The Evolution of the Selfie: It's Not About Being Pretty Anymore


The selfie has gone through many incarnations, from standing in front of an olde-tymey box camera to snapping a mirror reflection to MySpaceFace to Sparrowface to The Squinch. And now, according to Pamela Grossman, the director of visual trends at Getty Images, a new generation of girls into “ugly selfies” are staging “a visual coup d’état.”

In a piece exploring ugly selfies for the New York Times, Jessica Bennett interviews Ruby Karp, a 13-year-old who’s into taking pictures of herself with a double chin and eyes agog. (Fantastic example here.) Ruby explains the allure of the ugly selfie thusly: “It’s fun… And it’s just, like, so much work to make a good-looking selfie.” As Bennett points out, the selfie has lookism and judgyness woven into its history…

…tales of smeared reputations and half-naked images gone viral, “hot or not” lists and rankings of attractiveness (often from boys). The sexy selfie, for girls, anyway, has become a virtual rite of passage; the “cute” selfie, often involving hours of trial and error to get a single flawless shot, is a modern-day flirtation tool.

Ruby and her friends seem to be doing ugly selfies to make each other laugh; Ruby’s mother, feminist writer/co-founder of Bust Marcelle Karp, feels sharing a weird, distorted image of yourself is powerful:

“One of the things ugly selfies do for girls of all ages is strip the conventional approaches to ‘prettiness’… That you can manipulate your face to look like ‘a thumb’ for fun (one of Ruby’s favorite poses) is a reminder that your face has other avenues of expression. That it doesn’t necessarily have to be rooted in attractiveness.”

Still, although the Times article points out that there are plenty of places where contorted faces are common and celebrated —, Pretty Girls Making Ugly Faces, The Claire Danes Cry Face Project — the standard selfie is usually the one in which the subject is — whether serious, wide-eyed or smiley or angling the head just so — trying for the best possible result.

But could there be a gradual shift happening? This morning on the Today show, the anchors appeared on TV without makeup. The title of the initiative? #LoveYourSelfie. They also encouraged viewers to send in photos of themselves without makeup. Of course, after the segment ended, the TV show folks went right back to makeup. And when it comes to seeing viewers without makeup, well, many many many civilians, myself included, spend oodles of time in public without makeup. No big deal. Today‘s stunt was cloaked in the message of “body image,” but it felt less like “be yourself” and more like “LOOK AT MEEEEEE.”

Still, it’s encouraging to know that there are young girls somewhere having fun with selfies and contorting themselves to be hideous instead of contorting themselves to fit into a mold dictated by the male gaze and its advocates (including Kim Kardashian’s unfiltered ass). Pamela Grossman from Getty puts it this way:

“I think we’re collectively rebounding from perfection fatigue. Everyone knows what Photoshop is now. Everyone’s seen the wizard behind the curtain in advertising, in Hollywood. We know how the machine works. And so we’re gravitating toward people, images and experiences that we deem to be authentic, unvarnished and real.”

And it’s true that after years of being inundated with airbrushed models in ad campaigns and flawless faces on magazine covers, we’re seeing more and more “real” people and visuals that focus more on personality and quirks instead of perfection and symmetry.

But it goes further than that: While the traditional selfie is mostly just about surface and DNA, the ugly selfie takes skill, courage, creativity, good sportsmanship and pluck. Dita Von Teese once said of her beauty philosophy: “When I look at the over of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, there’s nothing I can do there. [Kate Upton] looks like she has no makeup on… it’s a God-given natural beauty. We’re fed natural beauty; that if you wear too much makeup it’s fake… I look at Old Hollywood and it’s clear those women were created beauties — and I can create that.” Instead of standing there and letting the lens do the work, Ruby and her friends are making, controlling, deconstructing and discovering their self-image. Nothing ugly about that.

Lead image via PanicAttack/Shutterstock.
Selfie images via Pretty Girls Making Ugly Faces.

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