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A Middle-Aged Woman Weighs In on the Selfie Debate

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Last Tuesday, BBC News reported that Oxford Dictionary named "selfie" the word of the year. I was watching with my 88-year-old father and 73-year-old mother, with whom I live part-time as helper and companion. Dad turned to us and said in a familiar, dismayed tone, "This is news?"

I agree with Dad (but please don't tell him). Yet to read recent pieces in Slate, Jezebel, and the Washington Post, it seems that the selfie controversy counts as news, so I thought I'd explain why this middle-aged woman thinks it's much ado about nothing, except perhaps Second Wave silliness and shallow pop psychology.

Erin Gloria Ryan's Jezebel piece generated many comments, but little support, on the blog's Facebook page. It is more than a little ironic that Ryan's overblown title -- "[Selfies are] a Cry for Help" -- commits the very sin at the heart of objections to the selfie: it's a shameless, desperate bid for attention.

Oh no, you might protest, Ryan is not your average selfie-posting attention whore: she trades on her scintillating intellect and ground-breaking insights. Except that she doesn't and they're not. At best, she's re-hashing old Second Wave arguments about objectification -- and not doing much of a job at that -- as she voices the righteous indignation which makes much feminist writing so tough to take. And lest I incur the wrath of thousands, I paid my feminist theory and criticism dues in graduate school. Donna Haraway makes castor oil go down like Beluga and Dom.

A first pass at Ryan's sophomoric piece reveals at least six flaws:

1. Not all selfies are headshots. Ryan targets face pictures, but the Oxford Dictionary defines selfie as a picture, usually taken with a smart phone, of oneself alone for social media purposes. As a commenter on Jezebel noted, Ryan's distinction between a selfie intended to showcase a new pair of glasses or shade of lipstick rather than the face itself, is weak.

2. Men take selfies too, generally of their bodies in or out of the gym. (Think of the politician who became a punchline after he sent shirtless pictures to a young woman.)

3. Not every selfie is a glam shot. A commenter on the Jezebel Facebook page with a rare brain disorder posted a picture upon release from the hospital, capturing her joy and courage in facing what I gather was a life-threatening condition. A commenter on the blog itself considered herself an "Ugly Duckling" and documented the struggle to overcome her teen angst and insecurity. Yet another woman, a Brit, posted selfies after a significant weight loss.

I myself posted a picture in a Las Vegas motel lobby with runny mascara and an ice pack on my head. The marathon closed the Strip and delayed check-in at the Vdara some nine hours, during which time I developed a rare and splitting headache. I even post pictures of what I call my "faux pregnancy" the first day of my period, usually with the tongue-in-cheek reminder that cramps are the reason guys have to pay for dinner if at all solvent.

4. Adults post selfies too. Ryan acknowledges this in passing, but mostly she ignores this fact in her hysterical diatribe. I'm almost 42 and I post a slew of them, particularly when not with my boyfriend in Santa Barbara, a talented amateur photographer. More on this in a moment.

5. Looks and accomplishments are not mutually exclusive. Nancy Pelosi tweeted the triumphant picture of the first four women to graduate from infantry training in the Marines, calling it "selfie of the year." But most selfies aren't about promotions or graduations: they are in Ryan's view a reflection of society's message that a woman's looks matter above all else.

I hate to break it to Ms. Ryan, but we live in a society where a UCSB doctoral candidate and recipient of UC's top graduate package, as well as three-year Phi Beta Kappa from Yale, can earn more stripping (just stripping) at a high-end club than tutoring anywhere in America except the NYC metropolitan area, or perhaps West Los Angeles (if at 41 she can break into the private school market, notoriously a young person's game).

A girl in business casual attire at the Cosmopolitan's Bond in Las Vegas gets three drinks from strangers at the bar she speaks to for five to sixty minutes and will never see again (two Ketel One martinis and an excellent glass of Syrah: 45 dollars pre-tip). Anyone who says a woman's looks don't matter is either blind or not paying attention.

Obviously, looks are not enough and girls should be praised for cultivating their minds and hearts. But no amount of Second Wave blathering about objectification will alter the fact that women are, among many other wonderful things, sex objects.

6. Not every poster of selfies is an illiterate teen incapable of listing the Bill of Rights, placing Shakespeare and Wordsworth in their respective centuries, explaining the Oslo Accords in a paragraph, or discussing the significance of Diana Vreeland.

I will conclude this response to Ryan with my selfie story. There are no pictures of me from 18 to 36, except one at my 1995 college graduation and one at a UCSB grad school welcome party in 1996.

I'm so old that I didn't have email in college. And I didn't own a cell phone until six months before my Ph.D Orals at 29. As a third child of my father (but only child of my parents), there are very few pictures of me after 10. I didn't own a camera, and even if I had, pictures required film which had to be driven to Fromex to develop. Anyone who knows me knows that this was never going to happen.

Had I not lost a decade to depression, which killed my dissertation and with it, a promising career in academia, I might have bought a camera. But I never left the apartment post-9/11 except to swim at the club at 8:00 p.m., stroll at twilight twice a week at the beach or nature preserve, and buy groceries on Sundays. I wore Champion gray or navy pants and gray Gap t-shirts daily for seven years; there was nothing to document, socially or sartorially.

So when I finally got happy in 2010 and bought a camera phone, I started taking pictures. In the spring of 2010, I joined Facebook but didn't learn how to post pictures or links till the fall. After a 10 year shopping hiatus, I began to build a wardrobe, shopping almost exclusively at consignment and designer resale boutiques. I love sharing my scores on Facebook and my blog of 2.5 years.

When in Santa Barbara with my boyfriend of over three years, he shoots photos of me. Most of the time in LA, my only potential photographers are an elderly father with macular degeneration, a spry mother who, for no reason I can understand, can't seem to hold her hands still long enough to snap a picture, or the Guatemalan woman who, after 34 years, is family. I adore her but photography is not her long suit.

When in Manhattan, where I live three months a year, I sometimes get a stranger or server to take decent pictures, but often they're blurry, so I take one before leaving the Upper East Side studio I stay.

I see no distinction between taking pictures of yourself and having someone take a picture of you alone. Further, Ryan seems unaware that many professionals in the city -- particularly investment bankers and lawyers -- don't have Facebook and don't want their pictures on the internet in a social context.

So yes, I am making up for lost time, photographically and otherwise. And I don't care if some random, miserable woman on Facebook (and yes, in my experience it's always chicks who object) or a wannabe-Naomi Wolf (what an ambition!) has to say on the matter.