I’ve just landed in New York City for the weekend to visit my best friend. I’m standing outside Terminal 5 at JFK, wearing fuchsia lipstick and blue eyeglasses, and I want my 391 Instagram followers to know I’ve arrived. I hold up my iPhone, grin sideways and snap. Approve, filter, post.
I turn around to see a middle-aged man in a scarf roll his eyes at me and shake his head. He thinks my selfie is frivolous. The product of a generation hooked on social media, full of people who all think they deserve to be famous. I’m slightly embarrassed that he’s caught me in this moment — it’s weird to see someone see you take a selfie — but this is not about vanity.
Over the past three or four years, selfies have come to pervade our culture. There have been songs and TV shows written in their honor, tools manufactured to facilitate their taking. For those of us who didn’t grow up with iPhones and social media, it’s easy to sit in judgment of the selfie. We tend to think girls who take too many are self-obsessed and attention-seeking. What happened to modesty? we wonder.
But recently, more complex theories about the selfie have arisen, particularly in regard to its portrayal of women. “Selfies are one way for a female to make space for herself in the world: To say ‘I’m here, this is what I actually look like, my story counts, too,'” says Pamela Grossman, director of visual trends at Getty Images. “They allow girls to shine on their own terms.”