Do young people feel the need to be “selfie-ready”? Before you go to the knee-jerk ‘yes,’ it’s important to separate out the developmental drives of young people—including a craving for social acceptance—from the impact of an increasingly visual culture.
The bulk of selfie-taking occurs when young people are at the peak of their need to figure out who they are—much of which comes from social negotiation. Our identity is not created in isolation from our social world. We define ourselves in many ways. Thus, the various social tasks of adolescence and young adulthood, such as finding and gaining acceptance in a peer group, looking for a mate, finding a vocation, establishing a “home base” independent from our nuclear family, and even trying to see how we come across to others are all part of the identity formation process. How we look can both reflect and influence how we go about these activities and choices. For teens, looking good (as defined by the norms of one’s social group and the rules of social engagement) is almost always a priority. It used to be a question of not wanting to get caught out in public, like at the mall, not looking good. The reach of what’s public has shifted.
At the same time, the emergence of digital technologies has created an increasing emphasis on visual communication. Ironically, we always communicate visually when we are face-to-face, but we are less concerned about this because our internal selves are present as well. Perhaps not always appreciated, but present. However, the advent of Facebook, SnapChat, and Instagram (and others) have shifted the primary modes of mediated communication from voice and text to image. If you take the extraordinarily powerful need to connect socially that is part of the normal developmental process, combined with the prevalence of visual self-representation, I would argue that young people are mindful of being “selfie-ready” in the same way they were preoccupied with not getting caught in public out of “costume.” It is greater—in proportion to the reach of social media and the invasiveness of smartphones—but not different.
Ironically, pre-social media, people were concerned that beauty ideals were being warped by the distribution of curated images (i.e., models, actresses) via mass media. The argument was that if women could see images of other “regular” women, it would solve this problem.
It has, not surprisingly, turned out to be a lot more complex than that, as evidenced by the tidal wave of “real women” on the Internet. One of the reasons is that media consumption is partially responsible for media content—mass media lives and dies by viewership. They show people what they want to see, whether those are stories about picketing Walmart, finding Jon Benet or emulating Kate Moss. Humans are, by nature, attracted to what is unusual—the long tail of the bell curve. That is exactly what supermodels and actresses are: the extraordinary rather than the ordinary.
While there are many more images of real people on the Internet than supermodels, the concerns over body image remain. Thus, we must ask questions about what drives the inherent lack of self-confidence, particularly when it comes to self-presentation. Blaming the media is not only a cheap shot, but it offloads the responsibility for how we all participate in the problem—how we “spend” our attention.
Lots of people have theories about the derivation of body image, from the evidence that, as much as we hate it, attractive people receive “unfair” advantages to the social cognitive concerns about presentation and glorification of perfect bodies. Some argue that the use of Instagram and SnapChat and the ability to take our own pictures is making our self-evaluations even more superficial than they were before. The other side of that argument is that these tools give us more control over our image than ever before. If we look back at the 1950s, it’s hard to believe that, at least as far as women are concerned, the emphasis on looks is a lot worse.
While many point to Kylie Jenner’s lips or Kim Kardashian’s hips as symbols of a new homogenized sense of beauty, there are equal and I would argue valid arguments that what is considered beautiful now has a wider range. In fact, the Kardashian phenomenon has been argued to promote a wider range of self-acceptance: It’s OK to be curvy and of various ethnic heritages, and not everyone has to be blonde, tall and rail thin. The trouble is that the Herieth Pauls and Kylie Jenners are as beautiful and as unattainable for most of us now as the Twiggys or Christie Brinkleys were for most of us then.
It’s not unusual, however, for teens to seek out a celebrity, actor or other “famous” person that they perceive as successful and appealing and emulate him or her. This is part of the identity exploration of adolescence. Ironically, we get similar advice on how emulation can improve other aspects of our lives (such as by learning the 10 secrets of successful managers, people, writers, etc.). We all learn by modeling what we admire. It’s little wonder that teens see Jenner as successful—she’s making a bundle by being photogenic and shamelessly self-promoting (and by having had really good luck in the genetic lottery). If she has talent, it’s at marketing and taking advantage of resources available to her by accidents of birth—money and an uncommon level of access to people who can help her leverage herself as a brand. But let’s face it, she also devotes a lot of time to it.
Role models can be both inspirational and detrimental to one’s self-esteem depending on what you admire and try to emulate. We like to bash social comparison like it’s some kind of personal failing, but social comparison isn’t always negative. If, for example, you want to “be” like Jenner and you work as hard at something as she does (it takes a lot of time to shoot, edit and post that many Instagram pics, plump your lips, and do your hair and makeup, not to mention negotiating all the endorsement deals), then it doesn’t matter if you try to style your eyebrows or puff up your lips like hers. If on the other hand, you try to style your eyebrows like hers and spend all your time beating yourself up because your eyebrow and face aren’t ever going to look like hers, you will feel worse.
The key is picking something to emulate that is a behavior that leads to a desired outcome, not a physical trait. It’s the same for young men who aspire to become NBA stars. If they emulate the shoes or clothes of a player and expect success, they will feel bad about themselves. If, however, they also spend every waking hour practicing free throws like Magic Johnson did, the shoes—like the eyebrows—may be inspirational.
At the heart of all this is the burden of teaching values (sorry to sound like a wet blanket) and the importance of parents, caretakers, and educators using popular culture as an example to show the difference between what we can learn and do and what we can’t change, like our height or body shape. If we bash teen “idols” we lose their attention. If, however, we talk about what is going on behind the scenes, both the good and the bad, we can also address what is attainable and what isn’t and better understand the goals. Do you really want to look like Kylie Jenner, or do you want to feel that you are loved, adored, rich and successful? Or do you just want to love yourself? Those first two are no guarantee of the third. By emphasizing the possible strengths behind what the Jenners of the world accomplish (hard work, creativity, persistence—even in the face of no apparent other talents) and help young people build on those, we will go a long way toward offsetting unhealthy social comparison.
See the story on a related topic by Alya Mooro in the NY Post.