I’ve read what Mrs. Hall has to say to teenage girls about posting revealing – of skin or desire – pictures of themselves online, and I reveled in Jessica Gottlieb’s competing message. The former says these young ladies ought to be ashamed of themselves and the latter assures them that they won’t be judged by everyone. But neither gets to the root of the phenomenon that is the sexy selfie and why women do it. I’m not confident I will either, but like my kid at the pediatrician’s, I’m all for giving it a shot.
I am a 33 year-old stay-at-home mother of two, a former teacher and attorney who now fancies herself a competent blogger – and I love taking sexy selfies. I have a girlfriend who qualifies in reproductive terms as “of advanced maternal age”; she’s earned several impressive legal jobs, and her Facebook page is littered with self-taken solo shots, many featuring exposed flesh (calm down now, I’m talking shoulders and legs) and a mischievous glint in her eyes. What’s the deal? Neither of us – nor a handful of other mature friends who take solo glamour shots – aims to seduce teenage boys. Then why on earth do we do it?
As women we are regularly told who we are and how we should be. As a mother I ought to be patient and kind yet firm – loving and nurturing whilst wielding control over my children and their behavior. As an employee I know I have to be sharper than my male colleagues; I must be on it, but not in an aggressive way. Oh no, never fully assertive. If, as a manager, I dare to demand first-rate work product – let alone engage in any of the histrionics common to male bosses – I’m a bitch, a ball-buster. To make it, I need to be the best, but an unassuming best. (Then again, I can’t be so unimposing that I look sneaky or undeserving, swooping in to grab spoils rightly owing to a man.) As a daughter I am to be unquestioningly supportive – attentive, appreciative, and sensitive – while my brothers will be boys, churning out inflammatory statements and dirty dishes like they can’t possibly help it. As a daughter-in-law I must tread carefully, being sure only to add to the preexisting nuclear family (not in small part with my womb), never questioning the way things have always been done or claiming too much of my husband’s attention. As a wife I ought to radiate a receptivity that is perfectly malleable so as to be alternately maternal, collegial, and sexual upon demand. As a friend I must temper my opinions and my strengths so as not to inadvertently cast a pale on those of others. As a patient I should appear bright but not too informed or opinionated. As a consumer I am expected to wait patiently and keep any annoyance, or God forbid criticism (constructive or otherwise), to myself. As a sidewalk user I should be directed and efficient but not so much so as to seem pushy.
A woman is told, many times each day, just how assertive she can be – just how many and much of her true desires and impulses (sexual or otherwise) she can display or act upon (even by – well, especially by – certain feminists; see my reviews of Jessica Valenti’s and Linda Hirshman’s books over at readymommy.wordpress.com). In a selfie she can be exactly how she feels in the captured moment. She can create an image of herself (with neither photographer as intermediary nor any lens other than self-perception) that reflects her true appetite for life. Though I don’t post my selfies online very often, I feel nothing short of empowered taking them. I am demanding. I am aggressive. I am self-centered. And I don’t have to be anything else because there’s no one in the picture to define me. I am not mother, co-worker, boss, daughter, wife, friend, patient, customer, or streetwalker. I am a woman, plain and simple. Or not so plain and simple, as the case may be.
Which explains why those of us who are struggling most with our identity – like teenage girls, my lawyer friend who happens to be recently divorced and unemployed, and a new-ish mother – can become particularly enamored of the selfie. Selfies are similar to the staring in the mirror of yore. The practicing of expressions and expression. In snapping selfies, we gals are just heeding Michael Jackson’s advice and taking a good look at the women we see reflected back.
Those who take the next step and post the shots they like online may be foolish or attention-seeking. They may be victims of societal messaging, duped into believing their appearance is all they have to offer as women. But maybe – just maybe – like the gloved one himself, they purposefully challenge mores of wardrobe, lifestyle, and exposure because they want to make the world a better place. One where women can be all aspects of their authentic selves, at the same time or in turns. Take me for example. This afternoon I am a thoughtful mommy writer; this evening I reserve the right to be a sexy single lady (in the photographic sense, of course).
Here’s what a long look at my selfies tells me. I have a right to be aggressive, demanding, and self-centered. I am also right to control those impulses for the sake of my family, friends, and larger community. A lot of the time, anyway. To do my whole self justice, I need to create moments in my life for my basest and most basic desires – in all their sexual, bossy, immodest, or vain glory. Any woman who posts a picture of herself doing the same shouldn’t be ashamed or tolerated. She oughta be proud.