#365FeministSelfie founder Veronica Arreola

Can a Selfie Really Make the World a Better Place for Women?

With the one-year anniversary of #365FeministSelfie looming, the writer and participant looks at the movement that goes way beyond a hashtag.
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It’s happened so many times since, that I can’t quite remember my first. I’m fairly certain it was at sunset, hopelessly cliché. I’d like to think that the lighting was perfect, my hair slightly tousled, and my cheeks effortlessly flushed. And then, snap. Actually, it was probably more like, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, eh … I guess that one’s okay. Most likely, I picked the least offensive of the bunch, slapped a filter on it, and then posted it to Twitter or Facebook. After all, does a selfie still exist if there’s nobody to “like” it?

Panned by some as superficial and egocentric, yet simultaneously heralded by others as an important tool of the digital age, taking a picture of oneself and posting it to social media has become so popular that it has achieved the pinnacle of any true internet trenda short-lived sitcom, Selfie. While mainstream culture has had its fair share of selfie debates (duck lips out, Hipstamatic filters in), the feminist sphere has also taken the selfie to task. In 2013, when the word selfie was awarded Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year, Jezebel’s Erin Gloria Ryan skewered the trend, calling it a cry for help:

“Stop this. Selfies aren't empowering; they're a high tech reflection of the fucked up way society teaches women that their most important quality is their physical attractiveness.”

But is it as simple—or as negative—as Ryan makes it out to be? Around the same time, writer Veronica Arreola wrote on her blog, Viva La Feminista, about conquering the fear of seeing yourself every single day. When talking about a previous photo challenge that she participated in, Arreola explained how it helped her become more comfortable with herself. “That was something I needed too; I just didn't know it then. The hardest part of being in the media is dealing with your own image. I used to hate how I sounded, then I did a lot of radio and I listened to it. I hated how I looked on TV, but I did that and felt more comfortable. And the same for photos. After that 365 project, I don't love how I look, but I am far more comfortable saying, 'I look good today. I look good in this outfit.’” Inspired by all the debate, as well as her own experience with the other photo project, Arreola started the #365FeministSelfie challenge—take a selfie a day and post it somewhere, on Twitter, on Facebook, to Flickr or Instagram. I signed right up.

My relationship with the selfie is complicated. I don’t want to be complicit in pushing beauty as commodification, and I admit to occasionally obsessing over whether the bags under my eyes look too prominent or whether my smile makes my eyes crinkle just a smidge too much. But at the same time, I see more value in selfies than simple social media snapshots. Beyond showing off a new piece of jewelry or hairstyle, they also give power to those whose faces are usually missing from most media. They allow us control over how we’re seen, and they have the ability to actually force us to face those sexist beauty standards and allow us to define what is beautiful.

I was curious, what could I get out of taking and sharing a selfie of myself every day for a year? Would I actually find something empowering in it, despite the criticism? What I found went far beyond a simple hashtag. #365FeministSelfie turned into a community and a movement. Search the #365FeministSelfie tag on any social media site, and you'll immediately see the frequency with which people are posting. While many photos show participants going about their daily lives, others let the viewer into something more personal. It is this community that Arreola has felt honored to be a part of.

“The project is set up to be empowering, but there are days when you are just not seeing the beauty others see,” she told me. “But over the year I have seen people post some amazingly personal selfies. Some on private accounts, some in full public. They all have a reason for sharing that day’s frustration, pain, or sorrow. It has been a privilege to be privy to those conversations, but even more so to have started them.”

Arreola spurred something that started to connect with many women. Exploring this intersection of beauty, feminism, and public presentation was intriguing. However, it wasn’t an immediate love affair for everyone, like Cara Laird, one of #365FeministSelfie’s participants.

“I posted about it on my Facebook to see if any of my friends would participate with me, as I was on the fence. Would this challenge teach me anything? Wasn't it a bit narcissistic to take photos of myself every single day and post them online?” Laird said, echoing some of the more popular criticism regarding selfies. “I wasn't sure if I agreed with Veronica's perspective, but I was intrigued.”

Laird ended up being pleasantly surprised and even created a private Facebook group where participants of the challenge could connect and get to know each other more intimately. Speaking fondly of the group that she anticipates will last much longer than one year, Laird said, “It is the most accepting and positive group I have seen on the Internet. I honestly could not have imagined this project and Facebook group would become such a beautiful, supportive sisterhood community.”

As a member of this Facebook group, I too have found something beyond an online challenge. While participants share their selfies, they also share pieces of their lives. We’ve witnessed many births, some losses, triumphs, challenges, joys, and sorrows. People post about their day from the mundane and seemingly trivial to the bigger obstacles that life throws at us. The pictures are the openings to receive advice, compassion, support, or celebration.

Despite the hashtag handle, not all participants are daily devotees. Activist and writer Wagatwe Wanjuki tweets a #365FeministSelfie only a few times each month, but the impact for her isn’t lessened in any way. Wanjuki explained that her history with body image prompted her to participate. “For most of my life I had been taught that I should hide myself and my body. And I often had insecurities about not being ‘pretty enough.’ So, participating in it was an act of encouraging self-love. Another reason is that as a black woman I feel like I don't see enough diverse representations of women of my race in media. I wanted to participate in a movement that unabashedly celebrates feminists of all races—even if they don't fit into the bullshit Western ideals of beauty.”

Wanjuki is not alone. Many of my fellow #365-ers feel similarly. While a selfie certainly has the power to feed into the unattainable standards of beauty the media bombards us with, and the plummeting self-esteem that comes with them, it also has the ability to fight hard against it. Hop on Twitter or Instagram and flip through the pictures on the hashtag. The triumphs, diversity, and declarations of all sorts have shown that this year of selfies was more than a success. And, when Time offers up "Feminism" as a word to ban in 2015, it's clear that promoting the concept as well as providing unapologetic visuals of who self-defines as a feminist is crucial. The debate over whether or not a selfie is truly a feminist act may never be fully resolved, but if the path to finding out includes an archive of a year’s worth of memories, the intentional diversifying of what is beautiful, and the start of a supportive community, I think we’ll be okay. 

Avital Norman Nathman is a freelance writer whose work places a feminist lens on a variety of topics. Her book, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood To Fit Reality, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @TheMamafesto.

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