Within this "Conversation Alley with Brooke and Dali," a duel blog post by two fellow travel/lifestyle bloggers, we shall discuss both the psychology behind selfies and then the truth behind the lens, if you will, with regards to those who take selfies in particular locales in which they misrepresent either the locale, themselves, or both.
We will venture as to why people might do this, the drawbacks of presenting such misleading information to the public, and how one might act differently with regards to adventure selfie-snapping (aka more authentically and honestly) while still being able to showcase the awe-inspiring, awesome places to which one has traveled.
So, let's start off by laying the groundwork. Selfies in general. There has been a lot of talk and focus around selfies in the last few years, so much that it has become an official term. People tend to either love them, snapping selfies of their own face routinely (some people even spending hours of their days doing this), or of themselves together with friends or a romantic partner in abundance, and then posting such on social media in rapid succession. A montage of their daily, supposedly enviable lives. Or, people tend to loathe selfies, rolling their eyes at selfie snappers in annoyance and disdain, finding the whole supreme self-focus/promotion of themselves, groan-worthy and obnoxious. These are the two camps people tend towards separating into with regard to selfies.
Selfies and self-portraits. Both formats are in fact not as new as we might think. Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Dürer, Van Gogh, Monet, Cézanne – these and many other famous artists painted themselves. Some of their self-portraits are simply studies of human face and body, while others aim to be more creative, or are surrounded by mystery. While others still are quite witty – Raphael included himself in the painting The School of Athens which can be seen in the Vatican. Jan van Eyck immortalized himself in a little mirror in his famous painting known as The Arnolfini Portrait.
Although there is a difference in the technical way the depiction is produced (selfie = pressing a button versus traditional self-portrait = time, material and skill), the rationale behind them nowadays is or might be similar to 500 years ago. However, many people invest so much time in posing for selfies, "perfecting" their facial expression and appearance, some even then spend hours editing them just so, that even the old masters might have struggled to keep up.
“Just cut off my ear.”
Vincent van Gogh likely would have been called a “selfie freak” by today’s standards, since he depicted himself more than 40 times during his relatively short life. This, of course, was more likely caused by the level of his shaky psychological well-being, rather than self-obsession. He even painted himself with a heavy bandage soon after cutting off his own ear. Strange thing to do, right? But is it really?
Scrolling through Instagram today, I have the strange feeling that this would be exactly the kind of IG banger to get the most likes, comments, and followers. “Look at me, I’m such a bad-ass, just cut my ear off.”
This is where our journey into the selfie world takes a strange and maybe even dangerous twist. What I mean is a literal twist of cause and consequence. Van Gogh had, in actuality, cut his ear off prior to painting a picture showcasing such. Whatever reasons he had, I’m convinced though that he hadn't done it with the self-portrait to come in mind. The connection to present-day and danger of such is that nowadays, though, people actually do all kinds of clickbait-y things (harming themselves or other people, doing extreme stunts, posing wearing nearly nothing) for exactly that reason – with a self-portrait/selfie in mind. Maximum shock value and loads of attention follow. Consequence becomes the cause.
From selfie sticks to apps like Snapchat, to spending hours primping and posing for that perfect self-promotional image that showcases one at their “very best” and most attractive, to adding cutsie animal ears and stars to one’s eyes, morphing your image into some adorable animal or other types of creature, we have become a society obsessed with altering our own image and showcasing this heavily edited imagery as being authentic to an audience. Then, awaiting the responses from others, much like a dog with its tongue out, salivating for its meal (aka the reward) to come. Many of us have come to hunger for and thrive on this feedback. A not-insignificant amount of people even living their lives rather heavily based on and around it.
The whole setup of a selfie often playing out like so. Pretending to “just” snap a photo of ourselves in an aloof, casual, oops-just-happened-to-snap-this-photo-of-myself-in-this position, and then posting it “just because.” Then, when the flood of comments come in remarking on how “awesome” we look, or how jealous everyone is of where we are going/what we are doing, how gorgeous we look, how ripped our body is, or where we are, we pretend with false modesty to be caught off guard. “What? Oh jeez, I look like crap in this photo even though my abs are flexed and I’m standing here in a bikini/speedo, the wind blowing conveniently through my hair just so, my lips puckered, but thank you soooooo much. You are so sweet!!! Love ya!”
Thus, this is a different intent then artists of old likely had when depicting a self-image in an artsy, distorted, or symbolic way. Our selfies of today are for a more narcissistic, self-involved, look-at-me reason. Please, look at me, notice me, think I am sexy, find me worthwhile and interesting. This is more the vantage point (whether people admit it or not) of selfies today.
We are a bit too focused on ourselves nowadays. How we look. Do others think we are "sexy?" The number of followers we have. The responses to our social media. Consider the theme of all this: me, me, me, what people think of me.
Trying to look nice on a photo is not a sin. Yes, most of us try to smile and pose in such a way that is appealing. We all want to show our “chocolate side” to a degree. Simple-to-use software enables us to remove bags under the eyes or a couple of pimples in seconds. That is quite natural – of course, we want to be pleasant to look at when being showcased in a picture.
What really bothers me is how popular and extreme that sort of pretending has become though. Acting performance is often presented as something normal and ordinary. Sadly, this acting is often disguised as something “inspirational” but what it really does is generate envy, insecurity, and cause others to feel that their life sucks. It nourishes the dangerous comparison culture leading to unhappiness. But weirdly, exactly those accounts are rewarded by a ridiculously high number of followers.
Let me show you a couple of examples I have come across in my Instagram research where the self-presentation is straight-up false and thus, perpetuates envy and a life of false comparison, assumption, and expectation.
1. Geroldsee Chillax
This one is just stupid – a guy just sitting and “chilling” on the roof of an alpine cabin, checking out the view of Geroldsee, Germany. Seriously? If your property (car, house, hut, whatever) happens to be in a nice place, would you consider it normal that people climb and maybe damage it in order to present themselves as cool on the internet? Besides, although it might look like a deserted wilderness, it is not – in fact, there is a small village starting right next to the edge of this image and a very busy road behind it. Thus, the image presents a lie with regards to the locale. I can imagine Gerold’s inhabitants just looking up to their cabins, where this glorious scene was created, shaking their heads in disbelief.
In another image on Instagram, there is a man sitting on this cabin roof.
2. Picnic in Paris
Picnic right in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Sounds amazing, right? Is there a place more romantic than this in the city of love? Well, actually…yes…plenty. Parc Champ de Mars is a haven for weirdos, it is a bit smelly, and there is usually A LOT of trash everywhere (sadly, left not by weirdos but by the picnic people). There are also tons of people pretty much round the clock sitting on the lawn. I like to imagine the woman in the picture posing for the photo shooting first and then telling their photographer: “Alright, we’re done, let’s get out of here, it’s crammed! Can you smell that too?” And then she grabs the croissants and eats them in the hotel.
3. Drag me to hell
Such a classic cliché image. A woman holding a man’s hand and dragging him somewhere. Why? It evokes adventure, it invites the viewer to come with her to wherever she’s going. But at the same time, it’s just a staged “look at me, I’m at this amazing place with my amazing boy-/girlfriend” kind of situation. So for everyone, who cannot travel to amazing places and maybe does not have a boy-/girlfriend, I’ve got a message for you: This is NOT real. My wife never drags me around like this. We just…walk side by side, like normal people. By the way, ever tried to do such an image with a heavy DSLR camera held by one hand?
Brooke: So, are selfies really signs of narcissism or arrogance? Are they self objectifying? Or is that an overblown exaggeration? Let’s find out. First, quickly to define each of those:
Narcissism: Extreme self-centeredness and a grandiose view of oneself. Narcissists have an excessive need to be admired by others and a sense of entitlement. They’re likely to agree with statements such as: “I’m more capable than most people,” and “I will usually show off if I get the chance.”
Self-objectification: This is a tendency to view your body as an object based on its sexual worth. Those high in self-objectification tend to see themselves in terms of their physical appearance and base their self-worth on their appearance. Many women today exhibit high degrees of self-objectification, this especially evident and on display on social media.
Arrogance: An inflated sense of self, usually tending towards thinking of oneself as better than or above others.
In a study done of 1,000 people between ages 18 and 40, participants completed personality questionnaires, psychological assessments, and then answered questions about how often they took selfies, how much they posted on social media, how many other photos they posted generally, as well as how much time spent on social media. They were also asked to rate how often they used various methods to make themselves look better in pictures, such as cropping, filtering, and retouching.
Results showed that both narcissism and self-objectification were associated with spending more time on social networking sites, as well as with more photo-editing. Posting numerous selfies was related to higher narcissism, self-objectification, and even in extreme cases, psychopathy.
This, of course, does not mean that everyone who likes posting selfies is a narcissist or psychopath. Not even close. That would be a major overstatement, blanket assumption, and exaggeration. What it does mean, though, is that a high incidence of selfie posting carries with it a correlation to these personality disorders and a sense of arrogance/significant degree of self-involvement. That seems obvious though, doesn’t it? If a person is spending hours taking photos of themselves, posing this way and that, primping for this very photo just so, and waiting excitedly for all for the likes and responses it will hopefully garner, that is a lot of time dedicated to the showcasing (and hopefully garnered attention for) of oneself.
It doesn’t mean that everyone who likes posting selfies is a narcissist or psychopath. Not even close.
Still, narcissism can explain only a small amount of the selfie-posting behavior that we observe on social media. There may be many other uncovered factors that also influence this behavior, as well as, other nuances to consider. How often does the person post selfies and to what extreme? How many hours of their time do they spend primping or prepping for these photographs of themselves? How much does their feeling good about themselves rely on and stem from people’s responses to their photos? These are important questions which can help pinpoint whether or not someone is truly narcissistic and self-obsessed, or just likes posting an occasional photo to show their friends something fun and/or cool.
I also imagine that another piece of this puzzle is the follow-the-pack mentality. If everyone else is doing it, we tend towards being urged into doing it too, even if it doesn’t fully feel right or “like me,” we often assume that because “everyone else” is doing something, that it’s ok, acceptable, even cool, and/or the thing to do.
It is hard to draw a conclusion on this topic. Selfies are not evil, that’s not what we are saying. It just feels like more and more people are willing to do dangerous stuff, distort reality, or stage what they then present as their “ordinary” life (when in reality, it is nothing like this). All that for the sake of likes and follows of anonymous admirers. During my Instagram research, I focused heavily on travel photography and was shocked by how many proposal images I have accidentally come across, most of them obviously staged. I think it is very sad when social media, virtual life, and the eagerness to present ourselves in the perfect light has penetrated even those unique, treasured, and intimate moments of our lives.
On my travels, I also encountered countless cases of people crossing all kinds of barriers just to get the perfect Instagram photo. This has become increasingly ‘normal’. Don’t disturb wildlife and don’t risk your life for a couple of likes. It is simply not worth it. It is also disrespectful and unconcerned with those around you.
People acting this way will eventually just spoil the fun of traveling for the generations to come. When there is a barrier, it is there for a good reason. Respect it. Authorities are restricting and closing many tourist sites because of tourists doing stupid things for "likes." If you agree with me and feel extraordinarily generous today, there is a petition out there.
Also, please don‘t pretend you‘re enjoying something for the purpose of staging a photo. Simply enjoy and be where you are. Don’t go and have a picnic at a place which is not romantic at all just because it’s trendy on Instagram and for the photo you'll get from it. Go somewhere where it really is romantic. Don’t climb up other people’s property to look cool. Instead, just look around and enjoy the astounding view. Hold the hand of your loved one and do it just because it’s nice. Don’t do it for the Gram.
This is what leads to living a life chasing after other's reactions, responses, and praise, and ultimately, what results in living a life where you miss out on truly emotionally moving experiences and moments. Sure, take some photos of your adventures to share with family and friends later, but for the most part, be there, fully there, in the moments of your life. Stop living life through your screen and in seeking of "likes" and the reactions of others. Life is passing by every moment, and fast. How did you pass your most recent memorable moment? Fumbling for your phone to get a photo of it, taking you out of the moment, and bringing your focus to the responses you will receive? Or actually full, mindfully in the experience, heart overflowing with fulfillment and joy? You can find more about Brooke here. You can check out more about Dali here.