For me, one of the most depressing trends in social media is the selfie. Not just any selfie. That particular selfie that’s especially saved for young straight women. The selfie which conforms to the desires of the male gaze so entirely, it makes feminists everywhere weep. ‘I’ll do anything for you,’ it promises, ‘I’ll be anyone you want me to be.’
Wherever you go online, you’ll find these images. Skeletal young women offering selfies in bikinis, selfies in the mirror. Always the vacant eyes, the pout, taken from a height for the cheekbones. The sadness in their gazes is arresting; our society finds women’s misery alluring.
And these images are refining themselves as society demands increasingly unachievable standards of beauty. Just as their phones get smaller, our young women are getting thinner and thinner, and oozing more and more sexual availability and passivity. They’re becoming more well-defined symbols of the male gaze as the pressure to conform to beauty standards is intensified by the year, by the month, by the week. Are we really expecting our young women to place the importance of men liking them above all else?
Women are trained to re-work their identities to conform with the conventions of a femininity designed by men, and predictably, our society validates these images with unfailing consistency. Men comment with a variant of I’d do you and women with a variant of Babe, you look gorgeous! You’ve lost weight! As a young woman in contemporary culture, it’s almost impossible not to fall into damaging obsessions with your own appearance, desperately noting how it fares in the hierarchies of female beauty. We’ve been trained to care about it. Because men have been trained to care about it.
But it’s worth thinking about the emotional losses that are made with every representation of ourselves as passive, sexually available objects for aesthetic appreciation. How does this take its toll on our emotional well-being? Do we eat enough? Do we ever have true and real peace with the wonder that is our body? How powerful can we really feel if our biggest fear is being considered ugly by a man? How many businesses do we keep afloat with our appearance insecurities? How much do we spend on looking ‘beautiful’? Could we get a deeper, more meaningful experience from our money? What might we spend it on if we stopped caring about whether men fancied us or not?
In fact… What if our sexual attractiveness to men was completely irrelevant?
Just thinking about our weight occupies enormous space in our brain every day, and that’s before we’ve even started on the mind-numbing beauty rituals that eat into our precious hours, hours we can never get back, hours we might regret losing as we lie on our death beds.
What about taking some of that brain-space back – little by little – and using it for something else? It could be as simple as learning a language or studying for a new qualification, to more daring things like facilitating a project or a campaign. These decisions might lead to something brilliant, something life-changing, something heroic.
It’s something to think about. Because that specific selfie makes fake promises. It doesn’t bring us love. It brings us the wrong men, not the right men. Men whose belief system is based on valuing women by their appearance, men who’ve been swallowed by the toxicity of their culture. Men who won’t love us when we’re old, when we’re fat, when we’re more brilliant than them. That selfie gobbles our self-esteem.
So next time you feel a pressing need to take a picture of yourself and put it out into cyberspace, try taking a picture of the real you. The un-compromised you. The you that doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks. Only you know who that person is, what that person looks like. That person might not even want a picture of herself on the internet.
And if you don’t know who that person is yet, remember that’s the point of life. Figuring out who we really are on our own terms, what space we occupy in the world and how we can be the biggest and best version of ourselves is part of our journey, and that is a truly beautiful thing. It’s about time we bought into a different kind of beauty. A beauty that gives back instead of taking away.