Self(ie) Obsession


The official word of 2013, the word on everyone’s minds and lips (including mine), and by far one of the most popular hash tags on social media, #Selfie, now even features on more than one pop song but is infamous amongst its critics for being as ridiculed as it is popular. Fair enough.

Not only has it become synonymous with our society’s increasing narcissism aided by consumerism and technology but it is now also being linked with mental illness and body image problems.

In his opinion piece on Another-Day, Anthony Bila, one of South Africa’s top young photographers, reflects on the selfie trend in reference to a society obsessed with self-aggrandization. He states, “the amount of selfies you take is directly proportional to how self involved you really are” (see article here). And sure, it is easy to see how selfies are linked to narcissism and vanity.

Narcissism is not a new trend, however. Since the mythological Greek ‘Narcissus’ stared at his reflection human beings have become increasingly aware of the seductive yet sinful attraction of our sometimes-inevitable vanity.  But now that the odd face-off with a lake has been replaced by the daily torrent of camera phone pics on digital media, narcissism has never been more accessible.

So what are the risks? According to this article, the selfie fad is linked to narcissism, addiction and mental illnesses including Body Dysmorphic Disorder, which involves excessive concern about body image and is often linked to Anorexia.

Perhaps there is a little bit too much hype around the link between selfies and body image problems because let’s face it, tabloid magazines’ obsession with Hollywood celebrities and their incessant plastic surgery has done enough to ruin even the most healthy person’s body image. But what is concerning, is how social media sets us up to judge ourselves. As Bila so aptly puts it:

“The higher the number of Likes, comments and followers accumulated, the better we feel about ourselves. God forbid we post a selfie no one engages with, that is to die a thousand deaths. If no one likes, or comments on it, do you even exist? Are you even, like, a real person?”
For me, as a psychologist but also as a twenty-something living in the 21st Century, this need for external approval is the most devastating aspect of selfie culture. It started with Facebook but now that there is twitter and instagram our social worlds have been completely colonized by like button politics and retweet rhetoric.

Subjectively, this results in a greater degree of insecurity and desire for popularity turning us all into wannabe prom queens the second we hit ‘share’. We crave the acknowledgement and validation of our social media “selves”. I have written about this before but I will say it again: the desire for validation from the outside world including parents, friends, partners, etc. is not abnormal or pathetic – it is totally natural and associated with normal development of the self.

My difficulty with looking externally for validation is that it leads to feelings of emptiness if it is your only source of self-affirming experiences. Yes, we all like to be told we look good or write beautifully or we do our jobs well but these actions and external manifestations are not ALL that we are. If we spend all our energy trying to look or act in certain ways to get others’ approval then we are missing the point.

Truly happy people find ways to love themselves and appreciate every moment because they make an effort to connect within themselves, to the internal well of love and respect that resides within all of us. And that I think is the biggest problem with the word selfie.

self |self|

noun ( pl. selves |selvz| )

a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others, esp. considered as the object of introspection or reflexive action: our alienation from our true selves | [ in sing. ] : guilt can be turned against the self | language is an aspect of a person’s sense of self.

• [ with adj. ] a person’s particular nature or personality; the qualities that make a person individual or unique: by the end of the round he was back to his old self | Paula seemed to be her usual cheerful self.

• one’s own interests or pleasure: to love in an unpossessive way implies the total surrender of self.

In other words, it doesn’t matter if you post photos of yourself or not – this is a non-judgmental, space remember? – but whatever you do or like or share, try to remain in touch with your SELF. In the words of Shakespeare:  “To thine own self be true”.

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