is revolutionary—just look at Beyoncé.
And, from experience, I know that selfies can be part of a journey for feminists of color to figure out what beauty means to us.
I still remember my initial reaction as I glared at the first selfie I encountered a while back. “How audacious,” I mumbled from the depths of the tumblr K-hole I’d fallen into to find this online gem. It was a photobooth photo, faded through pixels, quaintly juxtaposed against the surroundings of an incongruent milieu of household accessories. The picture showed a girl who seemed oddly happy at being looked at. Sated through consumption, she drew satisfaction from being admired. The senseless gratification of her knowing smile confused me, and the comfort she exuded made me sick.
After attending an all-girls school for seven years, and having a mother that hated her own sex, I had grown to despise anything that smacked of femininity. I had a convoluted idea of feminism and empowerment, and I didn’t think selfies encapsulated the kind of woman I wanted to be. I didn’t want to admire myself, and I was never taught how to. The concept seemed gratuitous, lacking in integrity. It mimicked the girls in highschool I hated—the flashy girls, the girls that liked themselves too much for reasons unknown. Intelligence was key to my feminism, and beauty was secondary. I wanted to live in an idyllic universe where I was content with my passion for life and vision, and my “beauty” (or what I considered my lack thereof) was an unnecessary, futile thing. It’s funny how we nurse the wounds we bestow upon ourselves—those big gaping holes of dissatisfaction—because we’re unsure that life will give us anything else. We foster that pain to forget about it and move on.
I’ve always, always hated the way I looked. First, it was because I was too brown. I hated the fact that I was a paltry shade of tan—like an ugly hue in the spectrum of sepia. I hated my ashy elbows and knees, chalky against the rest of my body. At a relatively young age, I realized I was different with a searing blow. Maybe I was five or six—old enough to understand that I wasthis and everyone else was that: white, pure, angelic, not like me.
Then, it was because I was too fat. My sister (who was seven years older) was diagnosed with anorexia when I was ten years old and immediately I started viewing my body only in comparison to hers. When I looked into the mirror, I was looking at her thighs. It was as if the outline of her was embellished in my mind, like the lines of a plastic surgeon’s scrawl. My sister’s body was the better version of me. As she suffered with her illness, there was a domino effect. I became self-conscious. Suddenly I wasn’t carefree; I was a body that had impact. I’d watch my sister eat close to nothing, and even though her hair started growing thin, her body acting out, I focused on the bones around her clavicles, how dainty she looked in her boat-necked tee-shirts.
My sister began to be my litmus test. I would compare myself against her, always. If I wasn’t skinny enough, I wasn’t good enough. I hounded that into my brain, my bones, into my blood, knowing that I’d never amount to nothing: no man, no woman, could ever love me if I wasn’t like her. She would constantly, obsessively, tell me that I had the wrong kind of body, as if she could mold me to her whims. She would judge my eating habits, as if she were my guardian—excruciatingly criticizing my chubby little body as if it were made out of Play-Doh, as if she were there to reconstruct me into the ideal version of me. So, I began to want to starve myself into happiness.
Bodies are supposed to transform. In times of love you grow fatter, the lines of your waist expanding with the joy of intimacy, the excitement of being loved; in times of turmoil you shrink, eroded by memories of loss and sadness. My body has expanded and shrunk many times—when I was pregnant, at eighteen, it expanded oceanically, and then when I had my abortion, it diminished into a spectre, held together only by emotion. I carry those lines and scars with me, and every time I begin to feel better of myself, and celebrate what I am, I feel the shame and guilt of those scars shackle me. I feel like a fraud taking a picture of myself, happy-go-lucky, angled perfectly, all smiles.
South Asian mothers, like mine, like to ridicule. They think it builds strength, but it really just enables brutality. There is nothing stimulating about being compared to the countless bodies you don’t resemble. I didn’t want to look like any of the girls around me, but I was taught to want to. I was taught to want to be like everyone else: to crave the lips, the eyes, the cheekbones of another, as if those things were attainable if I wanted themenough.
In an essay published last week in The New Inquiry, Anne Burns asserts that “the selfie is predominately associated with a set of negative female stereotypes relating to narcissism, vapidity, and sexual impropriety.” She uses an example of the new ABC television show, aptly entitled Selfie, where the protagonist is presented as an Eliza Doolittle type, unrefined and garishly un-ladylike. Within three minutes of the trailer we learn that the main character—Eliza Dooley (how promising!)—flirts with married men, vomits in public and displays a variety of poor social skills. However, what is really at fault, and needs to change, is her abhorrent, gratuitous selfie-taking. This, her use of social media, is seen as a manifestation of her unrefined qualities. She is the caricature of a tacky woman, one with no taste, and no social refinement, and therefore the wrong kind of feminine. The self-promotion aspect of taking a selfie, which questionably is what frustrates me so much about it, is seen as emblem of the self-interested culture of the zeitgeist we live in.
The show, says Burns, purports that taking selfies “symbolizes the loss of certain qualities of feminine passivity: modesty, privacy, and selflessness”—and that moving away from this approved mode of self-expression devalues the position of women, and reduces the agency they have over their own lives. The premise of Selfie essentially goes hand in hand with all I’ve learned over the years, and how I’ve been socialized to impose that thinking onto the women around me. Due to the limited definitions of what it means to be a “good woman,” I was left without my own idea of what womanhood means.
In a conversation with a female friend earlier this year, we both exclaimed about our lack of understanding when it came to the selfie. We were astounded at this intimate yet intemperate act, thinking that the displays of self-love were intended to garner a fake sense of security. But then—who am I to judge? We’re told that selfies are selfish (that’s the title of Kim Kardashian’s new book of selfies, after all) and unfeminine, but do we want to be feminine according to these rules? Do we have to do it all the time? According to what we’re taught women can never just be, they always have to be a role model, or a savior — never flawed, contradictory or complicated.
There is no longer only one way to be proper, or only one way to be beautiful. On the internet we can see transgender men and women, people of color, women of color, queer and fat folk taking pictures of themselves and posting it on Tumblr, Instagram, Facebook — and we can the invariable likes, favorites, reblogs increasing. People are now encouraged to think for themselves: what is beauty to them? A queer friend of mine recently told me that he has liked “fat people” all his life. His current boyfriend is fat, and my friend has faced criticism because of his sexual choices, as if people cannot handle a handsome, tall, “aesthetically appropriate” man having differing sexual choices. Being gay is fine, being fat is not — meaning his boyfriend has always felt less than, being a fat person in a community where it isn’t necessarily desired or accepted. “People are still uncomfortable with a lot of things,” my friend told me. It got me thinking — but why? The tautological dogmatic beauty standard has created inherent problems in the basic human interactions we have with those around us. Taught to always judge, we are afraid of what it means about us if our choices are deemed wrong. So, for those of us on the fray, we are shamed, festishized, othered when we are different, because we are not allowed to be seen, to be heard as we are.
In an interview with Art Journal in 1999, Marina Abramovic stated: “But at my age now, I have started thinking that beauty is not so bad.” But beauty was never bad, only the processes in which we were conditioned to define and maintain it. If the definition of beauty were more open, then maybe I wouldn’t consider self-love as an act of defiance; it would just be inherent, intuitive thing. As the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but there shouldn’t be just one entity dictating who that beholder is—it can be all of us.
I was personally resigned to hating selfies because I hated the way I looked, and couldn’t accept the larger discourse surrounding women—about our rights, about our diversity. My self-hate subsumed my ability to reason. But the selfie is far more subversive than I initially thought. Not every selfie is an act of political demonstration against the misogynistic, trans-exclusionary, white imperialist patriarchy that we live in. But posting a photo of yourself, no matter who likes it, is a undoubtedly a revolution.