The impact of social media on body image

Catherine Hogue
Staff Writer

With technology making the leaps that it has, a sort of Age of Narcissism has dawned on our society with the introduction of the ‘selfie’ into the mainstream. People have turned their cameras (or used their front-facing iPhone cameras, for that matter) on themselves and taken to the world of social media.
In her op-ed piece for the New York Times, Jenna Wortham says, “Selfies have become the catchall term for self-portraits abetted by the explosion of cellphone cameras and photo-editing and sharing services.” Social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram are brimming with an abundance of these self-portraits.
While many, especially those tethered to older generations, see this selfie revolution as a narcissistic act, it forges the question, is this really a bad thing?
A recent scroll through my Instagram profile counted 107 (whether by myself or with another person, but taking the photo myself) selfies out of 589 posts (18.2 percent). A recent scroll through my 16-year-old sister’s Instagram revealed 132 selfies out of 294 posts (44.9 percent), which would beg to imply that it is a very generational concept.
We live in a society now where people are so connected to their technological devices, whether it be cellphones, tablets, laptops, or what have you. Photos posted on social media sites have generally shifted from pics taken by a digital camera to the seemingly self-indulgent selfies, which range from the oh-so-common duck-face (which appears on a scale of cute to harlot) to the hilarious “shit snaps” sent via Snapchat.
Are we, as a society and as individuals, slipping into a self-absorbed comatose state of existence where we are so focused on portraying ourselves to the world in a certain way?
For the most part, that is the thought process I have when thinking about the reasons behind selfies. Why else do we post anything on an Internet platform other than to keep our friends and family in the loop and to make our enemies jealous? We have this desire to portray ourselves in a certain light and to be able to control the way others view us.
In her column, Wortham quotes technology writer Clive Thompson when he says, “People are wrestling with how they appear to the rest of the world. Taking a photograph is a way of trying to understand how people see you, who you are and what you look like, and there’s nothing wrong with that.” So my question here is why? Why do we feel the need to upload pieces of ourselves online to be subject to the critique and approval or disapproval of others?
(Note: this is where I’m going to do something revolutionary and actually apply something I’ve been learning in class this semester to real life.) I’m taking a class in which we have been studying rhetoric as applied to new media this semester. Now I would be dishonest if I said I haven’t been struggling to comprehend what we’ve been learning for the past three months, but it’s a concept that is easily applicable to real life, and in particular, the phenomenon of social media.
We have discovered that often times, users of social media use those platforms to either create or promote their identities in a technological way through language and images as visual rhetoric. Posting selfies is a way for us to let people see who we think we are.
And what’s more, it allows us to receive feedback from others, which helps answer the “why?!” question. Social media is a world of instant feedback where I can even get my Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter notifications to pop up on the home screen of my iPhone.
Now let’s be real here: Have you ever been disappointed with the number of ‘likes’ you got on a selfie you posted? Did that impact what type of photo you posted next? If no one double-tapped the last selfie you put up on Instagram, you might not post another one like it because it’s not going to get you the reaction you’re looking for. We crave other peoples’ attention and then we shape our following posts based on their reactions and critiques.
However, this is a much too limited and subjective way to regard the role of social media in our current society. Think about the number of strictly photo-or-video-oriented networks: Instagram, Vine, Snapchat, and FaceTime, to name a few. We have adapted to a more visual sort of communication as opposed to text-based interaction and Wortham suggests that it’s because the visual component allows us to connect better to whoever we are interacting with.
Whereas it’s often difficult to discern someone’s tone or mood through texting, being able to see someone’s face makes a huge difference on that front. Quoted in Wortham’s article, Frederic della Faille, founder and designer of a photo-sharing app called Frontback, says, “The idea of the selfie is much more like your face is the caption and you’re trying to explain a moment or tell a story. It’s much more of a moment and a story than a photo.”
The conclusion that Wortham came to in her article is that “the world we observe through social media is more interesting when people insert themselves into it.” I would have to say I agree with her. Do you connect more with a picture of a plate filled with an appetizing dinner or a picture of your friend holding the plate and giving a thumbs-up sign? Being able to recognize a friend’s face makes it easier to relate to a particular photo and the event it captures.
The selfie allows us to show friends and family when we’ve aced an exam, or bought a new car, or met up with an old friend from high school. And even if it captures a trivial, silly moment, it’s still giving viewers a look into our lives, allowing them to connect with who we are and the parts of our lives we choose to share with them.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that our motives aren’t always self-centered when it comes to posting selfies. We want to be able to connect more with our friends and family even in those moments when we’re apart from them. We want to share our lives with them on a more intimate basis, and inserting ourselves into our photos allows us to communicate on a more personal level. So, don’t feel judged, friends. Carry on, you duck-face, mirror-pic-taking selfie-posters, carry on.