I take a lot of pictures of myself with my iPhone. These run a gamut from up-close headshots to full-outfit mirror looks, decorated fingers and wrists and, if I am lucky enough to make it outside, those outfits, set in the wild, get documented too. Often, I self-publish these photos to Instagram. Lately, I have been doing it fairly maniacally.
I say “maniacally” because here is a woman, eight weeks postpartum, getting dressed every day to mostly go nowhere for the almost-sole purpose of posting her outfits to a photo-sharing app. (Though to be honest, it feels great to take off pajamas, even if I don’t intend to keep them off.)
For some, this activity may seem ludicrous: Aren’t I in pain after giving birth? Hasn’t motherhood changed me? Why do I fit into my old clothes so soon? But the answers to these questions are irrelevant because they are symptomatic of a larger, overarching query: Why am I so compelled to post selfies in the first place?
I never thought much about the frequency with which I shared myself visually prior to becoming a mother. I knew that the urgency was a function of wanting (or perhaps needing) to reach out, but I have become more aware of this habit because in the past two months, I’ve noticed an uptick in the number of negative comments that populate my pictures.
“Put your phone down and be with your babies,” they will say. “This is making me cringe.” “Are you just posting these to show off your body?” “Cry for attention.” “I have to unfollow.” And so forth.
To each their own — comment what you will! But this upward trend has ignited an internal quarrel about my relationship with selfies, both those I take myself and those I enjoy by others. On the one hand, I really like looking at them. I find the digitized self-portraits honest and raw, even when they’re not. They tell a story that is either eminently literal or one that requires a bit of investigation — that demands its viewers look a little deeper than the screen’s depth. Selfies take courage. They require you put yourself out there in a climate that publicly rejects vanity but secretly revels in it. And if not courage, selfies take a sense of self-satisfaction: I’m proud of how I look, one might say, here’s a photo to prove it. Even if pride holds no place: This is how I look, and I’m sharing it. Point blank. When someone posts what I will call a decorative facial selfie, I wonder, What are those sunglasses? That necklace? Those earrings? You are a dream! I don’t just really like looking at selfies, I’m nuts about them.
But still, I find that there is an underlying, overwhelming sense of self-consciousness tied to how much control we have over what we display and how we display it. We manufacture these portraits to depict with exacting precision whatever we want them to say and that can be, for better or worse, very revealing.
It is easy for me to chalk up my own selfies to a thing I have to do for work; and perhaps as a self-soothing mechanism, I think that makes them more “okay.” But I’d probably post them whether there were 600k followers or a single-digit 6 on their receiving end. It’s a sort of chicken or egg thing: Which came first? The selfies or the followers?
I’m going with the selfies: A sure-fire revelation to express my vanity.
And maybe this is the thing that bothers so many people. There are expectations tethered to becoming a mother, the least of which is a newfangled sense of selflessness that is supposed to cut your egotism in half. This, to be sure, is one of the most salient reasons I craved motherhood so desperately prior to finally becoming pregnant. But now that I’m on the other side, that I have learned we (moms) adjust but we don’t really change, I feel conflicted. I’m grateful to be here on the one hand but curiously, too, longing for a new reason to suffer — if only to seem more relatable.
Which brings me to my final point, aroused by a thought that came up while I was crying last week because my kids were screaming, refusing to take a paltry dose of refrigerated breast milk. “How do I share this?” I thought, as if it were a hardship or selfless disclaimer to justify the rest of my fanciful Instagram grid.
Now that I am once again in the subjectively favorable position of having gotten what I wanted — with child as opposed to without, having conceived as opposed to trying to conceive — I wonder if people feel more comfortable announcing their negative opinions. Putting me down instead of lifting me up. If this is the case, if I am searching for reasons to publicly struggle, is anyone else doing the same? Are we conditioning ourselves to examine our circumstances and find faults, ignore strengths, illuminate the bad and sublimate the good, in order to be more relatable and therefore likeable on social media? Are we growing addicted to the attention that solicits?
I know I’m considered a public figure and that scrutiny comes with the territory, but selfies do attract a varying panel of emotions: joy, pity, ease, envy. They are an unspoken conversation between the creator and the consumer, and that dialogue is sometimes the reason I post in the first place. But does this conversation favor, even romanticize, the underdog? It seemed to favor me when I was in a darker place. And if that is the case, what will be the ramifications of this reality? What would happen, for example, if a young woman navigating her formative years, who genuinely likes herself, was to feel that in order to receive the kind of shallow validation so many of us desire as burgeoning adults, she must find something wrong with herself and declare that before she declares her strengths. How will that change the way she talks to herself? How she presents her identity to the world?