NOTE: A version of this post, titled "The Fat Boi Diaries: Why Selfies?," originally appeared on my blog BlaQueer and on The Good Men Project.
Last week I engaged in my weekly I-am-tired-of-job-searching-and-thinking-about-my-dissertation-ritual of watching the HuffPost Live while I twisted my hair for a twist-out and I watched Ahmed Shihab-Eldin host a segment on millennials and narcissism:
Apparently the segment was inspired by Leonard Friend's The Huffington Post blog, "A Generation Obsessed with Obsessing Over Itself," and while I agreed with some of what was said I couldn't help but notice how one-sided the conversation was. A certain voice seemed to be lacking, one that pointed out the subversive power of the icon of all Internet narcissism, the "selfie." To that end I offer some words that I wrote back in March:
Last week at an apartment party in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood, I whipped out my iPhone 5, told the folks at the gathering to press together and clicked away. Simple act, happens at least a hundred times a day, and I completed the ritual by posting the picture to my Instagram and linking it to my Facebook account. But, before I could put the camera away I heard a friend throw a little shade my way and say: "Watch, tomorrow there will be like five pictures of himself [on Instagram]."
Yes, guilty as charged, I am a selfie. One of those annoying people who take tons of self-pictures. Declaring to the world that I look good and you know it. My narcissism caused alarm. But, here is the thing: No one ever asked me, "Why do you take so many selfies?"
I mean, I am not traditionally phine, cute, or even awkwardly endearing. I am faaaaaaaat. Daaaaaark. My nose is wide. My hair is kinky (a biracial light-skinned friend once used my hair texture to describe to a white stranger what "bad hair" is, apparently any hair that can "kink up"; mind you, at the time my hair was short, combed, and nap-free, but I digress). My eyebrows are not plucked, and I swear my pores are visible. But this is the point.
I live in a world where in general abs and masculinity are celebrated; it is a world where whiteness is almost universally praised (no lie, I once had a white friend tell me they never thought about the possibility of someone not finding white men attractive; it was a foreign concept to them) and people routinely proudly proclaim "No Fats, No Fems, No Blacks." This is a world where it feels as if scripts are handed out to people of color, and by script I mean one role we get to occupy for those who are nonblack, fetish (most often as a "thug"). This is a world where the beauty we see on glossy pages, on screens, in the dark in our rooms by ourselves late at night can be purchased and arrive at our doorstep. This is a world where there are tens looking for elevens. (While I am focusing on the gay world in general, it is not much better in heteroville; after all, there are plenty of problematic scripts about beauty that we all share.)
I do not fit. I never have. I possibly, probably, never will.
I take my selfies because I am that guy who, unless he takes the picture himself, doesn't get his picture taken. I am the guy who, unless he suggests a group picture, doesn't get clicked with the group. My friend who asked truthfully had very little right to judge; everyone takes pictures of him, with him, and for him. The same is true of almost all my friends. I would venture to say that the same is probably true of many people who criticize selfie-pictures. This is not to say that all selfie-artists come from some place of needing to subvert a problematic cultural narrative, but some of us do.
I live in a world where I didn't hear someone romantically call me beautiful and desirable until I was 26. I live in a world where either body privilege or racial privilege is always against me. So I point my camera at my face, most often when I am alone, and possibly bored, and I click; I upload it to Instagram, and I hold my breath because the world is cruel, people are brave and vicious online, and I am what some would call ugly, but I don't see it.
At first I clicked so I could see what others saw, but I don't. So now I click and post and breathe, waiting for others to see what I see: beautiful dark skin, Afrika's son, a dream undeferred, pretty eyes, and nice lips, and a nose that fits my face; I don't need or even want you to tell me that I am "cute" or "handsome," not now; I want them, you, to see that I am human, and there is a reason why I got to this size, but I owe you no explanation or justification for any part of my existence. I owe you no explanation or justification for my smile or my swag or my selfie. Hell, I didn't even owe you this.
Like I said, I owe you nothing, but I owe myself everything.
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