I recently went on a shopping trip with my mother to our local, relatively small-town mall. It had been a long time since I had been to any mall-type establishment, but the place was just what you would expect from any mall, filled with the usual mall-goers: bored and/or scary-looking teenagers, older women walking with their arm weights, and mothers pushing baby strollers looking hurried.
It was the middle of the day, so Mom and I decided to stop for lunch in the food court. Since options were limited to the pizza place that sells giant slices of droopy pizza, Chick-Fil-A (which I like to call ‘Hateful Chicken’), and other unappetizing food court staples, I ended up settling on a California roll from a sushi place where 70% of the menu was fried.
As I was sitting at our table, spreading wasabi with the end of my chopstick and asking Mom what kind of sandwich she got from Subway, I noticed a group of construction workers nearby looking in our direction. A tilt of my head confirmed my suspicions — they were staring at me. Now, without sounding like Samantha Brick, I’ll just say that this is something that I’ve gotten used to over the years; despite my lack of cleavage and aura of awkwardness, I’m plenty used to being ogled by strangers. But this time it was different. Instead of looking me over until settling on another, more nubile target, the men wouldn’t look away.
The staring got so bad that my mom noticed, and told me to hurry up and finish eating so we could get away. As I got up to throw my Styrofoam cup into the trash, I consciously avoided looking over at the men, feeling an all-too familiar anger at not being able to go straight to their table and curse them out for scaring my mom and for ruining our lunch together. I knew the safest and best course of action was to dump my plastic tray and walk off — so that’s what I did.
This story is probably so familiar to women everywhere that it hardly seems worth telling. But I was angry — so angry that I did tell some friends about the incident. And you know what most of them told me? “Take it as a compliment. It means you’re hot!!”
The male gaze is everywhere, and it is so omnipresent as to be considered a reality of modern life to be dealt with, tolerated, and ultimately, accepted. So much so that women themselves perpetuate it by encouraging other women to welcome and enjoy the stares of strangers.
Which brings me to the subject of this post: selfies.
I understand why people post selfies, and it’s not just about vanity. We live in a world where women and girls have to constantly deal with all sorts of conflicting expectations — and a great number of those expectations have to do with how we present our physical selves to the world. Obtaining the correct balance between hot, sexy, and cute is nothing short of an imperative — so much so that a fourteen-year-old girl wearing the “wrong” outfit can be seen as “asking” to be raped. So to me, it makes sense that women my age would feel the need to post pictures of themselves as a way of “performing” their gender and as an attempt to gain control over their own image.
We use selfies to show that we are adept at presenting ourselves as today’s modern women. It’s not enough to be educated, outspoken, successful — we also all have to be desirable in order to be taken seriously, whether we like it or not.
This isn’t just speculation; it’s scientifically proven. The sad, ugly truth is that we live in a society where a woman’s appearance is tied up in her worth. We live in a society where “conventionally attractive” women are more likely to be taken seriously, more likely to succeed in the workplace, and more likely to be considered competent, generous, and trustworthy.
Contrary to what you might think, selfies aren’t just about vanity, insecurity, or narcissism. Looks are everything but arbitrary. And if social media is all about “branding” yourself as an individual, expressing who you are by creating a profile centered around your carefully-curated likes and interests, it makes sense that your face would be the logo for your personal brand.
Unlike in the real world, where we’re seen in three-dimensions, with all of our flaws and our bad angles, Facebook and Instagram give us the opportunity to show only our best angles, to retouch our imperfections, and to decide which “filters” through which we will be seen.
Selfies are a way to access the unique power that comes from being a beautiful, desirable woman. I understand why people would want to tap into this power and take advantage of it, but it still makes me uneasy, for all of the reasons I’ve listed above.
But as a feminist, I believe that it’s a woman’s right to do whatever the hell it is she wants to with her body, and I’m sure not everyone views this issue the way I do. So hey girl, go ahead and post those selfies. But you might want to think twice about calling them “empowerment.”