Pleasure, power, instinct and desire—the Pro/Creative series considers visual culture via the bodies that make it.
For three defining weeks in late 2015, I sublet some space in an apartment with three rooms, four beds, and five residents—four of them women, plus one self-identified “worm.” The apartment was in Koreatown, Los Angeles, and I was in a room with two beds. It was the living room, really. A safety-pinned curtain partitioned it from the kitchen. No privacy. Upon moving in, I asked one of the flatmates with a closed door what those without did about sex. She—Anastasia, 20, sleeps with the worm—replied that “the girls might schedule it, if they knew everybody would be out, but lately I think their sexuality consists mostly of taking selfies.”
If Anastasia likes you, if you’re lucky, she’ll speak such truths regularly. She speaks like famed author Elena Ferrante writes. “Honest writing forces itself to find words for those parts of our experience that is crouched and silent,” Ferrante told Vanity Fair recently, addressing her capacity to communicate emotional complexity without sentimentality. Like Ferrante, the truths Anastasia shares tend to be simple, undecorated declarations of what is and is not said—that is, what is overlooked by normative or normatively mediated (i.e., male) gazes. I’m talking about feminine experience. Our internal.
I’ve heard similar words spoken derisively, ironically and/or curiously many times before, usually by boys. (“Are selfie girls for real, or are they just teasing?” As in, Are individuals who share sexual self-portraits on social media doing so as an invitation for sexual advances? Are they Down To Fuck (me), or…). What was different about Anastasia’s comment is that she meant it truthfully. It was her tone. Her plain, shame-free state of fact. I’d never heard the obvious voiced so clearly: selfies are sexual acts. Pro-creative. Mediumistic. More than mere expressions of, selfies can be a means of experiencing sexuality.
I knew this. There are things you can know sensually, in muscle memory, an image vocabulary, or color theory, but words are different. They cluster quickly into ready-made phrases, dictating meaning to us. It’s rare for words to communicate veritable newness. When they do, though, it’s psychedelic, in the sense of altering one’s perception, one’s experience of reality.
I share the above as a kind of guide, as I’m about to trip, to try and establish why I’m electively, obsessively writing and rewriting this essay, despite having resisted this topic for years.
It’s not that I have nothing to say. I’ve talked about selfies plenty, amidst friends and to myself. The thought of writing on them, though, was something else. I was wary the topic’s sensationalism, its triggering feelings of shame, judgment, fear. But as Anastasia said her bit, seeing how cool she was in the face of it— seeing, not just feeling, these feelings—I was like, of course I must pursue this. Discomfort means there’s meaning to work through.
Selfies are reclaiming the photographic gaze from a default consumptive male viewer.
Writing on selfies embarrasses me. Because it’s overdone, and almost always poorly done. Because it’s a banal human behavior, and yet, as complex as we are, the reasons we do it are many. But I’ve chosen to write on selfies here for the same reason I write anything—because I’m in love. I’m in love with Anastasia, Amalia, Amber, Alicia, Alexis, Michelle, Margaret, Mekele—all the marvelous minds with whom I’ve exchanged words on selfies. I want to frame—to fame—their words. Spoken words. Because writing on selfies is stupid.
It’s stupid because under patriarchy, femininity is imagined as frivolous, and selfies are imagined as feminine, and writing is serious.
Shame is power, a quieting difference. It’s most powerful in the subconscious, where we’re oblivious to it. The best method I know to excavate shame is in writing. I write to isolate voice, to discern those that aren’t mine, to see what I believe. It’s a revealing process, the most naked I get. I’m less embarrassed by my bare ass on the Internet.
Anyway. In writing and rewriting early drafts of this essay, hating the results, it occurred to me that I was imagining a male audience. I’d been writing in defense to them, these judging men in my head. Here’s one:
During my time living with Anastasia, I was (or thought I was) in love with a boy. This boy treated me like a girl, and at first, I loved it. He called me sweetheart and baby, regal, beautiful, divine. He wanted monogamy; he slut-shamed me when I told him I wasn’t only seeing him. Even that, I initially adored. “He’s vintage!” (Which he was. Like Björn Andresen and Jordan Catalano meets Jean-Michel Basquiat—a beautiful 20th-century boy, that fatal fetish of mine.) One day, this boy went off on selfies. They’re not real, he insisted. It’s just performance. Your tits on the Internet for anyone to see… I laughed the moment past, as I’ve learned to do in times I’m not into, but I wore his words home. Looking to shed them, I shared them with Alicia, the young woman sharing a living room with me. I manically questioned why—why we do we selfie? Her reply: “Self-preservation, duh.”
Alicia Novella Vasquez’s selfies are among my favorites. She selfies on Instagram @lightlicker, though by the time this is printed, her moniker may be different. (She’s apt to change.) Alicia (which, btw, is pronounced Ali-see-ah, not Ali-she-ah) changes as selves do, shifting in form while maintaining some essential direction, her eye on the world. In one selfie I especially love, she appears to be in a car, her brow-free face lit by a star-like patch of sun. Her lashes cast shadows beneath her brown eyes, and her Cupid’s bow lips read as decisive. “i’ve touched you but all i’ve touched is a moment,” the image is captioned, conveying more meaning in ten words than most of the films I’ve seen in theaters this year.
“Selfies are an act of self-love, and to love oneself is an act of self-preservation,” Alicia concluded. That in mind, I began asking other friends what taking a sensual selfie feels like. Mekele, a femme musician, told me that, for him, “It starts with a blast of anxiety from all the past body shaming, but once I’m over that, it’s rather liberating.” Alexis Blair Penny—artist, yogi, and Chez Deep drag queen—said that their selfies are “about giving a voice, vision, and value to a body that has never felt valued or like it had a voice.” Sybil Prentice (aka @nightcoregirl), she of the lizard tongue appropriated by he who must not be named, plainly stated that posting sexy selfies “feels natural.”
It does for me too, and that’s why I was so shook by my lover boy’s judgment: it made me aware of a gendered inequality, how we relate differently to our own and each other’s bodies. To me, selfies are nbd. They’re a medium, a technology like any other, like writing or meditating; I use them for self-exploration, as well as to commune. I experience selfies as an exchange. Alicia shares herself, and I am grateful for her composure,as I am for Mekele, Alexis and Sybil’s. I receive these people’s selfies like I receive their duh’s, intuitively getting the message. I get the history of body shame and the reclamation of public space in the relative safety of online. I get the masturbatory pleasure of asserting our beauty, our self-love.
This is why I’ve resisted writing on selfies: cause it’s felt like translation. Like explaining myself to the Man, or to men, or to a 20th-century boy. Cause as much as I love standard grammar and written text, I still associate it with that dominator culture. That’s why I’d imagined a male audience: cause writing is conversation (Sartre converses with Nietzsche, Nietzsche with Schopenhauer, and so on), and as I’m versed in the Western canon, I’ve read mostly men. On the page, I’m with them.
Young women lead linguistic innovation. It’s, like, authoritatively agreed. Men trail us by about a generation, one 2009 study said. We lead with links like “like,” with slang and tone, like “vocal fry,” this vibratory rasp, is presently trending from girls to a more mass population. These innovations tend to develop in speech, between women, before being adopted by men and in text. People of color innovate too; consider the word “bae,” or any other word you’d find on Urban Dictionary. (I highly recommend Manuel Arturo Abreu’s essay “Online Imagined Black English” on arachne.cc for more on that.) Again, innovation comes for many reasons, but here’s one I get: we innovate cause we need to communicate beyond existing power structures, cause language itself is power and structure. In creating new signs (and styles, and words), we create space for ourselves, our meaningfulness.
Selfies are innovating. They’re diversifying the photographic gaze, reclaiming it from a default consumptive white cis male viewer. I want this for the page. I want shame-free femininity, great diversity in words. I want frivolity, sensuality and wildness. I want voices like Anastasia and Alicia’s published. I want a culture that gets, as artist/writer Hannah Black recently tweeted, that “selfies are narcissistic but so are novels.” (Duh.) I want a culture within which, as Alexis put it, “everybody is valued and given a voice. This is the world I want to live in,” they said, “so I have to start with mine.”