In human history self-portraits are nothing new as people have been producing them for centuries. Earlier it was on canvas which gave way to celluloid and then to photographic film and digital media. Now it is the selfie, a term which was earlier confined to social media and photo-sharing sites and has now become so widespread that in 2013 the Oxford Dictionary declared it as the word of the year. The proliferation of smartphones has made selfies easier to create and share.
The age of the selfie may be the result of unprecedented changes in technology and the rise of social media but it owes a lot to the age-old genre of self-portrait. The history of selfportraiture seems to have begun during the middle ages with painting. For some, it was meant to symbolise the primacy of authorship, for others it represented a case of self-consciousness and personal scrutiny, perhaps also a way to document their lives.
In this era there are cameras in phones which click beautiful pictures but people lament the lack of time to see them again. In our busy lives we enjoy things for a moment and then forget about them. People these days take selfies mostly to show off, get noticed and make people realise their presence on social media. We want to project ourselves before others and that is where the selfie comes in.
Those familiar with the Triple Self-Portrait by Norman Rockwell, who is celebrated as the “Dickens of the paintbrush”, might say that it is noteworthy not only for the fact that it contains three self-portraits, but also because it even features a mirror selfie.
And of course, any discussion on self-portraits would be incomplete without mentioning Van Gogh. He had over 30 and they are some of his bestknown works.
So perhaps what we are witnessing today with the socalled “selfie craze” is not a new phenomenon, but an old one that has just been given a new lease of life. Its rise in popularity may in part be due to the modern medium used and the minimal demands this medium makes on the individual (you don’t need the tools or the skills of a Post-Impressionist painter to take a competent selfie on your phone).
If there were any doubts about selfies being just another passing Internet fad, they would be dispelled by the fact that selfies can now be monetised. The USP of many phones in the market today is not only the presence of a front-facing camera, but also the camera’s quality and resolution; in other words, how selfie-friendly it is.
Studies began linking the photo-taking habit to narcissism, addiction and other mental health issues. A poll by the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery indicated that one in three facial plastic surgeons surveyed saw an increase in requests for procedures due to patients being more aware of their looks in social media.
The ‘selfie habit’ has picked up to a great extent and has almost gathered epidemic proportions as a worldwide phenomenon. It is a manifestation of our society’s gradual drift towards individualisation with a paradoxically co-existent need to be constantly connected to as many people as possible. This streak of self-obsession has become prominent ever since social networking sites like Facebook and Instagram allowed people to remain in touch with each other. These platforms also provided an opportunity to people to share their pictures, little knowing it would give rise to a generation that is quick to update “status” and calculate popularity by the number of “likes” they get.
Being self obsessed might be a part of one’s personality. But excess of anything is harmful and so is the case with selfies. Too much of clicking may end up as addiction.
The selfie bug is catching on with adverse effects on mental health. It is not just the youth, even middle-aged men and women have fallen prey to the obsession. Mental health experts say selfie addiction can be linked to narcissism, low self-esteem and poor body image.
Symptoms include irritability, drop in academic performance, and excessive grooming. A youth survey — called Millennial Paradox — conducted by Titan Industries found that despite the unprecedented levels of selfobsession and independence, India’s millennnials (21-35 year old) do not operate in isolation — they have a strong desire to share and belong to a community.
Sharing has become the principle form of validation….everything requires endorsement — whether that takes the form of a ‘friend’ a ‘like’ or even a ‘retweet”, concludes the survey, describing the new trend as “collective individualism”. For the current generation of digital natives, endorsements in the virtual world matter more than the feedback they get from the real world. ‘Selfitis’ is a newly termed mental disorder by the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
Doctors say that Selfitis is a form of obsessive compulsive disorder to take one’s own pictures and post them on social media. It is broadly divided into three types: Borderline (taking at least three pictures of self but not posting them on social media), Acute (taking at least three photos of oneself every day and posting them on social media) and Chronic severe (taking at least six photos of self every day and posting them on social media).
The main cause of clicking a number of selfies is low selfesteem because of which people are trying to find a way to boost themselves. Once a person starts getting addicted to it, he becomes irritable and impatient if somebody deters him from doing so. People clicking too many selfies could be doing so because of the neglect they face from family members. It is a mechanism to gain attention from the community.
The writer is with the Eastern Institute for Integrated Learning in Management (EIILM), Kolkata.