Me, My Selfie, and I
If a tree falls in the forest and no one took a picture of it, did it really fall? If you go to a party, and you don’t Snapchat it, did the party even happen? If I have a self, but not a “selfie”, do I really have a self? Some experts who study teen and young adult online behavior suggest that parents who strictly forbid their children from posting personal photos online risk eroding their kids’ identities and causing them unneeded social alienation. Nowadays, to have a selfie is, at least in part, to have a self.
Recently on Instagram, girls have been nominating each other to post a selfie using the hashtag #twentymostbeautifulwomen. The challenge is to nominate 20 other beautiful women after posting your own selfie. Although I realize it’s a nice way to give one’s friends a little ego boost while expanding the definition of feminine beauty, the thought of participating makes me incredibly anxious instead.
These days, I can’t bear to hold the camera at face level – even if I have the strength. I can’t bear to see how treatment has morphed my appearance, my personal selfie if you will. I actually don’t see myself in the mirror anymore, even if I could stand long enough to meticulously look (which I can’t; ugh damn you weak knees). The last time I looked in the mirror, I said to myself: “You’re a bloated, tired, ole’ lady with bags under your eyes! And even the bags have have bags!” My face IS slightly bloated from high-dose steroids I must admit, and my hair growth has plateaued to a lovely mullet. They do say cameras add 10 pounds, I feel like an alien or some sort of science experiment is staring back at me. Let’s face it, cancer ain’t cute. So, when I ain’t cute, I don’ t dare post anything on any sphere of social media. When I can rally with make up, good dark lighting, or avoidant poses, or can finagle a good instagram filter, I sometimes post. I think that sets up my friends to think I’m either “all better” or “dead.” The pressure to look good via selfies gives you two choices: fake happy or obscurity. There doesn’t seem to be any room for the “everyday gray”, a color which is probably primary in the truth of mundane life.
And don’t even get me started with the dating apps like “Tinder”, “Hot or Not” and the dreaded “Snapchat” – especially when you think you look like the Crypt Keeper or some extra on an MJ Thriller video. No matter what light filter I try to use, I feel like I am a Lindsey Lohan “after-pic.” For me to take a selfie is to document myself as a science guinea pig, rather than to try to affirm my femininity or sex appeal. My dad and I joke that lately my best selfies, or “cellfies” are the ones my doctors take of me during routine scans.
For a moment, I feel ugly, ashamed, defeated, sickly. Fade to black. OK, camera off.
Social psychologists have had a field day examining the recent selfie craze and basically state the obvious: Since physical appearance has always been an integral part of how we value our being, and because physical (and now sexual) appearance seems to matter more than ever, the selfie has become a symbol of a person’s best attempt to look their personal best – at the “best” places, with the “best” people. And, say psychologists, unlike looking in the mirror or being seen in a video or captured in someone else’s photo, a selfie is your own chosen frozen moment of delusional perfection. No sudden moves that turn your smile into a fiendish grin, no poses that make you look unsophisticated, doubtful, dorky, or – God forbid – red-eyed or cross-eyed.
These same experts suggest that people who are depressed or who have low self-esteem or who have experienced traumatic body changes should avoid websites that accentuate selfies and other appearance-related substitutes for deeper life meaning. As I said, “Turn the camera off.” Brilliant! I figured out that one on my own – that I couldn’t “play the game” anymore even if I tried. And if I did, I’d be faced with dilemmas like this: Last year’s pictures showed me with long, beautifully flowing fake hair. Now that I have hair too long to be comfortable wearing a wig and too short to be cute, do I pull the dead hair-hat over my head for consistency or give the idea that I’ve lost all my hair again? I don’t want to field another batch of questions about whether I’ve had chemo again.
What I’ve also figured out naturally is how much I would actually love to be physically present at any of the concerts, restaurants, or other “best” places that most people take their cameras to. I remember the days when I would totally miss out on the experience of being somewhere special, trying to document the fact that I was somewhere special. I look back now and realize that it seems like my camera has gone to many more concerts, on many more vacations, and to many more restaurants than I have. I really wish I could go back now, and without my nuisance of my camera.
I know I am more than what I look like. I’m lucky, because I think many people don’t know that. And the truth is that what really matters is what has always mattered – life; not it’s outer shell. A walk on the beach, the first snow of the year, a deep conversation with a close friend, good sex….no scratch that, GREAT sex, a hot bubble bath, raw cookie dough right from the tube, my mom’s laugh. Since cancer and my bone marrow transplant, add a few more take-for-granted wonderful life moments to my photo-less list: feeling strong when I can make it up the stairs to my room, being able to go get my nails done or go out to a movie, seeing my dad’s eyes light up when we get a bit of good news from doctors, feeling my own hair grow out, and having a Dairy Queen soft-serve after a long day at the hospital. Silent victories. But digital web photography can’t capture these truths and maybe could never capture them, because there are too many pixels in the image of a simple life loved.
Turn the camera off. As I struggle day to day with side effects, some almost strong enough to make me wonder why I still exist, I realize how often I “run the camera” on my life: dissecting it, judging it, objectifying it, comparing it to memories of my past and hopes and fears for my future. And I think about how much pictures leave out: That I’m alive, that I’m having feelings other than “happy, happy,” that I’m insecure AND alright with it, and that I am, as every one is, worthy even if you think you don’t look so good.
I guess we are always “running cameras” and taking pictures of ourselves in our heads all the time, like mental snapshots. I guess that’s what it means to be self-conscious – walking the path of life with a giant existential camera in tow. And with the internet and social media sites, I have the opportunity to look into other people’s cameras, which at times gives me a sense of belonging and a chance to connect, but at other times reinforces my sense of isolation, reminding me exactly what I’m missing out on. A double-edged sword cuts no less deep.
Living with a distorted body does force me to see pictures of myself that no camera could ever capture, and the operative word here is “force.” Truth is, I want to be pretty. I don’t want to stand out as obviously physically weaker and ill and hair-challenged. But I don’t have that choice. And so to survive with any kind of self at all, I must turn the cameras off and stop looking at myself – and at my life – like one big selfie. I don’t have the choice to base life on how I look – because I have to want to live somewhat contently every day. And though it’s a struggle, I do want to live. And I realize that life is more important than a picture of life, a thought about life, or any kind of “still” in my mind’s eye. I have also gotten better at turning off thoughts about looking a certain way. They are just thoughts. I thought I was going to die 10 times, and I thought I was going to fully recover 10 times, and none of those thoughts were true.
I look forward to the day when I’m well enough to produce my own YouTube make-up videos to help young women blend and blur their physical and non-physical selves in a way that cuts down on the staring – and in a way that can stand up to the toughest of cameras, whether our own or our critics’. But I am no pollyana. I understand that looks will always matter, no matter how much I try to believe otherwise. But while forced for now to turn my camera off, I can settle in to looking out at my world through my own lens rather than relying on a superficial lens to represent me. I can just live, just be, be thankful that I am. And maybe, just maybe, by the time I can “play the game” again, it will be a much fuller and deeper picture, one that actually moves, moves me, and hopefully moves others.
Ali, the wisdom of this post leaves me utterly speechless. You are an exceptional young woman. I know this isn’t much, but I want you to know how often my thoughts are of you and the herculean struggle you are facing with such courage, perspective, and amazingly, with and humor. I won’t say you’re an inspiration, because I suspect you’d hate that, but, well, you are. XO
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Awesome, insightful, inspiring, thought-provoking,
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Thank you for this most generous, thoughtful and thought provoking piece.
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Wow. Ali. Powerful. The NY Times has a young adult cancer series and devotes page space to the under-represented topic. You should definitely try to get the word out. You just might help many people.
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