Your Selfie and the Meaning of Beauty (According to the Internet and James Franco)


When did we all start trying to look like celebrities? Is the selfie to blame?

In a recent op-ed piece for the New York Times, actor James Franco defended his love of the selfie. Clearly, the Instagram-obsessed Franco is a self most of us won’t complain about looking at…but it’s more than just his hotness that makes his selfies meaningful. He writes, “Attention is power. And if you are someone people are interested in, then the selfie provides something very powerful, from the most privileged perspective possible.”

Franco’s right. Attention is power. It’s why little kids jump around the rooms like maniacs to get their parents’ attention. It ensures that the energy goes towards the person making the scene. For a little kid, that’s kind of important. They’re little. Somewhat helpless. They need attention. But it’s a security issue we outgrow, usually. At least, we used to.

“[T]he selfie provides something very powerful, from the most privileged perspective possible…” It’s a really bold presumption, but Franco does make the important distinction: “if you are someone people are interested in,” that is. Did he just put us in our place?  Are we not interesting unless we’re as beautiful as James Franco? Or Lady Gaga or Justin Beiber?

Whether James Franco or Kanye West (or James Franco as Kanye West) or boring old me, someone is going to see what we post on our preferred social networks. Franco’s legion of fans on Instagram certainly garners more of an audience than the rest of us, but the point is really that someone is “watching” us virtually all of the time. And when we’ve got an audience—be it only on Facebook or Instagram—we inevitably start to perform, to play a role, pay more attention to whether or not we’re having a bad hair day.

The doppelganger game may have peaked on Facebook a few years ago, but it’s morphed into less of a game and more of a homework assignment these days. If you kind of look like Kim Kardashian, you might as well do what you can to look even more like her at all times. “Now, while the celebrity selfie is most powerful as a pseudo-personal moment, the noncelebrity selfie is a chance for subjects to glam it up, to show off a special side of themselves — dressing up for a special occasion, or not dressing, which is a kind of preening that says, ‘There is something important about me that clothes hide, and I don’t want to hide’,” writes Franco. At least we have our options then. Glam it up or scale it way down. Either way, we’ve got an audience waiting for our noncelebrity selfies. But what fun is being a noncelebrity? We want A-list audiences and Beiber-esque fanclubs, too. We want cyberstalkers. But since we can’t have those, at least we’ve got companies eager to capitalize on our selfie-obsession. “The quantified self movement can be, and has been, exploited for profit. Once the quantified self became marketable, smart marketers and developers sprang into the vacuum, coming up with more ways to monitor more behaviors. Our quantified selves get us hooked on the products, platforms, and services that promise to make us better versions of ourselves,” writes Sarita Bhatt in FastCoexist. They love us. They really love us! Thank the lord.

Society has always been capable of handling a few self-obsessed narcissists. But the tide is shifting and the condition has spread deep and wide. “[A]s a culture, we seem to believe that it is vital to not only track, but post our personal actions on every possible social network,” writes Bhatt, “The world must know how many miles we ran, the scenic views that accompanied the run, and what we did afterwards to celebrate the run.” So, while we may be forced into the nonceleb class, we can live a pseudo-celeb life for our followers. They think we’re beautiful, right?

Of course, this epidemic “self movement” also leads the way for issues like body dysmorphic disorder, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, anxiety and depression, not to mention the substance abuse and other ways we attempt to soothe ourselves from the stress our public personae put on us. Just like the celebrities we’re trying to emulate, we’re starting to suffer from the same disorders that often afflict people subject to high levels of adoration.

Franco defends the accusations that the selfie is an indicator of self-involvement, “in a visual culture, the selfie quickly and easily shows, not tells, how you’re feeling, where you are, what you’re doing,” he writes. But isn’t that also kind of making another equally important point? Why do we need to “quickly” or “easily” show how we’re feeling, where we are or what we’re doing? Can’t some of our lives be private? (Don’t answer that, NSA.)

Our sense of self-worth, the Mister Rogers kind of beauty that we’ve been taught matters most of all, has  taken a backseat to how pouty our lips look in the bathroom mirror selfie we just took. We’re in competition with everyone else online. If we can’t be as important as James Franco, at least we can make other people in our feed seem less important than us. But the selfie is a “tool of communication” more than vanity, according to Franco. It’s what we use to give the world “a sense of who we are.” And on that, I couldn’t agree with him more. But with a few caveats: Who are we, really? Do we know? Do we want to? And can we be beautiful without an audience?

Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter @jillettinger

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Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.