Women and Selfie Culture: the Selfie as a Feminist Communication Tool

Lianna Pisani, Master of Arts in Communication and Culture, Ryerson and York Universities


This presentation examines how women use the selfie through technologies of smart phones and social media as a communication tool to challenge oppressive political statements and ideologies. Drawing from selfie research leaders such as Theresa Senft and Nancy Baym (2015), this paper explores political feminist selfies using a new definition of the selfie, as both a sociocultural practice and an object with ties to material frameworks. Through a case study analysis of feminist selfie campaigns, ranging from selfies in direct response to national politics to selfies that challenge the representations and presentations of the female body in popular news culture, this paper approaches social media culture as the necessary platform for feminist selfie campaigns.


Lianna Pisani (lpisani@ryerson.ca) graduated in summer 2015 from Ryerson and York University’s joint Master of Arts program in Communication and Culture in Toronto, Ontario.


Political selfies are no longer a singular genre of selfies. This category has grown to encompass a multitude of selfies that address ideological statements and concepts through the performance of the selfie-taker. The reigning selfie celebrity, Kim Kardashian-West, represents the term selfie as a shortened version of “selfish,” though she is not alone. Popular media reinforces, through discourse, a cultural association between the selfie and pathologies such as narcissism (Burns, 2015), discounting the complexities of the selfie. Selfies can be political, and feminist; there are examples of women all over the world enacting political and feminist gestures through selfies. These enactments may range from selfies in direct response to government legislation, or in response to theorized socio-cultural values, such as human rights issues or issues of individual identity and self-representation. Jon Packer, for the Huffington Post, wrote in 2014 that, “Selfies are entertaining but they’re not journalism,” a sentiment with which I strongly disagree. Perhaps, what is not “good journalism” is simply reporting various selfie campaigns, and forgetting that this particular genre of selfie deserves a nuanced, critical exploration[1]. Arguably an emerging genre, the spectrum of political feminist selfies presents a salient case study of the selfie’s function as an effective medium for performing the body as representation, and as selfie object in order to challenge the female body as a site of oppression.

Since its declaration as the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2013, the selfie has remained ubiquitous and shows no signs of forfeiting media headline space. Oxford reports that between November 2012 and November 2013, the term itself increased in usage by 17000% (2013). Leaders of selfie research, Theresa Senft and Nancy Baym, have pointed out the irony in this fact; despite the word’s rise to fame, the term and the practice it refers to “remain fundamentally ambiguous, fraught, and caught in a stubborn and morally loaded hype cycle” (2015, p. 1588). The definition of “selfie,” in this ambiguous state, becomes particularly important in news dissemination, as journalists are given the opportunity to create the definition. What do we really know about the selfie? We know that “selfie” is a shortened form of “self-portrait.” We know that companies like Dove tried to capitalize on it with a beauty campaign. We know that cell phone companies have been improving the quality of front-facing cameras so we can all take selfies with crisper definition. We know that we have long metal sticks to hold our phones so we can take selfies while we travel and get kicked out of famous museums. But how can we define selfie without discrediting its cultural value?

When the Oxford English Dictionary added selfie to its online dictionary in 2013, they defined it as “A photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.” However, Senft and Baym insightfully identity the selfie as both an object as well as a practice— something that it seems Oxford’s definition has hinted toward but did not quite verbalize. According to Senft and Baym, “…a selfie is a photographic object that initiates the transmission of human feeling in the form of a relationship (between photographer and photographed, between image and filtering software, between viewer and viewed, between individuals circulating images, between users and social software architectures, etc.). A selfie is also a practice—a gesture that can send (and is often intended to send) different messages to different individuals, communities, and audiences” (2015, p. 1589).

I am particularly interested in how self-identifying women use the selfie through the practices and technologies of smart phones and social media as a communication tool to challenge oppressive political statements and ideologies. The instantaneous nature of the selfie via smart phone, and its ability to be shared with friends immediately through social media has adapted from that of Edwin Land’s Polaroid technology. Through social media, a massive archive of the online selfie phenomenon has been created like an album of Polaroids. I argue that these key characteristics of the selfie— the speedy capture of the selfie as object and the quick posting of the selfie as practice— have allowed for the selfie to become the instrument of a new feminist movement. This in no way means that all selfies are feminist; however, that through the social uses of selfies, and popular culture’s focus on women taking selfies, we can see how selfies have allowed women to play with identity representation. We can see how selfies have offered a new method for self-representation that is reminiscent of the Polaroid, and of the 1970s Feminist Art Movement, despite forced connections between the selfie phenomenon and a narcissistic culture that dominate media coverage.

Peter Buse’s 2010 publication, “Polaroid into Digital: Technology, cultural form and the social practices of snapshot photography,” sheds light on why selfies have become so ubiquitous through an exploration of the cultural forgetting of the Polaroid. The Polaroid, like the selfie, could be defined as an image as object, as well as a cultural practice. Buse, through his analysis of the Polaroid and the monopoly this instant photography maintained in the 1980s and 1990s (p. 218), highlights one of the propellers of the selfie phenomenon: “The basic leisure activity here is surely the near simultaneous pairing of taking and showing, of production and consumption” (p. 222). The selfie in particular shares with the Polaroid precisely what made it a novelty— the ability to quickly capture and recapture photos, and share the photos while still in the same location. Buse recalls advertisements for the Polaroid in 1954, emphasizing a depiction of a group huddled around the Polaroid, photo-object newly peeled from the negative. “There they are, absorbed, like incipient digital camera users, in the immediacy of the photograph” (Buse, 2010, p. 222), the precursors to contemporary social media users. The instantaneous nature of the smart phone camera, typically used to capture selfies, is contrary to the notion of carefully constructing a photo. The ability to snap multiple shots per second and have them instantly appear in a photo library makes it novel, even more so than the Polaroid and other digital forms of photography that need to be transferred from memory stick to computer hard drive.

Part of the cultural practice of taking selfies is the capability to archive them through social media. This archive allows for multiple participants to insert their photos into the same photo album, so to speak, by tagging them with the same hashtag. This capability, I argue, has provided the platform for feminist selfie campaigns. One of the major feminist selfie archives on Twitter was initiated in summer of 2014, when Turkish Deputy Prime Minister, Bulent Arinc, said in a speech that women “should know what is decent and what is not decent. She should not laugh loudly in front of all the world and should preserve her decency at all times” (O’Connor, 2014). The response was a barrage of selfies of women laughing posted to social media sites. Images from both Turkish women as well as other women internationally joining in solidarity were posted a short time after the speech was made public, including a contribution from Emma Watson, the United Nations’ Goodwill Ambassador/Feminist It Girl since July 2014.

Image of Hazal Naz Besleyici. @iciyelsebzanlzh on Twitter. (2014)

Image of Hazal Naz Besleyici. @iciyelsebzanlzh on Twitter. (2014)

Figure 2

They used the 3 hashtags listed here— #direnkahkaha, #kahkaha, and #direnkadin (meaning “resist laughter,” “laughter,” and “resist women” in Turkish, respectively) to link more than 300, 000 images together (Hebblethwaite, 2014).

This movement made international headlines, possibly due to this ability to flip through the archived photo album and view the massive number of contributions. This hashtag system arguably enlightened many more individuals of the attempts for political resistance occurring in Turkey through its gathering of a social media family surrounding a hashtag-constructed photo album. Without making this selfie movement an effort in understanding Turkish culture, simply focusing on the selfie as political resistance, as feminist cultural movement, we can see how the selfie has emerged as a political tool for activism.

Over the past couple of years, selfies charged with political intent crept onto social media and quickly archived in the thousands through social media hashtag systems. Initiators and participants of these campaigns are international, residing in various countries, but striving toward shared goals. Concurrently, there has been a dangerous and ignorant popular view of selfies swirling the web and social media sites. Dr. Pamela Rutledge’s blog post for Psychology Today questions the selfie as one of two extremes, “#Selfies: Narcissism or Self-Exploration?” (2013). The News-Herald asks in an article, “Are all those selfies making us narcissists?” (2014). Meanwhile, My Daily suggests that “Selfies Aren’t Good For Your Health.” (2014) and CNN published a video on March 11, 2015, asking “Are selfies causing people to go under the knife?” The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland, argued in opposition in 2013 that “The selfie’s screaming narcissism masks an urge to connect,” positioning this view as the alternative in popular culture. What makes the negative view even more dangerous is how it quickly became associated with women because selfie culture is most often considered to be a female-dominated practice.

Selfie researcher, Anne L. Burns, argues that, “online commentary about the use and nature of selfies has a regulatory social function in that there is a connection between the discursive construction of selfie practice and the negative perception of selfie takers” (2015, p. 1716). Furthermore, Burns writes, the selfie is “discursively constructed as a gendered practice” (Burns, 2015, p. 1718). Often, the term “narcissism” is used in describing the negative perception, and selfie-takers are accused of displaying narcissistic behaviours. Cultural theorist Imogen Tyler asserts that “the accusation of narcissism was mobilized in the 1970s to denigrate identity politics and forms of sexual behaviour deemed counter-normative…” (357). Before the 1970s, narcissism was considered to be a personality disorder— Narcissistic Personality Disorder— and was a term used medically rather than socially or culturally.

Art historians Brodsky and Olin summarize the valuable contributions of the women belonging to the 1970s feminist art movement during the time of the cultural shifting of “narcissism”:

… feminist artists devised innovative representational strategies to challenge     phallocentrism and the male gaze, illuminate female sexuality and eroticism, critique visual economies that limit women to heterosexual and maternal identities, and celebrate   modes of existence that transcend patriarchy and white supremacy. (Brodsky and Olin, 2008, p. 329)

Despite the discursive construction explored by Burns, women have persisted in using the selfie as a feminist communication tool much like the female artists of the 1970s Feminist Art Movement, and have used it to enter a social-political space. Another selfie movement began in China in summer 2014, and is gaining more popularity in the United States. Women in China posted selfies with hair that is typically expected to be removed on a woman’s body.

Figure 3

Many girls posted underarm hair selfies, but some also posted leg hair selfies, which resulted in the American Tumblr account, the Hairy Legs Club. More recently, in the United States, the underarm hair movement has shifted to become what one Instagram account calls, “Lady Pit Selfies.”

Figure 4

As you can see in this photo, one girl dyed her underarm hair pink, matching the rest of her arm. Another photo shows blue underarm hair, while another shows the hair decorated with tiny flowers

Figure 5

It is certainly an interesting play on the dominant view of a feminine underarm, and sends a clear message— hair removal is not necessary to be feminine or identify as a woman. Popular fashion blogger, the Man Repeller, points out that dyed underarm hair is becoming trendy as a new take on how “Women have championed bodily hair growth in response to the stereotypes of patriarchy for years.”

A similar campaign also initiated in summer 2014 greatly increased in popularity after supermodel Chrissy Teigen posted a selfie to her Instagram page in the spring of 2015. The Sports Illustrated model posted a photo of her inner thighs, posing cross-legged, commenting that her “Stretchies say hi!” (referencing her stretch marks) on April 13, 2015. Being a model, Teigan’s job is supported by her body as object, which makes her stretch mark selfie all the more influential. Her body, normally a commodified object and symbol of the ideal cisgender woman’s body, becomes an object of a feminist selfie. This selfie coincides with the summer 2014 Instagram account, @loveyourlines, dedicated to celebrating women’s stretch marks, and responsible for the stretch mark selfie campaign.

Figure 6

As of July 2015, the account already had over 130 000 followers on Instagram, excluding the followers of the account’s Tumblr site. Women submit photos of their stretch marks, which are then displayed publicly on this account, in the same way that @ladypithair accepts international submissions of body hair selfies. Many of the submitted photos to the Love Your Lines movement display the stretch marks left after pregnancy and childbirth, which are exclusively cisgender female experiences.

Figure 7

Sharing these post-pregnancy bellies generates a discussion of the everyday female body and breaks down the concept of the ideal cisgender female body.

Contemporary photographer Ina Loewenberg argues that, for women in particular, engaging in “self-portraiture is a way to keep control of their own representation” (1999). This feminist movement in selfie culture mimics the sexual liberation of women and the female body from the 1970s feminist art movement. These selfie campaigns also speak to the novelty of the selfie as an updated Polaroid, using the instantaneousness of the smart phone and the archiving capabilities of social media platforms to enter a social-political space. There are arguably thousands of selfies that are not consciously taken with this intent; however, selfie culture as a movement inherently challenges identity and gender representation, and the selfie deserves to be explored as both the object and political practice of this online feminist movement.


[1] Ironically, the Huffington Post has a number of articles reporting on selfie campaigns, such as the no makeup selfie campaign, and they are linked below Packer’s article.


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