Ruby Karp, 13, of Manhattan grimaces as she takes an ugly selfie, which some teenagers use to challenge conventional beauty standards. Photo: Yana Paskova/ The New York Times
Thirteen-year-old Ruby Karp was sitting in a dark corner of a cafe, angling a glowing iPhone underneath her chin. She scrunched up her face and tilted her head downward.
“This is the ‘uncomfortable double chin,’ ” she said, snapping a photo of herself.
She sent the photo to a half-dozen friends, took a sip of her hot chocolate, and by the time her mug hit the table, three new images had flashed onto her screen. The first, from her best friend, was an angled close-up of the girl’s cheek, her mouth curled into a crooked grimace (the “weird creep” shot, Ruby said). The second was a young forehead scrunched into lines with an exaggerated frown (the “crying sad man”). The third appeared so quickly there was hardly time to look before it disappeared into the ether of Snapchat.
“What is it about ugly selfies?” Ruby’s mother, Marcelle Karp, asked. The two were recently on a family holiday when Mrs. Karp took an experimental one on Ruby’s phone. She accidentally sent it to 81 high school students on Snapchat.
Ruby laughed. “It’s fun,” she said “And it’s just, like, so much work to make a good-looking selfie.”
“Selfie” was the Oxford Dictionary’s 2013 word of the year; Justin Bieber and James Franco are masters of the form. Kim Kardashian made news with a selfie of herself in a skimpy swimming costume. There are selfies sent from space and from under water, and 91 percent of teenagers regularly share them, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center.
But there are also the inevitable worries that come with any internet trend and teenagers: tales of smeared reputations and half-naked images gone viral, “hot or not” lists and rankings of attractiveness (often from boys). The sexy selfie, for girls, anyway, has become a virtual rite of passage; the “cute” selfie, often involving hours of trial and error to get a single flawless shot, is a modern-day flirtation tool.
Amid the bared midsections and flawless smiles flashed all so often on the screen comes the explosion of the ugly selfie, a sliver of authenticity in an otherwise filtered medium. Take a tour through Selfie.im, the adolescent-dominated selfie-sharing app for the iPhone, and you won’t find pouted lips but close-up shots of double chins, insides of mouths, makeup-less pores, exaggerated toothy growls and duck lips zoomed in so close that they look grotesque. (Selfie.im uses something called a “mosquito tone” for pop-up notifications, a high-frequency noise that is supposedly audible only to the teenage ear.)
On Instagram, young women use hashtags like #ugllieselfie to communicate through facial contortions. And a Tumblr blog called “Pretty Girls Making Ugly Faces” presents before-and-after” shots of girls submitting their most exaggerated facial contortions. “You do not have to send a ‘pretty’ photo,” the blog curators write. “HOWEVER. You better make your ugly photo UGLY.”
It’s no surprise that women have delighted in the wacky emotional displays of Jennifer Lawrence (“Faces of Jennifer Lawrence” is a popular Tumblr site) or the many shades of Claire Danes’s now-infamous “cry face.” (As The New Yorker put it: “A testament to Danes’s knack for self-exposure is her willingness to look ugly.”)
At the Sundance Film Festival last month, 18 teenage girls were the subject of a short film, “Selfie,” forged out of a one-day workshop in which the girls were asked to capture, in selfies, the physical imperfections they would normally filter out: pimples, freckles, double chins, upper arms. The point, said the filmmaker, Cynthia Wade, was to start a conversation about cultural beauty standards and self-esteem.
“We spend so much time trying to hide our flaws because the culture has set it up that you have to be ashamed if you’re not perfect,” Ms. Wade said. “I think girls are tired of it. They’re suddenly much more willing to embrace the ugly or ironic.”
There is a long history of women using self-portraiture as a form of radical self-expression (think Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman). In fact, it was a teenage girl — a Russian grand duchess — who is believed to have taken the first-ever selfie, with a box camera, in 1913.
And yet modern-day beauty images, those we see reflected in the media, anyway, have maintained a particularly rigid definition: ladylike, small, modest, unthreatening and virtually emotionless, said Nancy Etcoff, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard and an adviser on the “Selfie” film, which received funds from the Dove Foundation.
It takes little more than a scan of any red carpet to see that idea in action: a sea of toothless smiles, frozen foreheads and hunched shoulders, the uniform that every young woman has learned to mimic. And while this generation may be more tech savvy than any other, that beauty ideal can still be crippling. It’s been estimated that girls 11 to 14 are subjected to some 500 advertisements a day; according to a University of Minnesota study, staring at airbrushed images for just one to three minutes can have a negative impact on girls’ self-esteem.
“We’ve created this culture where you’re constantly comparing yourself to other people, or images you see in the media or in the movies,” said 15-year-old Harper Glantz of Pittsfield, Mass. “I think that’s sort of where the pressure comes from, because you’re always having to measure up to something that’s not of your own invention.”
But girls are beginning to see new models: Lorde, the New Zealand pop star, whose video for “Tennis Courts” is a prolonged slow-motion montage of the 16-year-old’s expressive face; Cara Delevingne, the rising British model, whose funny faces have inspired many a top-10 list; Lena Dunham, who, despite the Jezebel-induced outcry over her Vogue cover, continues to disrobe unabashedly each week on “Girls” (and on her 715,000-follower Instagram feed). Much like the availability of mirrors during the Renaissance era allowed painters to turn the brush on themselves, the smartphone has allowed for all sorts of experimentation.
“I think we’re collectively rebounding from perfection fatigue,” said Pamela Grossman, the director of visual trends at Getty Images. “Everyone knows what Photoshop is now. Everyone’s seen the wizard behind the curtain in advertising, in Hollywood. We know how the machine works. And so we’re gravitating toward people, images and experiences that we deem to be authentic, unvarnished and real.”
Indeed, a few months back the animator for “Frozen,” the blockbuster Disney princess movie, was quoted as saying that female expressions are hard to illustrate because animators have to “keep them pretty.” The Internet reaction went ballistic. What was it, exactly, about a woman making an emotional face that was so unsettling?
“One of the things ugly selfies do for girls of all ages is strip the conventional approaches to ‘prettiness,’ ” said Mrs. Karp, a television producer and a founder of Bust Magazine. “That you can manipulate your face to look like ‘a thumb’ for fun (one of Ruby’s favorite poses) is a reminder that your face has other avenues of expression. That it doesn’t necessarily have to be rooted in attractiveness.”
The ugly selfie, then, is a kind of playful slice of authenticity in an age where everything seems airbrushed to perfection. (The joke, explained Ruby, is that “the better the friend, the uglier the selfie.”)
If you track the forms of internet communication over time, from IM to email to emoticons to SMS, then perhaps the emotive selfie is simply the currency of communication for a new generation, and an increasingly valuable one as face-to-face communication becomes rare.
“Those who make the pictures make the rules,” Ms. Grossman said. “In one tap of their iPhone, these girls are participating in a visual coup d’état.”
New York Times