No Amount of Wishful Thinking Will Make the Selfie an Expression of Girl Power

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Over at Slate, someone’s positing selfies as the new girl power gesture. Your first clue that Rachel Simmons’ argument will be less than totally convincing, FYI, is the use of the phrase “girl pride”: “The selfie is a tiny pulse of girl pride — a shout-out to the self,” Simmons writes. And because girls have typically been trained to be humble and self-effacing, young women’s obsession with them is a positive thing.

OK.

It’s true that young women could always use added boosts of self-confidence. To the extent that this pulse exists, I could believe it might provide some kind of release. Girls endure commentary on their appearances roughly from toddlerhood, and so any interruption is likely welcome — at least, momentarily welcome. But the urge to get a quick hit of approval isn’t quite so unqualifiedly positive as Simmons imagines. Even she admits that often enough girls post these things to “perform an inverse maneuver, earning a compliment by putting themselves down (‘I look so awful today.’ ‘No you don’t, you look amaze!’).” It is not, then, that the posting of the selfie is actual relief from anxiety; it’s just an anxious tic of sorts, the result of anxiousness rather than the cure for it.

By the way, psychiatrists have a word they generally use for that kind of release: compulsions.

I wouldn’t go so far as to diagnose every female teenager in America with compulsive behavior. There are probably women out there with amazing reserves of confidence who are just posting selfies for kicks. But what I am saying is that to the extent young women are posting selfies for the reasons Simmons would like to believe — in order to feel better about themselves — the selfies have just about no value in achieving the self-confidence she’d like to see in these young women. They just sail out there, a few people like them, and moments later the anxious young girl returns to her state of anxiety. Little changes.

And that’s not even to get to the fact that there is no individual on earth, at this point, who has full control over the afterlife of that selfie. Once it’s out in the world, on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter, anybody can cut and paste and critique these things. As we know from last year’s Violentacrez debacle, there are entire subreddits devoted to people analyzing the images young women put on the Internet. And their opinions either fall on the “totally ugly” or “totally fuckable” end of the spectrum, neither confidence builders for girls. If you’re about to bring up Snapchat, allow me to remind you that there has already been an arrest of young men who managed somehow to save their Snapchats and distribute them as porn.

Let me be clear that I am not concern-trolling here; I am simply stating facts. It is a fact that selfies have been misused by other people on the Internet, for ends that have little to nothing to do with “boosting girl confidence.” So if we are talking about the effect of this trend in the aggregate, those negative outcomes need to be considered. No one’s saying that every time a girl posts a selfie on the Internet, she’s going to get trashed on a website somewhere in a way that will make her feel far worse than any initial likes. I’m just saying, it’s possible.