A selfie I took this morning.

A selfie I took this morning. No shame!

Go on, admit it: you’re guilty of at least one selfie, aren’t you? Recently named word of the year, the selfie (photos taken by the photo subject him/herself, typically uploaded to a social network such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) is a polarizing topic these days, yet so many of us have uploaded them, including the Pope.

While certainly not a new phenomenon (I remember taking “selfies” back in the day of film cameras… crap, did I just admit to being old?), the self-portrait has come under scrutiny for being a self-absorbed, narcissistic form of communication–a vehicle by which the selfie-ee seeks approval and praise.

On the surface, that may be what’s going on. But dig a little deeper, and you’ll likely find the principles of identity management theory* at work.

Our identities are comprised of our own view of ourselves with a mash up of others’ views. During our formative years (often the teens and early 20s), our identities can shake and shift, perhaps causing an even greater need for checks and balances in figuring out who we are–and thus who we are not. But even beyond that, identity management never stops. It’s not like you suss out “This is me! This is who I am!” and the journey ends when you turn 26, 27, or even 30. Humans are ever-changing beings over the course of a lifetime, and so managing our identities becomes a lifelong process.

Selfies have become an acceptable way to communicate,” suggests psychologist Diana Parkinson. “Humans have always done this, whether it’s with cave paintings or self-portraiture – it reaffirms our identity. It’s a natural evolution.

Maybe the art of the selfie is about control, brand management, or a need to be loved. Or perhaps it’s about living out in the open, transparently, and out of context, for mass consumption. Or maybe selfies are a plea to be seen–by someone, anyone.

Some friends have noticed a change in me over the past few months. Where I didn’t post hardly any photos of myself (maybe 5 a year?), there is suddenly a flurry of selfies. “What’s going on with Ashley? She’s… different,” they ponder. At some point in my late 20s, I lost a part of myself. She retreated into the shadows, little by little, until I forgot she even existed. She had been missing for the better part of four years before some folks helped me realize she was gone. This epiphany occurred in October, and I’ve been a shameless selfie machine ever since. #SorryNotSorry

Why? Because I’m trying to regain a sense of my identity. It’s so bizarre to look at a photograph you took of yourself and think, “I don’t even know that girl.” (No, really, this happens pretty much every time.) That’s what the selfie is for me: a healing tool–a way to embrace my me-ness. And while that sounds entirely self-absorbed, think about that for a second. Imagine if the opposite were true–if you felt so incongruent in your own skin, like a stranger looking at yourself in the mirror as if your body had been switched or something. Imagine waking up one day, realizing that somewhere along the way, you lost that crucial sense of value in yourself. Imagine trying to see the qualities others say they see in you without even trying.

There’s that old adage about how the camera doesn’t lie. Sure, lighting tricks, positioning, and filters make everything better, but on the whole, the selfie is an attempt to see through an unbiased eye–to see ourselves for who we really are, reinforcing our sense of identity. The selfie is a way to explore that identity and express it to others. It facilitates understanding and allows us to control our own narratives. They’re a safe place to do all of this, too: if you don’t like a selfie you took, delete it. Zero pressure.

As Casey N. Cep eloquently points out, “Rarely a documentary genre, self-portraits have always allowed us to craft an argument about who we are, convincing not only others, but also ourselves.” So the next time you find yourself rolling your eyes at someone’s selfie, step back and realize that it may have nothing to do with showing off or accumulating praise. Instead, the person perfectly posed in that self-portrait might be engaged in an argument with him or herself, fighting for a sense of identity.

*Pardon my Wikipedia link. There are ample scholarly journals on the topic on Google Scholar, but I didn’t want to link to PDFs that readers may or may not have access to anyway. The Wikipedia article is a good starting point for the basics of IMT.


  1. One of my friends posts a new selfie every couple of days, because she gets bored with seeing herself the same each and every day. One of her friends constantly gives her crap about it.

    Personally, it doesn’t bother me. My selfie’s and profile pix usually reflect how I’m feeling or are in homage to the season. I went through a phase of experimenting with my identity. I actually challenged myself to see how different I could look. My selfies were often characters I created in my head–sorta like playing dress-up. I don’t have much time to do that now, but I might do it again one day.

    I’d much rather see selfies than those obnoxious friend entourage shots where everyone’s trying to be a cheerleader or a rockette. Those lack any soul or creativity, so yea–not a fan.

    • Good insights, Alma. The article cited under “control, brand management, or a need to be loved” points out a relevant component to the negative reactions selfies receive:

      “When we browse Instagram accounts for longer than we had ever intended or stare at friends’ bright selfies on our isolating screens, the question might look more like, ‘What is my value, compared to you? Am I as good as you?'” That’s also a key in identity management and may explain why people get do disgusted with selfies: be it a sense of inferiority, dislike of the “polished” nature of them, etc.

      I like your point about characters. That’s kind of what filters are for me. I use certain filters for certain moods/personas. If only real life worked that way….

  2. The camera-plus-social-network is what’s ubiquitous. People used to express themselves in letters. Now we can send our image to countless people with five seconds of effort.

    Seems reasonable to me.

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