I remember the first photo tagged of me on Facebook; I was a senior in high school, and had just attended my school’s homecoming, where photos taken beforehand are protocol. Parents huddle together in astonishment and sadness, their children so grown up and on their way to get trashed at some afterparty. Up until this point, however, these photos were developed at Walgreens, put in an album or a glittery, sticker-bedecked collage, and kept in a drawer as a memory-at-hand for future moments of nostalgia. But when I saw a photo of myself on homecoming, in a muted beige knee-length dress that I basically drooled over, the first thought that came to mind was: “Oh my God. I look like that?” And so my self-scrutiny became intensified. I analyzed that photo of myself in a way I never had before, and not just because I felt sort of strange seeing my photo online, but because I was seeing myself as all my “friends” were. I was no longer worried about my appearance in the same way I had been for the entirety of my adolescence, but now was concerned with how I looked to the world, or at least the internet at large.
This is when I learned how to pose. My fellow female peers can likely attest to similar experiences. Facebook introduced a new self, a sort of viral, stagnant shadow of my real-life self, where I could return and stare at an image of me next to my friends over and over. Does this sound vain? It is. But at least I have some sort of recollection of what my self-image meant to me, pre-Facebook. At 17, I was old enough to remember being 12, 13, and 14 without ever seeing a single photo of myself plastered online unless I scanned one for an AOL instant-messaging session. Sure, by then I was an avid consumer of fashion and pop culture magazines, and I had always noticed the arm-on-hip default pose celebrities struck for the cameras, but I assumed this was how “those people” looked.
Now, my 14-year-old cousin, who has kept a Facebook profile since 6th grade, poses in almost every photo tagged to her. Even in a sweatshirt and leggings at school, her hip is jutted out and her arm strikes a delicate acute angle. At 14, I had no idea that placing my arm a certain way or angling my face a certain way could make me look taller, thinner, better. But girls know better now. Did adolescent girls learn this because they saw or our generation’s ‘traditional’ pictures and picked up on it from an early age? Or are they becoming mannequin-like pros because they’ve seen and possibly studied photos of themselves since they were 11 and 12 years old on Facebook?
I’m not making any argument for or against Facebook, or debating how much exposure to creating various profiles online should be deemed appropriate, but I have noticed that, in any case, the way young girls see themselves and the ways in which their self-image develops during puberty is probably and almost undeniably changing. They are more self-aware in a way my generation and those prior could have ever been.
I’ve also learned how to smile better for photos; that is, I tailored my gum-heavy, upper-lip-disappears real smile to be more appealing and pretty, like my friends’ photos. But I remember when I was blissfully ignorant. My cousin, however, will have no recollection of a ”real” or “fake” smile because she has learned to tailor her smile, and her inflections even, for the eyes of her 1,000+ friends. When someone asks to take a picture, she knows that it will end up online. In fact, in college, I remember a conversation I had with a friend; spring break was peeking around the corner, and she lamented that she would not look as good in a bikini as her friends would. She even said “and that stuff is going to be all over Facebook.” This fact alone, and not the desire to be in better shape or increase her physical stamina, was the only reason she began working out like a fiend. She wasn’t looking at herself with her own eyes, but with the eyes of her judgmental peers and acquaintances.
What does this mean for 5-year-old girls who will likely see themselves through a similar lens from an even earlier age? Will my future daughter’s 8th birthday photos rival a gossip magazine’s red carpet pages? Or am I buying into the cliché argument that the internet is making us more stupid, less personable and altogether screwed up? I don’t know. Am I one of the overly-vain women who cares too much about what I look like online? Possibly.
All I know is: I never cared or even considered what I looked like from the side until Facebook taught me to. And now, my cousin, her peers and the girls years younger than them care and consider this, even if they don’t realize it.