Take your belfies (butt selfies), feet-at-the-beach-selfies, and back of the head selfies and move over. Those pictures are valid and worth documentation of course, but they’re not selfies.
While the Oxford English Dictionary defines a selfie as “an image that one has taken of oneself…etc.” It doesn’t specifically say it has to be a picture of one’s face, but I still think the face is a crucial part of the selfie. Why? Because of a concept in media studies called face-ism.
Face-ism came from a 1980s study that found in media images, men are more frequently portrayed from the shoulders up, while full-body shots of women are almost always used. But the implications of that were more striking. In a headshot, the individual shown is described as being more dominant, assertive, and intelligent, while the full-body shot was viewed as passive, less intelligent, submissive.
Subsequent studies found that when even the same individual was depicted in a head shot and a full-body shot, viewers rated the head shot as “better.” Because media frequently use head shots for men and full-body shots for women, it’s no wonder these gender stereotypes and inherent misogyny persist. In other words (as said in a study by Konrath et al., 2012): “It is not surprising that two groups of people who are conceptually seen as different would be literally seen (visually) as different.”
My desire to study selfies came out of this concept – because what does a selfie show? A head shot, from the shoulders up, but selfies (and those who take them) are deemed silly, aimless, dumb, and narcissistic. Why the chasm? Why, when the picture is taken by someone else, is it respectable, but when it is taken by oneself, it isn’t? Why does face-ism not apply to the selfie?
In a previous post, I said I used the selfie as the intersection to study media, culture, and society. How the selfie (and those who take) them are represented through language says a lot about what we value as a society, and what we’re afraid of. In that same earlier post, I mentioned that the early adopters of the selfie were women, minorities, and homosexual men, and this set the tone for how the selfie would be talked about in culture. These are three groups that have historically been stereotypes, marginalized, and misrepresented in the mass media, and selfies are a way for them to talk back to the status quo and say, “No, that’s wrong, this is actually me.”
Face-ism doesn’t apply to the selfie because society does not want it to. The finding inherently privileges men and “masculine” qualities. When a group that has historically been marginalized is featured in the exact same style, rejection of it says more about society’s feelings towards that group than it does the level of facial prominence in a picture. The backlash suggests that historically marginalized groups shouldn’t be viewed in an empowering light. They need to remain subordinate, even in images. This is a classic “Othering” move – make the subordinate group feel like second class citizens through any means possible.
The selfie adheres to all concepts of the head shot except for one – the removal of the outside photographer. And while this is quickly labeled as narcissistic, it is actually empowering and an act of protest. It says “if you value the norm for taking a picture like this, you will value me, too.” Selfographers (my term for those who take selfies) are saying, “Look me in the eye. I am worth more than my body, which has typically been viewed as an object to be consumed by the dominant class. Look me in the eye. I’m important, too.”