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The cult of the selfie

Amy Gray
Published: November 16, 2012 - 7:38AM

Selfies, the often-flattering self-portraits shared via social media, appear to be at an all-time high. Their popularity is matched only by their frequency. While some show variety, the majority take the guise of a selfie ‘Blue Steel’, using the same pose, pout and preen varied only by props.

For Anne, 29,  a digital marketing executive, it is what she laughingly considers a “record of peak physical attractiveness” where she can share “positive connection with and affirmation from other humans”. Though Anne is generous in her validation of photos, her selfies get more feedback than any other shared photo across her Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts. “Photos of cocktails and cats are popular, but I never get higher engagement than when I post a photo of myself.”

But far from being just about human connection, selfies can be a competitive request for approval, according to psychologist Bill Campos. Campos, who specialises in teen and relationship issues, likens selfies to beauty pageants, “a drive to get feedback to validate ourselves....and provide mass meaning to what used to be in smaller contained mediums”.  The psychologist has likened the behavior with online gambling, noting the instant access can be habit forming with each hit of validation feeding the poser in record time. Feel low? Post a picture – each supportive click will boost the subject’s mood. The posers can end up not learning how to boost their confidence by themselves, instead placing their happiness in the clicks of others.

Whatever the reason behind the selfie, the development of smart phones has made it easy to take a photo any time for any reason.  Publication and approval may be the end game but the fastidious self-scrutiny that accompanies capturing the perfect ‘candid’ moment indicates a focus and need more dedicated that we may publicly care to admit. 

According to the people I spoke to, only around 25-50 per cent of their snapped selfies were published. According to Gemma (25, copywriter and regular Instagrammer) selfies can be a basic impulse or specific broadcast, “Maybe my boobs look great in a particular outfit or maybe I’ve just marathoned America’s Next Top Model and – to paraphrase Tyra Banks - I have a strong urge to smize.


Beyond modelising and mundanity, selfies do serve a purpose for Gemma. “I take and share pictures of my mug because I’m part narcissist and part somebody who for years hated they way they looked… now I don’t, I’ve learnt to love myself and the way I look, and I see it as a weird kind of therapy…I do it because it’s something not to hate who you are.”

Selfies form two-way communication in both the sharing and the validation required to keep people posing. Scrolling through the selfies, there are heapings of validation, echoing Anne’s observations they are the most popular; “the comments are usually fun and positive, and I do find that women comment more than men, while the amount of likes is generally an equal split.”

Many men admit their validation is based on sexual attraction. Angus, 29,  a sound engineer, in a relationship, is “more inclined to find selfies of someone I was sexually attracted to appealing” and feels that “favoriting can be a manner of flirting.” Dan, 24, a  photographer, also in a relationship, avoids favouriting, believing the act is a signal to the person that “yeah, I’d go there”.

Even though sexual attraction and flirtation are dominant factors, it’s not the only reason. “It could mean anything from "I want to jump your bones" to "I've been meaning to read that book I see on your shelf in the background", says Cat, 33,  a software support analyst, who estimates he faves 5-30 photos per day. For Angus, it’s also a way to “convey feelings of support and approval, and it's usually good to support people you care about”.

However, selfies aren’t always the Waiting to Exhale validation-fest of love, support and sexy times. There are some selfies that go awry.


Some poseographers are the subject of abusive messages for taking photos, for their choice of poses, or for how they look and some relationships are placed under strain by the act of sharing or liking photos.

Dan feels it’s a troublesome area, “I think there are boundaries that should be kept with what you do and don’t fave”. While Angus agrees that it is an area that relies on trust; “it has caused friction in the past where there have been preexisting trust or jealousy issues”, he doesn’t believe the act is worthy of concern.

Are selfies advertisements for attraction or relationships? Anne notes that she posts less selfies when in a relationship, believing it is an intimacy she would reserve for her partner. This isn’t universal, though. For Steph, 28, a teacher, selfies have become a supplement to her relationship; “I have very low self-esteem and a husband whose vocabulary consists of 'fine' and 'ok', so sometimes I need some attention to perk me up“.

According to Bill Campos, online communication is a particularly concerning area for people attempting to develop intimacy skills.

“Online communication allows people to be more flirtatious” and, with every validating click, Campos questions “if it’s eroding some of the robust trust you’d share with a partner…if your mind is somewhere else, what does it say?”

As technology advances, our emotional skills adapt. Campos believes “people now expect more from relationships in terms of immediacy and response” and it “puts pressure on the need to develop intimacy skills” required to support and validate partners as they previously might. It may even restrict our development: “technology is evolving at such a fast pace we don’t know what [our intimacy skills] will be like in 30-40 years”. 

While at first glance the selfie can be construed as a way to attract and flirt with potential partners like binary peacocks, it is part of a growing dependence on social media and oversharing.   

AJ Keen, author of ‘Cult of the Amateur’ and ‘Digital Vertigo’, describes these social media sites as “shrines for the cult of self-publishing…tabula rasas of our individual desires and identities”. Keen notes it’s not enough to visit the Parthenon, it’s not even enough to photograph it – people need to take a photo of themselves in front it.  Not just an invitation to appreciate someone’s face, but validate them as well – transforming the act from bored narcissism to unrelenting stream of a person’s constructed identity and activity.

Personally, I became uneasy about my selfie-oversharing a few months ago when I noticed my soon-to-be-ex-partner favoriting and commenting on other women’s selfies who were in various states of pout and dress. He had long stopped favouriting anything of mine since initial courting and, as referenced by Dan, seemed to be letting people know he’d “go there”. 

But there are always ways to make selfies less about validation and competition - after discussing the photo style with two female friends, the three of us now share daily unflattering selfies and vow to post one unflattering for every flattering shot across social media.

With the ugly selfies, I still work the angles, but for a different effect, fascinated at how I can transform my nose to resemble an Irish sausage or how I can make my neck disappear. The act of embracing the ugly along with the beautiful is liberating, especially in a society that still measures and rewards women by their sexual attractiveness. But in pulling unflattering faces, beauty and ugliness become artificial irrelevancy unrelated to who I am, able to be turned on or off by whim which hopefully dilutes the addiction of validation.

I realise this wouldn’t be an issue if I looked as good as my cat. He totally knows how to smize. 

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