I feel a little weird every time I post a selfie to Instagram.
I rarely post photographs of my face, though it's not because I don't want to — I've got new earrings to show off, the occasional good hair day, and jealousy-inducing thrift store finds that I'd love to model, just like any other girl. But every time I flip that iPhone around and pout for the camera, there's a very quiet voice in my head that hisses, "You're only doing this to look good in front of other people."
Sure, there are ways to minimize the blatant selfie-ness of your selfie. Post a picture of your face, but caption it, "New haircut!" or "Vintage t-shirt day!" Feeling extra sneaky? Accompany the photo of yourself at the sunset with a vaguely philosophical line of poetry — Rumi or Rilke, anyone? — that implies, "This photo is merely a backdrop for the deeper thoughts I've been thinking." The trick is to pretend that you needed to use that photo of your face in order to convey some other information, some necessary truth, rather than the simple, indulgent message that festers at the core of every selfie: "I want to show you all a photo of myself."
I try to trick myself into thinking that I'm posting selfies for some other reason — "Everyone would be really interested in seeing this lipstick color!" or "It's important to keep friends updated on what I'm doing!" Sometimes I fall victim to the line of thinking that says if the photo is "unflattering," it doesn't count. It's hilarious, not self-serving! Unfortunately, "unflattering" on Instagram means a completely different thing than it does in real life. Because here's the truth: I'd never post a selfie that I didn't think helped to craft my image online.
And that's why I often can't bring myself to post selfies at all. Because that line of reasoning is pretty manipulative — not for me, but for others. A photograph of me making an "ugly" face that's actually pretty cute is intended to convey not "Look how ugly I am," but "Look how cute I am even when I'm trying to be ugly." Which, to an audience, says, "Why can't you look cute when you're not trying? Why can't you look cute even when you're just being candid?"
Just showing off my Pumpkin Spice latte...oh, am I in this picture wearing a cute hat? I hadn't even noticed...
Amanda Hess of Slate was one of the few to rake Beyoncé over the coals for her new album; at least, for the way Bey's album attacks unachievable beauty standards while presenting Beyoncé herself in a flawless, unachievable light. Though many aren't pleased that Hess has taken a stab at the Queen, Hess makes some spot-on observations — most notably, when she reminds us that Beyoncé attempted to have the Internet cleansed of last year's unflattering Superbowl pictures.
Beyoncé's control-freak power-plays regarding her own image are simultaneously encouraging (the message: Your own female image, even your own female sexualized image, is something that can be controlled by you) and disconcerting (the message: mayday, mayday, all ugly pictures must be eradicated immediately because there is something seriously wrong with them).
In her article, Hess keeps mentioning Beyoncé's Instagram — that haven of perfection wherein Queen Bey presents herself in a series of flattering, filtered shots. The problem is not that Beyoncé looks good, it's that the very format of Instagram presents these shots as candid. Casual. Everyday. Insta-gram: "instant" snapshots from your everyday life. Here's B on the beach (flawless). Here's B at Barneys (flawless). The very idea behind social media photography — the faux-immediacy, the implication that photos aren't official portraits, just casual iPhone outtakes — guarantees that Beyoncé's Instagram account can both appear candid and while remaining "highly curated." (Another classic candid-but-not-really social media example: a recent Instagram photo of Giselle nursing, surrounded by makeup artists, that inflamed mothers everywhere.)
But can we blame naturally gorgeous stars for curating their unachievable image on social media, since that's what we pay them to do, more or less? Might we consider blaming ourselves — the not-famous, the 81-Instagram-followers, the regular people? After all, we've got Instagram accounts too, and we do the exact same thing — we find the best lighting, we tilt our head to the left, we download the blackhead-removing app, we slap on a filter, and we post photos of food, vacations, and loved ones that we know will make our image-crafting complete. We're not Photoshopped and pore-free, shining out at preteens from the glossy pages of a mascara advertisement, but are we even worse? After all, we're not claiming to be an advertisement, a celebrity, an aspirational figure — we're just being ourselves. This is our real life. Yes, this. This well-lit, filtered picture. This sudden, unplanned glance at the camera. This is me.
At this point in the argument, everything sort of skids to a halt. Okay, "candid" shots on social media are manipulative, in a way. But what's the solution? A decree that says young girls can't look cute in their profile pictures? A law that demands we all release truly unflattering photos of ourselves on the first of each month? The death of filters, the destruction of Instagram itself? Calm down, imaginary fascist straw man. Users of social media have the right to image-craft whenever, wherever, and however much they'd like. Socially beneficial, socially harmful, it doesn't matter — it's their (our) right.
The only immediate solution requires action not on the part of the Instagram user, but on the part of the Instagram-feed scroller. As we glance through our newsfeeds, we've got to remain hyper-aware of the siren song of "candid" — "I woke up like this" — in our social media-obsessed world, reminding ourselves that the very idea of "candid beauty" can be manipulated and falsified, just like anything else. Because let's be real, there's nothing very Instant about Instagram (or Facebook, or Twitter, or Pinterest) anymore.