You know you’re getting old when you are bemused by new catchwords that creep into the pop culture. I recently overheard a young man tell a friend on a bus to work, “Wow, you should see her selfies online. She’s hot! But watch out, they’re NSFW.” I will admit that I had no idea what a selfie was, or what this NSFW was all about. So I consulted the online oracle, Yahoo, and found out that a selfie is a picture that people take of themselves. The pictures usually show the subject with a phone in his or hands. I also discovered that NSFW means “Not Suitable For Work.”
I find this selfie phenomenon to be absolutely fascinating from a sociological and psychological point of view. First, it appears that women take most of the selfies. Second, it appears that a good portion of the selfies are, shall we say, risqué. Women have been posing nude since long before Alexandros of Antioch got some beautiful Greek girl to pose for his Venus de Milo. There were probably prehistoric cave women who posed for cave artists. And the ability to take a photograph of yourself goes back to the dawn of photography. After all, all you need is a camera and a mirror. Yet I don’t remember seeing a single selfie back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. So why is it that there are so many women taking provocative pictures of themselves now that we even have Web sites that are devoted to this phenomenon?
I think the answer may lie in the fact that feminism, smartphones and the Internet came together to create a “perfect storm” that opened the floodgates. Feminism, beginning in the 1960s, freed women to be in touch with their bodies and their sexuality. Smartphones made it easy to take pictures that do not need to be developed. And the Internet made it easy to disseminate the pictures to create a phenomenon that spurs more pictures by more women (and sadly, girls).
But the selfie phenomenon goes far beyond photos that are not suitable for work. It seems to be part of this broad trend toward navel gazing of which Facebook and Twitter are the most visible signs. The same people who need to tell us that they are getting a latte at Starbucks also seem to need to take pictures of themselves and distribute them online. If Baby Boomers were the “me” generation, Millennials are the “look at me” generation.
So are women today more immodest than their mothers were? I don’t think so. I think that everyone (and especially all young people) makes poor decisions at times. The difference is that the technology now has made it so easy to take racy pictures of yourself that many more women are doing it. And that makes it socially acceptable. Back when we were young, you had to actually ask someone to take your picture. Can you imagine 40 years ago trying to hold a Polaroid camera in one hand while you took a picture of yourself in a mirror? No, it required the development of phone cameras that you can hold in your hand to make this activity do-able.
The Urban Dictionary gives one of the definitions of selfie as, “A strange phenomenon in which the photographer is also the subject of the photograph, in a subversive twist on the traditional understanding of the photograph. Usually conducted because the subject cannot locate a suitable photographer to take the photo, like a friend.”
The fact that people today would rather do it themselves shows a more individualistic time, where people have fewer close friends to ask to take a picture of them. The level of loneliness this projects is a bit sad. Paul Simon talked about this phenomenon more than 40 years ago in his song,” I Am a Rock” where he wrote: “I have my books and my poetry to protect me I am shielded in my armor, hiding in my room, safe within my womb I touch no one and no one touches me I am a rock, I am an island.”
Today, some people hide in their rooms and take pictures of themselves and then disseminate the pictures in an attempt to make a connection with another person. Rather than risk having a real in-person relationship in which they might get hurt, they are shielded by the armor of anonymity. Because “a rock can feel no pain. And an island never cries.”
Let’s hope this is just a passing fad.