I’ve been collecting reasons people say they take selfies, much as I’ve previously collected blog posts about why people blog. Of course, there are hundreds of media articles about why people take selfies, many derogatory – instead I wanted to read what selfie-takers themselves write. It’s a potentially skewed methodology because most people who write about why they take selfies (especially in a society where selfies are so often mocked) are writing justifications and defenses. To hear from people who take selfies despite not really feeling good about taking selfies I would  need a different method than searching google (interviews, perhaps), but given how poorly represented the justifications and defenses of taking selfies are reported in mainstream media I think it’s valuable to really look at them.

So many people taking selfies argue that they are able to see and believe in their own beauty due to taking photos of themselves. The beauty blogger Elle Sees writes movingly about how she has received comments about her nose making her ugly since she was in fifth grade (and even as an adult), and it was only after taking selfies for her blog for a few months that she has felt comfortable with her appearance. She writes:

You must be conceited if you post them, right? I lose followers whenever I post a pic of myself. But I don’t see it as conceited when I post them. I see it as a victory. (Elle Sees, “On Why I Take Selfies, and 3 More Beauty Things I’m Not Apologizing For“, Jan 15, 2014.)

This is almost exactly the same rationale given by Woman Verging in her Tumblr post “Why I Take Selfies (and why you can f-cm yourself).

Elle Sees clearly manipulates her selfies, both by intentionally blurring or adding filters, and by using carefully planned makeup specifically for photos. Amy Palko writes in more detail about how manipulating her selfies is important in her selfie-taking practice. It gives her distance, she writes: 

I started taking selfies last year. I wasn’t really sure why at the time. It started as a daily practice. A way of exploring self-image, something that I, like almost every other person I know, have a complicated relationship with. Using Pixlr, I began adding layers, textures, colours and frames. It gave me distance. I was no longer playing with a self-portrait. I was playing with line and form. I found that I could appreciate the finished creation in a way that I couldn’t always do when I looked at the image reflected back to me in the mirror. (Amy Palko, “Why I Take Selfies“, Feb 14, 2013)

Palko also separates her reasons for taking a selfie from her reasons for sharing them:

And yes, I totally get that some might look at the practice of creating selfies and assume that I’m completely self-absorbed, and that by sharing them I’m looking for some kind of validation. But that’s not it. That would be to miss the point altogether. When I share the selfies, it shifts from a practice of self-discovery to a practice of vulnerability. I often feel incredibly tender when I share a selfie. It’s not easy to share these images. It wasn’t when I started. And it’s still not now.

So why do I take selfies? I take them to heighten my own self-awareness and to discovery new sides of myself.

Why do I share them? To create breathing space in the experience of vulnerability. And to give you permission, should it be needed, to start a similar practice. ((Amy Palko, “Why I Take Selfies“, Feb 14, 2013)

Finding self-acceptance is a commonly expressed reason for taking selfies, and there are a number of online courses that emphasize selfies as a method for self-improvement and self-acceptance. Palko, cited above, offers coaching and business guidance. Stephanie Gagos is a life coach, and emphasizes similar reasons behind her own self-portrait practice:

It’s not about vanity, or being conceited. One might think that if you look at my Instagram feed as I post many of them there.

It is about witnessing my own beauty, understanding who I am beyond the face, growing more and more in love with who I am as I age, learning to work with what I have and seeing beyond the flawed and broken human being I’ve always thought myself to be.

It is an act of coming home and reclaiming my SELF. (Stephanie Gagos, “Why Selfies Heal“, Oct 30, 2013)

Self-discovery and self-acceptance certainly aren’t the only reason to take selfies. Jenelle Dufva writes that she takes selfies for entertainment or because she’s bored, but mostly for memories:

I take selfies because I think it’s entertaining. I take selfies because I like to write stupid captions underneath my photos on Instagram. I take selfies on days when I feel like I look really nice and maybe I want other people to see how cool my eyebrows look. I take selfies because I get bored when I’m alone all the time. But mostly, I take selfies for memories and I think that’s something that really gets me about people hating on selfies all the time. My opponents reading this are probably like, “What? You like to remember how your own face looked on a certain day?” And my answer to you is yes, opponent. Sometimes my lipstick looks nice and I want to remember that. Me taking a photo of my face is not a political statement (it can be though – I’ll get to that later), it’s a simple photo that I wanted to put on the internet for that reason, and for that reason alone – because I wanted to. And that should be okay because it isn’t up to anyone else to decide what I put on the internet. It’s my decision. (..)  If you don’t wanna selfie, you don’t gotta selfie. But don’t judge people that do because it’s just a fucking PHOTO and it’s not your life. (Jenelle Dufva, “Whatever: A Short Analysis of the Selfie“, Jan 29, 2014)

Boredom is also one of Jessica Isme Yoga’s key reasons for taking selfies, and she also notes that selfies of herself with her dog have become important to her after the dog came into her life, and she imagines that parents feel the same urge to have photos of themselves with their children.

Remembering a moment is obviously also an important, whether it’s a moment with a friend, lover, pet or child; a moment where you’re happy with the way you look or your new hat or hairdo; or a moment in a place you want to remember or doing something you want to remember. Tracy Antonioli, who blogs at The Suitcase Scholar, decided to summarize her year of travels by posting a selfie for each month, and explains:

I take selfies not because I think I’m beautiful (I’m not, as I will prove more than a dozen times below), but because I often find myself in beautiful locations and I want to capture a moment of my own joy in said beautiful location.  Thus, my selfies are often (nay, only) taken in places that I love. (The Suitcase Scholar, “Travels in 2013: The Year of the Selfie“, Dec 28, 2013)

The personal and the political can certainly mix in selfies, whether through campaigns where people share political messages by posting a selfie with a certain gesture, hashtag or poster (a visual petition – selfies are today’s signatures) or as a personal act of affirmation or rejection. “stavvers”, who blogs at Another angry woman explains that she has been photographed against her will, by a male abuser and by the police, who she says use photographing suspects as a means of power, and she relishes the selfie because she is in absolute charge herself:

I suppose I started taking selfies when I realised there were some things that words couldn’t articulate well, and what I needed to say was best said with my face and body. When putting a webcam or a front-facing camera in front of me, I can see exactly what I look like, and make sure, before taking the snap that I look how I want to look and I am communicating what I want to communicate.

And that’s why I take selfies. Because it’s me presenting myself to the world in the way I want to be presented.

The self-acceptance that Elle Sees and Amy Palko write about in the quotes in the beginning of this post becomes far more explicitly political in the #feministselfies movement that developed in response to Erin Gloria Ryan’s firmly anti-selfie article in Jezebel last November, where she sees selfies as “a reflection of the warped way we teach girls to see themselves as decorative.” (“Selfies Aren’t Empowering. They’re a Cry for Help.”)

When you take, and post, a selfie you are actually doing something radical, you are saying I like myself enough to let others see me. Imagine the entire industries that would vanish overnight if women started liking themsves? It would change the nature of advertising, and close the Daily Mail! Jemima2013, “Rebecca, Celebrity, and Selfies“, Nov 22, 2013.

For people who are not white, thin and young, the abundance of selfies also quite simply allows us to see more images of a far wide range of people.


Because, as Jemima2013 writes, selfies show that “‘ordinary’ looking women are worth photographing and looking at.” And you can look “ordinary” in many, many, many different ways.


1 Comment

  1. On Nude Selfies | Vadimage Blog

    […] is the world’s first known ‘selfie’ – ABC News 6. Jill Walker Rettberg, Why people say they take selfies | jill/txt 7. Rosie Yates, Why are we so outraged by nudity? – Concrete 8. The Essays of Montaigne by […]

Leave A Comment

Recommended Posts

Triple book talk: Watch James Dobson, Jussi Parikka and me discuss our 2023 books

Thanks to everyone who came to the triple book talk of three recent books on machine vision by James Dobson, Jussi Parikka and me, and thanks for excellent questions. Several people have emailed to asked if we recorded it, and yes we did! Here you go! James and Jussi’s books […]

Image on a black background of a human hand holding a graphic showing the word AI with a blue circuit board pattern inside surrounded by blurred blue and yellow dots and a concentric circular blue design.
AI and algorithmic culture Machine Vision

Four visual registers for imaginaries of machine vision

I’m thrilled to announce another publication from our European Research Council (ERC)-funded research project on Machine Vision: Gabriele de Setaand Anya Shchetvina‘s paper analysing how Chinese AI companies visually present machine vision technologies. They find that the Chinese machine vision imaginary is global, blue and competitive.  De Seta, Gabriele, and Anya Shchetvina. “Imagining Machine […]

Do people flock to talks about ChatGPT because they are scared?

Whenever I give talks about ChatGPT and LLMs, whether to ninth graders, businesses or journalists, I meet people who are hungry for information, who really want to understand this new technology. I’ve interpreted this as interest and a need to understand – but yesterday, Eirik Solheim said that every time […]