Sorry again for a not-about-gaming post. As before, if you’re here mostly for games crit, you’re free to go.
So if you follow me on Twitter, you know a few things about me. One of them is that I live on Twitter, basically, and the other is that I decided for the month of December, to close out the year, I was going to take a selfie a day and post it, without fail. I technically decided this on the 2nd, but to my surprise I actually kept it up.
If you’re interested, you can read every post I made with the associated hashtag, #LadyBossProject, which has all the pics (including a couple bonus shots).
This blog post is my wrap-up now that the experience is over. I’m going to say this: a lot of these thoughts are raw and untempered, so please indulge me before freaking out. Nothing here is set in stone; I am basically working through my observations in blog form.
More after the cut:
So the selfie is pretty ubiquitous, now. I don’t have a lot to say about them as a form or a practice; for most people I know who post them, selfies are a radical act, a pushing back against hegemonic norms about bodies, gender, and presentation of the self. For someone like me, who has spent most of his life feeling actually repulsive — in a kind of literal sense given some RL encounters — the idea of using pictures of myself to destabilize norms felt impossible, inconceivable even. The message of the radical selfie, to me, is “this is beautiful/good no matter what you say” and some part of you has to believe it for that to work. Meanwhile I just avoided photography like the plague, using abstract representations of myself like anime/game characters or, lately, my Saints Row avatar, instead. I did that because in many ways, those fictional selves felt more real to me than my own body, a thing it felt like the physical workaday world was constantly telling me was no good, pointless, disgusting.
My hope with the month of selfies was to explore what it was about posting selfies that was supposed to help my body esteem. I tried to go into it with as few preconceived notions as possible, not thinking about “well I need to get [x] effect since that’s what seems to work for others.” I gave myself some rules that I didn’t discuss before now, but which I pretty much followed exactly the entire time:
- Three minutes or ten takes: That was the limit. No spending a half hour getting it just right. After three minutes or ten takes, that’s it.
- The first time it feels even relatively okay, post it: No waiting, no screwing with filters or editing or looking at ten takes and trying to find the right one. Once I’d taken a picture that got a minimum “well, that looks alright” response from me, up it went.
- No deleting: They had to stay up. No matter what happened. Unless I did something really problematic, no deleting alowed.
I did all those things! I admit I feel proud of myself for it, too, especially point 3. Usual modus operandi for me with selfies is to go “I guess this is okay” and post it and people comment (positively) on it and then I freak out and delete it. Like, that’s behavior that goes all the way back to LiveJournal, if you can believe it, in the days before commonplace camera-enabled smartphones. It wasn’t even as if people rolled up in my LJ/mentions to be negative. But there was something about people saying good things that made my anxiety skyrocket.
Part of it, if I were to guess, is that I’ve grown up with this persistent myth that it’s only my body that’s undesirable. This is a more common thing than you believe, because when you are fat and have always been so, your life is a litany of people making excuses for either you, or others’ behavior toward you. “They’re just jealous,” my grandmother would say of kids who picked on me, “because you’re smart and they’re never going to amount to anything.” And of course there’s our cultural push-pull with “it’s what’s inside that counts!”, a phrase we use to swallow our creeping doubt/fear that it’s actually true, fears that are generated by industries that prey upon the results, among other things.
The first week and change or so was rough. Part of this is that I was just using the default iOS Camera app on my phone (a 5S, if it matters). Thankfully, around week 2, Aevee Bee made me aware of a selfie-specific app from the makers of Line called “b612,” which I started using. In no uncertain terms, b612 is like applying a nice big slather of technological Vaseline to the proverbial lens; it automatically uses blur and some focus-tweaking features to help the pictures along. That said: uh, compare the pic above (which used B612) with this nonsense:
First pic way better, right? I think so, anyway.
The funny thing is, at first I felt bad about using the app. In truth, in the early weeks, I felt bad about a lot of these pictures. For example, I moaned pretty consistently that because they were all shots from around sternum level or higher (e.g. you can’t see my belly, or my legs, and they’re all from the front so you’re not seeing me from the side) I was basically being a coward. As my logic went: the point of this exercise was to feel better about my body, but I was systematically keeping most of my body from being visible and, after a while, using a camera app that was “tuning” pics behind the scenes to maximize looking nice.
I don’t know when I had my breakthrough moment about that, where I stopped caring. But eventually, I had to. I reached one night where I just… hadn’t taken a selfie, and didn’t think I was going to submit one. I felt like the project was going to end right then and there. The truth is, I felt fundamentally dishonest. Because I wasn’t showing you my “true, unvarnished” self, I was deceiving you in some way.
That rhetoric of deceit is actually a ghost that haunts people who aren’t hegemonically attractive but have images on the internet. It has a lot to do with people’s reactions to stuff like “MySpace Angles” (TW: Know Your Meme, which is an awful site but the best I could do). Online dating, and how it appears in the media specifically, has exacerbated and intensified the fear that you will meet someone who “does not resemble their picture” because they aren’t attractive, they know they’re not attractive, and they know if you discover they’re not attractive you will run screaming. It’s certainly the idea behind that incredibly awful “Fat Girl/Guy on Tinder Social Experiment” bullshit, which was so immensely vile I refuse to even link you to it.
What arises from this, though, is a double standard that creates enormous tension. We’re pressured to be our “authentic selves” when we present our body online, so that we (the commodity) are not deceiving the potential customer (the viewer). But we’re also expected to be presentable/”made up”/etc. so that we’re not just honest, but appealing. I’m not going to get into the philosophical question of “are MySpace Angles cheating/dishonest?” or not because that is a quagmire from which neither of us will escape. Suffice it to say, though, upon reflection I think it’s perfectly reasonable to put your best foot forward when you are releasing an image of you out into the world. Even if you’re taking the picture for you, even if it’s not intended for other people, when selfies go onto Twitter or Facebook or whatever, they’re going to be evaluated, often by strangers. Deciding to make your images show the best of you isn’t an unreasonable desire, even if others would call it “dishonest.”
I think once that sunk in, I was able to have a lot more fun with this.
However, there’s another factor here I want to talk about, and I think it’s the more important one: favs.
I didn’t start this endeavor looking for people to say how attractive/cute I was, or how much they liked the photos, or whatever. Basically: I didn’t come at this looking for compliments. I won’t say I hoped I wouldn’t get any, because that’s not true at all. I did want people to look at these and think I was attractive, or at least that the picture was good. I wanted to be pleasing in the eye of people who viewed them. It just wasn’t necessarily my only personal goal for this, or one I actively went for.
Honestly, I think we have a weird cultural attitude toward external validation, especially when it comes to physical appearance. I think people tacitly value internal validation — the ability to say “I have worth/I did or am something good” — because it is reliant only upon us, is a cornerstone of good self-esteem, and generally speaking has more “permanence” to it. External validation is nice, but it is also notoriously ephemeral, unreliable, subject to change. If your self-esteem is already low, you can and will find lots of ways to sabotage external validation so that it’s less useful: “oh you’re just saying that,” “oh they’re just being polite,” that sort of thing. Wanting or vocally desiring external validation tends to paint people as needy or fragile, unable to stand on their own.
But here’s the thing: try to think of your self-esteem as a well. You can’t get water out of a well you haven’t dug, and you can’t dig that well on your own. You need to dig down through the dirt to make it happen, and for a lot of us, when it comes to body esteem, we not only have the same amount of dirt to go through, but other people have been flinging dirt on our well our entire lives. There is no functional way to get that well dug without the help of some other people with shovels, and that’s just the truth.
The funny thing is, the pics people said were their favorites, that they were so pleased with, were often entirely baffling to me. Take this one, for example:
Like… I literally took this within 45 seconds of waking up because I thumbed the wrong app on my phone trying to check my email. I don’t have my glasses on, I have weird unkempt pseudo-beard going on, my hair is a disaster, my face looks blotchy and weird. To me, anyway.
Yet that was the picture that multiple people were like “WHOA SO CUTE/SEXY THIS IS MY FAVORITE” and I am like: what? What? Where did that even come from, this is hideous. But maybe that’s part of what external validation is there for, too. Not just to keep helping you shovel out the well, but letting you know when you are digging in the wrong place. Alright, that metaphor got away with me, so: it’s not just for “hey, you are worthy” but also “you might be looking for worthiness in the wrong places, and I’m going to show you that with my words/actions.”
RuPaul is famous for saying “If you don’t love yourself, how the hell are you gonna love anybody else?” But I don’t think that’s always true. I think sometimes, you need someone to love you first. Not always! There are people who are in a place where they have lots to give, because they don’t have to spend so much of it on themselves just to get through the day. And when those people speak up, it’s wonderful, and maybe we’re not as grateful to them as we should be. But a lot of us expend a lot of our positive energy on just being able to live and you can’t just generate it out of thin air. Sometimes, receiving love from others gives us the reserve we need to pass it on to other people.
It’s easy to think of “having good self-esteem” as a cure all for people who struggle with loving themselves. And I’m not saying that those of us who do struggle should have it “fixed for us” by putting all the work on others. But I also think it’s unfair to just kind of shout at people and go “LOVE YOURSELF MORE!” because I constantly ask the question “How?!” and I feel like the answer is “YOU JUST NEED TO OKAY” which isn’t helpful.
The above picture is from the 18th. I gave each selfie I took a title; this one was “Surprisingly Hot ‘This Could Be You Instead of a Twizzler’ selfie” and I used that kind of phrasing a lot. I would take a picture, adhere to my rules (which meant I was often going ‘okay just post it’) and then, in reflection, going “But that’s actually kinda hot/cute/whatever?”
And the longer the month went on, the more often it happened. By the time Christmas rolled around, I was taking and posting multiple pics in a day when a mere week beforehand I was thinking of shutting it all down and stopping because finding even one pic to take was emotionally draining. I don’t know where that line got crossed, or even how. But it did. On Christmas Eve (well technically Christmas morning around 4am) I was posting this sort of thing, for god’s sake:
That is not a flattering picture of me. But like I took four pics just like it (including that one) and posted them in quick succession. Why? I don’t even know. It’s not a thing I’d have done at the start of the month, though.
I’m not sure what my point here is, really, other than “emotions are strange and often unpredictable.” I want to say doing this was worth my time; I’m not sure I’d call it a “success” because this wasn’t exactly hypothesis testing. If anything it was an auto-ethnography of my own body, shared in realtime on the internet. I certainly don’t think it’s “Todd has great body esteem now!” because if you look in the tweets themselves, I’m frequently self-deprecating in the titles of the selfies… particularly those where I was consciously trying for a “sexy” sort of look. As much as I struggle with being “cute” as opposed to “sexy,” I will say cute feels like a safer “goal” because it is a compliment you can offer with much less reservation than “sexy.” If I was trying to be actually sexually attractive, that was a thing I felt I could fail at pretty hard and I never felt like I reached it (with maybe one or two surprise exceptions); by contrast, “cute” was a plateau I felt like I could hit? It certainly bears further thinking.
I’ve been promising my Twitter feed that now that December is over, the nonstop barrage of selfies will stop, and I think that’s probably for the best. But I’m not sure if they’ll disappear forever. I think, if they do, then maybe all of this was for nothing, you know? It’d be like giving up and I don’t really want to do that. It’s hard to say. I keep coming back to that external validation thing. It was kinda nice to know that there would be a 20 minute window in every day of December where I was almost guaranteed to get a couple people who, just by fav’ing a tweet, gave me a little boost in body esteem. At the same time, that seems like a potentially and harmfully addicting thing.
But at least I was able to get the shovel in the ground and start digging that well. Hopefully I can start drinking from it on the regular someday in the future.