Monday 1 May 2017

Don't denounce selfie-conscious kids - ask why they are hung up on looks

We should not besmirch selfies - they are a product of a society obsessed with appearance, writes Ciara O'Connor

LIFE THROUGH A LENS: Ciara O’Connor takes a cheeky selfie
LIFE THROUGH A LENS: Ciara O’Connor takes a cheeky selfie

Ciara O'Connor

The vanity apocalypse, it seems, is upon us: violently contoured indentikit teens see taking photographs of each other as a valid activity to pass an evening, Kim Kardashian has a whole book of selfies, and girls as young as six are dissatisfied with their bodies.

Last week, a well-known TV psychologist came out to warn that 'selfie culture' is damaging young people's mental health. Dr Linda Papadopoulos cautioned against putting 'all of their self-esteem eggs in one basket' and says we should be more focused on other attributes apart from beauty. Well, obviously.

But there's no point in simply telling girls that they should have better values when everything around them suggests that the most important thing about a woman is the way she looks.

The selfie has become a kind of symbol of the moral and intellectual decline of our society - evidence of the narcissism and misplaced values of a generation.

But demonising selfies misses the point. They are the inevitable product of an appearance-obsessed society, not the cause. We can't blame front-facing cameras on phones for our rampant insecurity and vanity. It's important for us to take control of our own (and our children's) mental health in this regard. I grew up around people who I loved and respected, casually passing comment on women's appearances in a way they never did about men - women on TV, in the newspaper, on the streets. Whether it's a compliment or not, it tells our kids that looks are king - even if the woman is an athlete, or a politician or a scientist.

No wonder we're chasing the perfect picture. As if comparing ourselves to other people isn't bad enough, increasingly we are comparing ourselves to our 'selfie' selves and being disappointed.

The problem with our highly documented and aggressively curated online lives is that we don't actually know what we look like anymore. I never uploaded photos where I looked fat; historically I've detagged photos that other people have uploaded of me where I look fat.

I find myself wistfully scrolling through photos of myself from eight years ago and wondering how I managed to let myself go so badly.

I almost certainly wasn't as thin as I think I was. But any unflattering photos have been banished to the annals of the internet, never to be found again. Social media erases the bad and the ugly - leaving us only with the good.

Anecdotally, at least, there is a generation emerging who have a completely warped idea of not only what other people look like, but what they look like too. We are chasing an appearance that never existed in the first place. My peers are in their mid-20s and struggling with the disconnect between our picture-perfect online presence and our own memories and experience. This is only after 10 years. I fear for children now whose parents will have been unthinkingly curating their lives and looks from the day they were born.

But what of those who don't take selfies but are bombarded by them every day? These are the people who don't realise the amount of work that goes into the perfect picture and might be more susceptible to feeling terrible about themselves after a few minutes on Instagram. I know I do. Proper social media literacy is desperately needed. There is a lot that the younger generation know about technology that the oldies will never grasp: what's funny about 'cash me ousside', how being a 'YouTuber' is a viable career option, and why sometimes you have to 'do it for the insta'.

But there's some areas in which this younger generation are worryingly illiterate - privacy, safeguarding information, and how the images they see online relate to real life. Grown adults gasp when they see celebrities without makeup in magazines; Lady Gaga's little soft tummy roll at the Super Bowl blew minds all over the world. How can we expect kids to be wise to social media selfie lies?

It's not all bad, though: increasingly girls are 'reclaiming' the selfie, they see it as a radical act of self-love and self-acceptance in a society that tells them they should hate themselves because they're too fat or too different. For these girls, selfies have become an important tool in recovering from mental health conditions. Once you stop trying to look like everyone else, a contoured Kardashian-lite, selfies become an empowering medium of self-expression and a way of controlling your own image, when women's images are so often controlled by others. Squeamishness around teenage selfies seems to be displaced anxiety about mental health that as a society we're still too mortified to talk about.

It's easy to denounce a generation of amoral narcissists, but harder to start a conversation about why they're increasingly hung up on the way they look. Perhaps we're worried it's not their fault. Selfies aren't the beginning of a vanity apocalypse; we're way past that. They are the end result - and we can't blame the kids for that.

Sunday Independent

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