The selfie: desperate or so empowering?

Ellen and her children pose for a 'selfie'

Ellen and her children pose for a 'selfie' - Credit: Archant

Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past year or so, you will know exactly what a selfie is. But, just in case, I shall enlighten you.

In its official definition (and yes it does have one, thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary adding the term to its lexicon), a selfie is “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically with a smartphone or webcam, and uploaded to a social media website.”

Michelle Obama shared one with her dog Bo, Hillary Clinton tweeted one with Meryl Streep and Kim Kardashian took one of her ample derriere. David Cameron and Barack Obama posed up at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela and the trend even reached outer space when Japanese astronaut Aki Hoshide took an image of himself in a spacesuit with Earth in the background.

Prince Charles and Prince William have been at it too, allowing young royalists to snap a shot and, Heavens above, there has even been one taken of Pope Francis posing with teenagers. It appears the whole world has gone selfie mad. So really it should have come as no surprise that my daughter, at the tender age of six, has also joined the craze.

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It was while scrolling through pictures on my iPhone that I came across her efforts. A series of slightly blurry shots snapped at arm’s length, some of which included her grinning three-year-old brother. Perhaps I should have just chuckled at the pictures, deleted them from my memory card and forgotten the episode. But I have to say, there was something a little unnerving about my children’s attempt to emulate the stars with these giggling self-portraits.

I’m torn, you see, between thinking the selfie is just an amusing fad and worrying that it’s actually a dangerous preoccupation we have with the way we look. I’ve also read the recent scare stories that claim the selfie can have a negative impact on self-esteem. Now, I know my kids were just messing about, taking the pictures for their own amusement. But I do wonder what will happen when they reach an age when they can share these photographs with hundreds and thousands of friends and strangers on the internet and offer themselves up for public consumption.

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Will they learn to think that social acceptance can come only from the way they look, or that their popularity will rest solely on the number of “likes” their picture generates?

And will they believe there is no beauty in an image unless it has been altered? You can apply a flattering filter, soften features, correct imperfections. The result, of course, is a very skewed reality. Now, we tend to think of the British as a self-effacing bunch. So why has this humility not translated to social media? Could it be that the selfie has provided us with a chance to indulge in something at the very heart of human nature – stiff upper lip or not?

That’s what Clive Thompson, author of a new book on technology, believes. He says there is a primal human urge to stand outside of ourselves and look in, which is precisely what the self-portrait provides. Human beings have long been driven by the need for approval and self-affirmation, and the desire for a pictorial representation of the self is nothing new. People have long shown a fascination with their own visage ? from caveman drawings to oil paintings and sculpture. Van Gogh’s works included more than 30 paintings of his own face.

Experts at Durham University feel our relationship with the selfie is simply an evolution of this ? a way to “present yourself in the best way.” Perhaps this explains why so many selfies look the same: head tilted to one side, eyes wide, cheekbones sucked in, coy smile or sultry pout, an attempt to portray ourselves in a flattering light. It masquerades as a candid shot but is anything but.

Indeed, Chinese manufacturer Huawei revealed plans to cash in on this innate vanity with a smartphone with “instant facial beauty support” software which will automatically reduce wrinkles and blend skin tone.

With technology like this, I can’t help but wonder what future generations will make of our obsession with photographing ourselves. Will they look back and marvel at our flawless skin? Or will they laugh at our superficiality and snigger at our obsession with body image?

Either way, we can’t write off the selfie phenomenon just yet. A third of the nation post a snap of themselves on a mobile at least twice a week.

In many ways I don’t suppose it matters whether you think selfies are a sign of low self-esteem or a shout of confidence.

Certainly when my kids take their pictures, none of this applies. They are just interested in who can pull the silliest face.

You could say they are making history. At the very least, they are snapping a split second in a world that whizzes by far too quickly; and actually, looking at the bright, smiling faces in their collection of self portraits, I can’t see much wrong with that.

Please email me at or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.

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