I was the kid who hated having her picture taken. If I was going to be in a photo, I was either smiling and posing really awkwardly, or I was doing something silly. When you’re having your photo taken by someone else, you subconsciously see yourself through their eyes — and through everyone else’s eyes, I just a weirdo. As a nerdy adolescent, and not (I’d tell myself) a naturally beautiful and photogenic goddess, I came up with ways to enhance my photos.
I was extra smiley in an effort to draw attention away from the rest of my face and towards my smile. I never tucked my hair behind my ears, so my face would always be curtained and my big ears never showed. I hated my eyebrows, my forehead, and pretty much everything else on my face in every photo I took (which probably explains the huge bangs). I thought I was making do with the ugliness I had been born with. What I didn’t understand was that I had internalized the way I thought others saw me. By further reflecting that on camera, it just became a vicious cycle.
When I graduated from high school, I started experimenting more with fashion and makeup. I’d dyed my hair, thrifted a whole new plethora of clothes, and was excited to start my first year of college as a totally transformed person. For the first time in my life, I felt pretty.
I found a couple facial expressions and angles that I thought suited me. While I felt pretty in real life, the photos I took failed to capture that self-esteem.
I’ve been told I looked sad.
I don’t hate these selfies, but I can tell that I was always holding something back. Despite feeling pretty and confident in real life, I still felt like there was a stigma to taking photos of yourself, that in some way a selfie diminishes your self-value. Every time I took a selfie, there had to be a reason. I was telling the world what I was doing or showing off a new thing I bought. I didn’t want to be like “those girls” who selfie’d for the sake of selfie-ing.
It wasn’t until my teenage sister taught me how to selfie in the fall of 2014 that my pictures entered a whole new level. She admonished me for taking awkward selfies and said, “You’re so pretty — you need to be more confident in your selfies!” She taught me how to play with lighting, tilt my head, and smile. That marked the first nice selfie I ever took.
You can see my entire face, almost straight on, and I’m smiling! With teeth! Who knew I had teeth?! This was the first time I saw myself as I was in real life — confident and happy. I learned that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking a selfie for the sake of selfie-ing. The sole reason for this particular selfie was to celebrate getting better at taking them, so it was my first foray into unapologetic self-love. My sister is a digital native, so she grew up with front-facing cameras, Snapchat, and Instagram. To her generation, it’s rarer to find someone who’s camera-shy than one who embraces the selfie. I took inspiration from her confident style of taking selfies and suddenly a whole new world of selfie-expression opened itself up to me.
“Who cares?” became my new selfie philosophy.
From then on, seeing my face in different lighting, at different angles, and in different contexts helped me, literally, see myself for the first time. Selfies were my journey towards seeing on the outside how I felt on the inside. I wasn’t just an awkward nerd.
Sometimes I like to look vamp-y.
And sometimes I’m perfectly happy going makeup-free.
And finally, who am I kidding, I’ll always be a bit of a nerd.
Inside, I always felt like a complex, weird and beautiful person, but I was afraid of expressing that on camera for fear of judgment for being vain. But why do people call selfies vain, when it’s just another form of expression? Just because it’s a self-portrait doesn’t make it any less expressive of my personality, creativity, and dreams. I write, I read, I create and I just so happen to take selfies, too. Selfies don’t take away from my value as a human being — they add to it.
I’ve learned recently about the radical power of selfies outside of personal growth. Selfies are a bold statement of, “Here I am. I exist.” They’re a piece of photography that have the sole purpose of claiming the space on people’s screens. When it comes to underrepresented people in mainstream media, this is powerful.
@NoTotally on Twitter recently brought back the #AsianBaeWatch hashtag. Though it was originally created by @FilmFatale_NYC to show that Hollywood has plenty of amazing Asian/Asian-American actors and actresses, it was re-purposed later on to encourage Asian Twitter to post selfies of themselves to prove that they exist. In the midst of the whitewashing of Asian characters in Hollywood, the Asian Twitter community was sad, angry and, probably worst of all, invisible. It was a movement of pure love with the goal of just appreciating all the different types of Asian people out there and was a much needed one at a time where the US’s movie industry was telling us time and time again that we didn’t matter. #AsianBaeWatch was the chance to claim the space we did have control over to shout, “Here I am. I exist.”
Online community and publication @femsplain hosts a weekly #FemsplainSelfie on Instagram and Twitter, inviting their users, who are mostly female and non-binary, to post selfies of themselves on Saturday and to briefly talk about what they were doing. It’s an occasion that puts faces to usernames and reminds us of just how big and loving the Femsplain community really is. While selfies posted on their own in the internet wilderness run the risk of being trolled or garnering negative comments from people, selfies sent to Femsplain are met with unconditional support and love with nary a negative comment in sight. Every Saturday, it reminds me of the power of inclusive spaces and why it’s so important to keep fighting for them.
Critics are quick to note how narcisstic selfie-takers are. Instead, I see that even when what feels like the entire world is trying to bring us down, we are a generation of people that are finding new and innovative ways to express and love ourselves. And although there will be people who shake their heads in judgment when I take my phone out in public and snap a selfie, I will tilt my head slightly upwards to highlight my angular features, purse my lips to emphasize my lip color that day, and smize. Because their judgment doesn’t matter to me. What matters to me is how happy I am with myself and how much I love how I look in that moment. So go ahead and snap that selfie.