On Profile Pictures

And their function as a precursor to selfies


I’d always admired people with “joke” profile pictures. Those weird-but-funny anti-headshots; the five-chin creep-face crops reserved for the unbridled and carefree.

A few kids I knew went into their first years of college represented by shirtless photos of David Hasselhoff. Then there was this guy who made his Facebook debut with a brightly-lit picture of his gut with drawn on abs. There was also the friend-meme: when someone’s embarrassing photo went viral thanks to his or her group of friends setting the same photo as their own profile pictures. It wasn’t out of solidarity so much as it was a guerrilla group inside-joke, and when pulled off correctly it was the perfect punchline.

But trickiest to perfect was the ironic profile picture. One person’s faux-glamour shot was another’s actual glamour shot (no judgement — who doesn’t love blue eyeshadow, a chin propped up by a fist and teased hair), but there is a fine line that stands between earnestness and irony.

A group of my guy friends, for example, had a professional photo taken of themselves in white turtlenecks with an American flag as their back drop. The word “friendship” was written in cursive across the flag. They’ve all set it as their individual profile pictures at least once, but if I didn’t know them, I’d probably assume it was a sincere homage to 80’s patriotism and brotherhood (as opposed to an idea that manifested courtesy out of boredom and an afternoon at Walmart).

The joke’s on the person who doesn’t get it, I guess.

I remember my first profile picture. It was the summer of 2006 and I’d just received my dot-edu. I recall selecting the picture: it was a tight shot of me, cropped in a vertical rectangle to eliminate the ten other girls who joined me in the original photo. But the editing didn’t stop once I voted my friends off the visual island. I emailed my solo to a girl named Tina, the first person I knew who could work Photoshop. And not only did I have her grayscale it, but I asked that she isolate my eyes so that they would remain blue.

Cool. Because that looked totally normal.

What I was doing, essentially, was setting the stage for who I would be as a college freshman. No one would know me, and my slate, although cherished, would be wiped clean. Exactly what this image of my Windex colored irises was supposed to say though, I’m still not so sure.

It wasn’t funny. It wasn’t ironic. It could have been mistaken for one of those aforementioned glamour shots but because it was set on football bleachers and sans star spangled backdrop, it was probably a lot more like the selfies we see and consequently emit today. Which leads me to wonder whether our profile pictures were the first to incite the current epidemic of hashtag beauty shots we’ve all, at one point or another, fallen victim to?

Is the same thought process that went into selecting the perfect, long lasting profile picture akin to the one that propels the ephemeral selfie? Why do we do it? What do we hope to get out of them? And most importantly — what did your most embarrassing old-school selfie, new-age profile picture look like? Show us. Come on!

-Edited by Leandra Medine

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  • Stine

    Loving this. Thanx!

  • Charlotte Fassler

    This was my very much unironic MySpace picture circa 13 years old. I wish I was joking.

    • Aubrey Green

      So pretty!

    • Now is the windswept hair fan-generated or was it the result of, say, an unseen piece of paper being fanned back and forth? Either way, it’s a great lewk.

      • Charlotte Fassler

        Oh this was a digital camera atop a window air conditioner unit.
        **~~The LiGhT mAdE mY eYez sO bLuE~~**
        Also that is a classic closed mouth braces smile.

        • I sooo want such eyes … 🙂

    • bumblejeaniepie

      ooooh, wind!

  • Quinn Halman

    one word: picnik.

    • I spent a decent amount of time on picnik in 8th grade adoring photos of me and my crush.

  • mckenzie.collins

    Honestly, I think nowadays we realise we don’t have to wait for that perfect photo to come (that never does) from an event we were sure we looked amazing at. Now that we can fully plan and set the camera up ourselves, there’s no way we’re gonna let ourselves not look good. We don’t have to settle for the ‘semi-smile-i-was-saying-cheese’ photo that pops up on our news feed (thanks friend), rather we can experiment for hours deciding between teeth or no teeth, act like we just took the photo and appear to everyone else, we took a quick snap because really, we look this great all the time. It’s a lie, but we love it.

    I’m not even a big selfie taker, but you can’t deny the appeal. There’s only so many half-smiles one can see, before they must take the situation into their own hands.


  • It makes me think I have to change mine!

  • I couldn’t even tell you what my first profile picture looked like. It probably wasn’t even a picture of me…it was probably some dumb photo I thought was funny, or a really lame quote about live or love or something.

    I’ve had some bad ones in my day, though – I was quite liberal with the airbrushing. 🙂

  • Thanks for this essay, Amelia! Perfect cap to my week.

    Also, I had to go back a few months ago and delete profile pictures from several years back because they are so damn bad. I swear to god all of those free, easy-to-use photo editing sites totally changed the way in which we all profile-pic’d (sorry, new verb.)

    Also, did anyone else experience the influx of Obama “Hope”-themed profile pics in 2008? I think there was a web application or something that let kids Obama-fy their profile pictures, and often times several heads would get in the mix.

  • My favourite picture was the one with the Facebook error “This person is too awesome and gorgeous to display”. I found it funny at the time! Otherwise, I don’t like it when people put a picture of their kids on their profile, I find it lame.

    Mafalda ❤

  • Suzy Q

    My first profile pic from 2005 is called “Fun with Dick and George. I’ve never been politically inclined…so now I just don’t get why I put it up as my social media début. My second wasn’t any better – a misdirected selfie of my upper arm and chest area.

  • So true, everyone is chasing the perfect pic!! Loving your take on this.



  • NoOvernightGuests

    Have yet to post an actual selfie, or profile picture.

  • Oh the glamour shot! I just read this and had a flashback to my young self and when I had those done. Cringeworthy. I texted my mom, asking her if she remembered, and as any good mother would, she told me that she still has them.
    By god those will NEVER see the light of day.

  • Vivian Kelly

    Setting a profile pic is extraordinarily difficult! My solution was to use a caricature I had done on a whim while at Lake Compounce with my tween daughter. We each had one done by a talented art student whom I hope pressed-on and kept studying art.

  • Laura Robinson

    Pretty sure mine was an empty jar of jelly. Or maybe it was my feet. Yep. The birth of my online self did not coincide with a point in my life that I felt good about my appearance.

  • Lucy

    I grew up in the unfortunate age of no .edu requirements for Facebook (hence Facebook in high school)… also unfortunate was the fact that I wore a back brace for the majority of my teenage years, something that was humiliating and embarrassing… yet hilariously funny now that I can look back on it. The only time I didn’t have to wear it was at high school dances (at which point it was swapped our for an even-worse brown sequin ball gown)..

    Fortunately, this was an opportunity for lots of pictures with no back brace, giving me some great profy pic options..

    But obviously not enough options.. because my years in a back brace were also plagued by years of (teeth) braces and acne. My first profile picture was a shot of me in a horrendous dress, with horrible braces, and horrible hair.. but it didn’t matter… the only thing you could notice was the MONSTEROUS ZIT on my chin.
    ^^ True Man Repelling

  • The Style Riot

    What I wouldn’t give to see Amelia’s black and white vertical cropped profile picture from ’06. I remember the selfie’s inception in my own life: my early webcam days when my friends and I would get dressed up and do our hair and makeup specifically for the purpose of capturing that perfect MySpace profile pic all Saturday night. We were really cool.

  • Heather Funk

    My first profile pic was the ubiquitous Warholian Photo Booth set of 4, mostly because my friend who had a Mac sat me down and was like, “FACEBOOK IS SO MUCH COOLER. Come on, you’re in COLLEGE. I will not let you out of my sight till you have one.”

    This was 2006. Now I feel super old because when I was in middle school people were still a/s/l-ing on AOL chatrooms on dial-up connections.

  • chlorine

    I call my profile picture “The Dragon Ball Z” for its red, and mostly orange filter. It was wayback when front cameras aren’t the “it”. Imagine flames around me and my eyes in orange.