We live in an age of perfection and digital self-representation. Endless seemingly perfect selfies fill our social media account feeds and put us under pressure to have either a ‘perfect’ body or a ‘perfect’ life. Everywhere we look we are bombarded with these images of perfection – books, films, and advertisements. The result is that we place unrealistic high expectations on ourselves to try and emulate the lives that we see. But should we believe everything that we see on our screens?
Of course, we each have our own idea about what perfection looks like. Our life experiences and culture plays a part in our own interpretations of this. The ubiquitous nature of the selfie results in it filling our digital experiences and this adds to the pressure to ‘conform’. We make more selfies that show we how well we meet expectations and that in turn prompts even more selfies to be produced and posted.
But, who do we make these selfies for? How do we consume them? And, why do they have such a hold on us?
Caring what people think about us is something that we all obsess over. We care about our reputation and what others may be saying about us. It seems inherent to us and part of our genetic makeup. By stage managing selfies and curating the images before posting online, we have become our own PR agents. The selfies promote our ‘brand’ and who we think we are or should be. We make the images in this instance for others and not for ourselves. We produce photographs that represent who we think other people think we are, becoming obsessed with producing perfect images.
“Narcissism is stronger in youth than in older age, but can be seen in all ages. I think what drives narcissism is a fragile identity of self. When I look at selfies, particularly those posted by women, most of the time the photographs are a vast improvement than how they would look in real life, a lot are retouched to correct imperfections or improving features like enlarging the eyes. With all this easy-at-hand technology, we are learning to find new ways of presenting ourselves. Most people naturally tend towards a flattering version, and it takes some guts and bravery to really be open. That’s why in some of my films I give people masks to wear so they don’t have any backlash from their identity being revealed. I can see why more than ever people who have sensitive things to confess may want to be anonymous. Especially as parts of social media have become very judgmental.”
– Gillian Wearing (Skidmore 2015)
We are self-conscious. We constantly look at ourselves and those around us. We judge these images we see and compare ourselves to celebrities. And everyone else is doing the same to us. This constant feeling of being scrutinised and judged is what drives the obsessive need to produce perfect selfies. All the time we are trying to live up to the reputation others have given us (and that very often, we have given ourselves).
Our inner voices never stop. They tell us how we should look compared to how we actually look. They theorise about our successes or perceived failures, interpreting our emotions and the comments of others. We both crave and loathe the attention that these selfies receive. We analyse the comments, seeking validation from both friends and strangers. We end up feeling that we must maintain this continual state of perfection. The cycle of the narcissistic need to post perfect selfies continues. And in each of them we wear the mask of perfection.
“Behind this laughing mask of mine which you know, I conceal grief and bitterness, and a sadness which clings in my heart like a vampire. In the society in which we live, it doesn’t take much to reach the void”
– Courbet in (Hall, 2014: 235)
The ideals of the ‘perfect’ body and face are nothing new. The Greeks produced stunning statues that depicted their interpretation of the ideal male and female forms. Generations have been influenced by these forms ever since. We are attracted to those who seem to be perfect and who appear to have it all. Subconsciously we are drawn to them and to trying to emulate them.
Our brains have developed to create a narrative of our identity so that we can portray who we want to be. Hiding behind our masks, we perform daily for society and those around us. And so when we take our selfies, we perform for the camera. The selfies are then merely a representation of who we think we should be.
“Nietzsche, in Beyond Good and Evil (1886), insisted that ‘every profound spirit needs a mask’ :
even more, around every profound spirit a mask is growing continually, owing to the constantly false, namely shallow, interpretation of every word, every step, every sign of life he gives”
– (Hall, 2014: 235)
The masks we wear in these self-portraits develops with time and with trends seen on social media. We constantly strive to satisfy the latest expectations and to continue to maintain our reputation. It is important that change our mask regularly to maintain this appearance.
The self-portrait images we choose to publish are the version of ourselves that we want the world to see at that point in time. They do not show us for who we truly are. They show merely a representation of our true selves. These images lie. These images are always missing something; they are incomplete. We need them to be incomplete so that we can project the perfection others expect from us. We need to keep a bit of ourselves back from the world. We do not need everyone to see us for who we truly are. We do not want that for fear of judgement. We are not out to deceive anyone except ourselves.
Hall, J. (2014). The self-portrait. London: Thames et Hudson.
SKIDMORE, MAISIE. 2015. “The Many Selves of Gillian Wearing”. AnOther [online]. Available at: http://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/7906/the-many-selves-of-gillian-wearing [accessed 7 November 2017].