This week's announcement that "selfie" was the Oxford English Dictionary's word of the year spawned a host of articles on the subject -- specifically, what selfies "mean" for young women.
The jury is apparently still out. Rachel Simmons at Slate called them "tiny bursts of girl pride," a medium through which girls can celebrate themselves, putting humility and shyness aside. On the other end of the spectrum, Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel argues that selfies are a cry for help, an affirmation- and attention-seeking habit akin to "walking up to a stranger, tilting your head downward at a 45-degree angle, duckfacing, pushing your tits together, and screaming 'DO YOU THINK I'M PRETTY!'" Both women make some compelling and valid points, but I don't fully buy into either of their positions on the subject.
Perhaps a woman taking a photograph of herself and sharing it on social media is not an intrinsically good or bad thing -- for herself or for womankind in general. It's simply a specific way of connecting with the world.
Yes, there is an element of affirmation-seeking inherent in taking selfies. For the most part, young women (and men) post them in the hopes of getting some positive feedback from their social media followers -- a practice that strikes me as completely normal in the Internet age. However, I think that's problematic only when someone measures their worth by how many comments and "likes" they receive, or when commenting takes a sharp turn into cyberbullying.
In a November 2012 post for The Nation, Jessica Valenti wrote:
Asking women to do away with being liked may seem like a small sacrifice, but it's not an easy sell. We're brought up to believe that our worth is tied to what others think of us. This is especially true for younger women today, whose every thought and action is made public on social media -- literally waiting to be "liked," commented on, reblogged and affirmed by the world. Telling women to push all that aside -- even if it is for long-term success and happiness -- is no small thing.
Valenti goes on to point out all of the reasons being "liked" is overrated -- and I couldn't agree more. Women can be so many other more interesting things than likeable and pretty, but does that fact really make every photo or slightly self-promotional Facebook status or humblebrag tweet a "cry for help?" And are the supposed perils of excessive self-posting limited to young women?
Spoiler alert: women post selfies for a variety of reasons. Some are looking for validation that they're pretty or sexy or "dateable." Some post carefully staged images as evidence of the charmed life they lead -- or want commenters to think they do. Others are sharing a snapshot of a time when they feel particularly confident about themselves. Selfies are not inherently a cry for help. They also are not inherently empowering. So why not just let them -- and their takers -- be?
I have posted a good number of selfies in my day, mostly to Instagram. As is the case with basically anything I post on the Internet, I hope for positive feedback and "likes" -- but selfies are also a way for me to curate how I am presented online. There is a lot of material out there that I have no control over, from remarks from commenters and Twitter trolls to Facebook photographs that I didn't take or post. Selfies change that. Whether it's a picture of me showing off a new haircut, enjoying a new city or cradling my completed two college senior theses (yes, that's a real selfie that I'm still proud of), they are images that I have total control over. That's neither a cry for help nor a burst of "girl pride." These photographs say: Here I am. This picture is notable to me. This is a part of my life I'd like to share.
We completely take away the agency of young women when we assume that every image they post of themselves in inherently degrading. There are plenty of teen and tween social media trends that warrant discussion and censure, like the questionable rise of funeral selfies and the despicable practice of Instagram "beauty contests." I wouldn't claim that either of those things are a positive outlet for young women.
But when it comes to someone sharing a photograph of herself that she has taken and selected, what's the fuss about? The selfie-anxiety has to stop.
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