I didn’t use to think I was pretty; or, In defense of the selfie

If you spend any time on the internet you know that the word selfie often takes on connotations that are disparaging. Only self-centred hipsters do that, people might say, or Selfies are for women/girls who are attention-whores. (And yes, women are always “attention-whores”; they are never simply self-centred. Hooray sexist gendered language!)

And perhaps the selfie has become a bit gratuitous, just like not everyone needs to see every picture of every meal you eat. (I am a fan of taking pictures of particularly appetizing looking meals, but trust me, you are not seeing my full diet if you look at my Flickr account.) Even if it has become somewhat gratuitous, I fail to see it as a wholly bad thing.

In fact, I see it as a good thing.

When I was in high school I did not spend a lot of time looking in the mirror in order to take account of my many good features. I spent a lot of time in front of the mirror popping zits or telling myself about my many imperfections: my eyebrows were too thick, my eyes had dark shadows under them, my skin was oily enough to end America’s dependence on the Middle East (too soon?), my hair was gross (and I dyed it constantly, in defiance of its old carpet-like natural colour), my pupils were different sizes and that was WEIRD, I had a double chin which was undoubtedly gross…the list goes on.

I did not like myself. This should be expected; I was being raised in a world that didn’t like me, that spent a lot of time and effort in telling me all the ways I was imperfect. The media is tailored to give young girls and women (and boys and men, to a lesser extent) such insecurities about themselves, because it is a byproduct of our society — the same society who raised our mothers to believe the same thing, and to say the same things about themselves.

My mom is pretty much perfect in my eyes, so don’t think this is going to be a mother-blaming post; it’s not. But she doesn’t love herself the way she should — the way I think she should, which is how I love her. Unconditionally, wholly, with the view that she is a goddess. She is, to me. I think she’s beautiful and I love her and she’s my mom.

But she was raised in this same patriarchal society that I was, and she was given the same messages: her worth is only inherent in her fuckability, and her fuckability is determined by her attractiveness. My mom was always called a handsome woman, which is a “kind” euphemism for “not feminine enough”. And we all know if you’re not feminine enough as a woman, you’re not beautiful.

To which I say: fuck that, my mom is beautiful. And screw traditional ways of looking at femininity or masculinity anyway. She identifies as a woman and considers herself feminine; that’s enough for her it should be enough for everyone else.

Basically, if you think my mother isn’t feminine enough, or beautiful enough, or anything enough, I have a very short pier off which I’d like you to take a long walk. With these barbells tied to your feet, please. There’s a good lad.

Because of all this patriarchal bullshit that tells women, or people being raised as women, or people who are socially classed as women, that our worth is directly connected to our beauty, and our beauty is judged in very narrow terms, my mom and I have spent most of our lives not liking ourselves very much. Physically, I mean; I think we’re both doing rather better on the liking ourselves mentally or even emotionally or spiritually, but it’s still a huge struggle for us to like our bodies, or our faces.

But I have been working to change this about myself, and the selfie has been helping me.

I started taking selfies in my late teens, on the cusp of adulthood. Most of them I hated, as I hated myself, but every once in a while I’d get a good shot, with good light, or the just right angle, or the perfect expression. Often these were “Myspace angles”, ie, angles where I was looking up at the camera, to minimize the fat rolls under my chin and to make my breasts look more impressive; obviously I was still very much in the woods of self-loathing for a great many years.

But these selfies served their purpose.

With every good shot, I chipped away a little bit at the thick shell of gods I’m so ugly that surrounded me. Every time I did this, I came closer and closer to realizing that…hey, I wasn’t bad looking. Hey, maybe I was kind of attractive. Hey, wow, I’m fucking gorgeous.

Until finally, this week, it culminates in this: my being able to take a selfie of myself without make-up, without a bra on, without a Myspace-angle — just me in the clothes I threw on after my shower to sit around my hose — and to look at it and say, “Yeah, I’m pretty hot. I can see why the Ogre would want to bang me. And hell, probably other folks too; he’s just the only one of which I’m aware.”


And some people may find this a direct contradiction of my feminist ideals; after all, I think it’s pretty gross that our entire society values women in terms of their fuckability. It is.

However. While our society is patriarchal/kyriarchal in nature, and while these messages are mostly directed at girls and women, I do believe the lack of self-esteem that comes from one’s own perceived lack of fuckability transcends gender. I have known people of various genders who feel shitty because they feel ugly, and they believe that ugliness leads to them being unfuckable. Yes, many, many women, but many men too, and many non-binary folk (like myself).

I don’t think that our inherent worth is tied up in our fuckability/beauty, but I do think that our perceived self-worth matters a hell of a lot. This is one of those areas where self-care intersects, somewhat awkwardly, with feminist activism, for me — I can’t be an effective activist if I’m mired in self-loathing to the point of not being able to leave my bed. So if that means taking selfies until I feel that I’m worthy as a human being, even if my worth isn’t actually tied to my physical attractiveness and I’m basing this entire process on what is essentially a lie told to me by society, well, that means taking selfies until I feel I’m worthy as a human being.

I’m all for dismantling the patriarchy, for dismantling the fucked up, toxic society we live in. Yes, it needs to change; we need to stop equating physical attractiveness (which is subjective anyway) with human worth. We really do.

But it’s really hard to get down to the work of actually dismantling this oppressive, toxic wasteland, if depression and anxiety and self-loathing have conspired to keep you curled up in bed, unable to even get up to turn on the lights. If someone needs to feel they are attractive in order to have the strength to carry on, then they need that and it would be downright cruel (and possibly, an act of silencing and denying their agency) to try to take that away from them.

Furthermore, as a fat woman/person socially-classed-as-woman, taking selfies that proclaim to the world your attractiveness is a downright subversive act. And I don’t think I need to explain why.

So leave folks who take selfies alone. Chances are, they’re searching for this same sort of self-care. Maybe it’s not the self-care route you would take, but that doesn’t invalidate it. Maybe you think there are too many out there, but hell, there are too many blogs out there and I’m sure that’s how many people find ways of caring for themselves.

And if it bugs you to see selfies from people you perceive as ugly, then that’s just proof that selfies need to continue for a while yet. Yes, I will normalize my appearance to the world and myself, because I’m not ugly, so fuck you.

A toast to the selfie! May it continue, until we don’t need it anymore, and then may it be a fun choice that anyone can make, or not make, as they will.


2 thoughts on “I didn’t use to think I was pretty; or, In defense of the selfie

  1. GimliGirl

    I saw my driver’s license picture from this past Spring and it shocked me-I was pretty. I mean, according to conventional standards, I never ever thought I was pretty. Plain maybe, decent, occasionally sexy if I wore the ‘right’ clothes and makeup, etc, but I never saw myself as pretty. But in that picture, for some reason despite it being y’know, my driver’s license, there I was, and I could see what Ryan has always been able to see, and my friends and family. I don’t do selfies (unless I’m posing with one of the kids and there’s noone else to take the picture) but I may now.

    1. Katje van Loon

      Yay! That’s an awesome breakthrough; especially on your DL. I have always had the WORST DL pictures. Half the time it doesn’t even look remotely like me, and if it does it manages to magnify all of what I see as my worst features. I do have faith that one day I will have a good DL picture, because by senior year in high school I got a good ID picture, so it’s bound to happen. (I kept that ID card for YEARS. I may still have it.)

      I fully encourage you to join the selfie group. It’s not only a subversive act of self-care, it’s fun! 🙂

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