The deep psychology behind the simple snapshot.
The hint of a smile, a little eye smolder and...snap! Many of us have taken a selfie or two, and whether you’ve posted the results on Instagram, e-mailed them to a friend or took one look and hit “delete,” turn- ing the camera phone on ourselves has become a cultural norm. If our Instagram feeds are anything to go by, there aren’t many moments folks feel are too small to document, thus giving certain setups—the “driving to work” selfie, the poolside “my current situation” vacation shot or the “gym flow” photo—iconic status.
Be honest: There are snaps of you doing all these things on your phone right now. You’re not alone. More than 1 million selfies are taken every day, ac- cording to techinfographics.com, and as of June 2014, there have been more than 127 million Instagram photos with the hashtag #selfie. Since Black women use social media at a high rate, odds are, a good percentage of that number includes us. So what’s behind this boom? Selfies are a response to negative reactions to African-American women’s image, says Karen Streeter, Ph.D., Memphis psychologist and host of the radio program On the Couch With Dr. K! “Black women have suffered a lot of attacks on our self-esteem,” she says. “When you experience that, you can develop a need for positive reinforcement on a regular basis.” Selfies provide an opportunity to exhibit self-love and create our own communities in which our standards of beauty can live and be accepted. “African-American women are saying, ‘Mass media, you don’t say I’m beautiful? Okay. I’m going to show my- self to the people who will reaffirm me,’” says Streeter.
But sometimes that desire to declare our beauty can venture into self-parody and narcissism—the near-nude photos taken in the bathroom mirror or the self- ies snapped at funerals and other inap- propriate places. We roll our eyes and hide the stream of that friend who clogs our timelines trolling for “likes” by post- ing multiple selfies a day, but Streeter says such behavior can signal a deeper problem. “If you’re spending all your time posting these pictures while put- ting your work and responsibilities and relationships on the back burner, you’ve moved beyond the point where it’s healthy,” notes Streeter. And looking to online friends, many of whom might be strangers, for validation and acceptance is equally problematic. “We know that people’s opinions are fickle,” says Street- er. “If the positive feedback stops, what will you do to feel okay with yourself?”
The key to joining in on the fun of taking selfies without losing your sense of self is to foster a healthy balance between getting affirmation from the online community, your real support system and, most of all, yourself. Says Streeter, “Ultimately we all have to do a real selfie, which is looking at ourselves in the mirror and liking what we see.”
This article was originally featured in the September issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now!