Are Selfies Really That Different From Traditional Painted Portraits?

For better or for worse, the selfie has rapidly become an inescapable feature of contemporary popular culture. Some hail it as an empowering tool through which individuals (particularly women, seeing as the selfie is, largely, a gendered trend), learn to express and take pride in who they are whilst challenging conventional beauty standards. Meanwhile, others condemn the selfie for perpetuating the cultural idea that a woman’s only way of gaining attention is through her appearance.

Unsurprisingly, psychological interpretations of the phenomenon tend to conclude that our preoccupation with selfies derives from an unhealthy dose of narcissism, in accordance with a majority of activities taking place on social media platforms. However, the narcissism involved in the process of creating and sharing a selfie with the public forms one of its most significant connections to the traditional painted portrait. Thus it should not be seen exclusively as a result of the self-absorption that we supposedly suffer from in today’s culture.

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Long before the invention of the photographic camera, artists from every genre and era have experimented with methods of conveying an individual’s appearance, personality and mood through painted portraits. Whether we look at pompous portraits of royals and aristocrats, or Frida Kahlo’s surrealistic representations of her physical and mental sufferings, there is an evident tradition of close reflection upon the subject’s individuality involved in the process of conveying their true character through art. In opposition to this careful and lengthy process, the selfie is spontaneous and nonchalant, out to capture the spirit of the moment in which it was taken. The criticism directed towards the selfie as an egocentric facet of contemporary culture, displaying ‘modern’ narcissistic tendencies, therefore seems slightly undeserved.

It is now generally accepted that the act of sharing selfies through social media often derives from our need for mutual recognition. However, such yearnings for approval are not essentially modern desires, either. A range of theorists and philosophers, from Hegel to Simone de Beauvoir, have previously acknowledged the Other as a vital constituent in the shaping of an individual’s identity and self-perception, and so it is anything but unnatural to wish to influence the way in which one is thought of and approached by others. Whereas in the past the subject’s social situation determined how much control she had over her portrait, or the extent to which the artist was allowed to idealise her, today’s selfie grants women the power to decide how they wish to be perceived. This has resulted in a refreshing addition to photoshopped images of the unattainable, ‘perfect’ appearance that have been displayed to us in far too high an extent – and for far too long. It is, however, worth noting that the individual’s control over the outcome of the picture does not always result in natural, honest photographs, for which society’s expectations on women’s appearance and behaviour are often to blame. But then again, the oscillation between illusion and reality has existed in portraits for as long as they have been around themselves.

The fact of the selfie’s extensive popularity has, unsurprisingly, lead to it becoming a hot topic amongst those reflecting upon what our daily habits reveal about wider cultural, social, and political issues. Although this new tool of social communication has drawn attention to aspects of the individual that did not necessarily affect her as much in the past, the selfie can hardly be seen as a new visual genre, nor can the motives behind its popularity be regarded as immediate effects of a shallow culture. In fact, it is essentially a modernised version of the painted portrait, through which we have more power than ever to influence and control our appearance to the outside world.

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