Self Vs. The Selfie – Research Paper

Kim Kardashian is an internationally recognized media socialite. She stars in her own reality TV show, Keeping Up with the Kardashians, has 136 million followers on Instagram, has a net worth of $350 million, and has around 8-9 million people viewing her Snapchat stories. In one particular Snapchat story, Kim is sharing her trip to an aesthetician to get a facial, a treatment that requires the absence of face makeup like foundation and concealer. The whole time Kim films herself using her front camera, she is sporting the trendy Snapchat flower-crown filter (1:40). This filter also happens to be known for brightening eyes and smoothing out your skin. As Teen Vogue writer Marci Robins says in an article called “How Selfie Filters Warp Your Beauty Standards,” it was as if Kim was “unwilling to show her millions of followers what her natural face — the very skin she was having treated — looks like. It’s a tendency I’m familiar with; if I had a dollar for every time one of my friends posted a selfie while they were wearing a skin-care mask and simultaneously veneered with a cuteness-boosting Snapchat filter, I could buy Snapchat.”

Start at 1:40

Snapchat is an mobile smartphone app that was created in 2011. Its original premise was for people to send photos, or snapchat, to each other where the photos would automatically delete after a certain amount of allotted seconds. If one user was to screenshot another’s snapchat then the app would notify the latter user of the action. In 2013, Snapchat implemented a feature called Snapchat stories. This opened Snapchat to have more public ways of communicating with users of the app; people could post snapchats to their Stories, whether it be video or picture, in order for all their followers to watch for 24 hours. In 2015, Snapchat launched a series of augmented reality facial filters, called Snapchat Lenses, in which through phone’s camera could take photos of yourself with an animation that recognizes your facial features and then adapts them to the filter. For example, one of the most popular initial Snapchat Lenses was the “puppy dog” filter, where the user would suddenly have a pair of dog ears and snout. When the user opened their mouth an animated tongue would pop out as well.

These filters started out more as fun ways to send photos to your friends or make people look silly without them knowing. However, as time went on and Snapchat started adding different types of Lenses, a lot of them started doing similar things. As said with the flower-crown filter that Kim Kardashian used in her Snapchat story, a lot of these Lenses are changing the way people look in subtle but profound ways. “Snapchat filters refine the face,” Dr. Daniel Maman,  a board-certified plastic surgeon in New York City, explains in an interview Robins did for her Teen Vogue article. “They smooth blemishes, wrinkles, and give the skin a glow. Some filters also make the eyes appear bigger and lips plumper.” When putting my own face through some of Snapchat’s facial filters, I can see that my skin looks softer, my eyes get bigger, and the effect even adds mascara to my lashes. These seem to be parallel with certain Western beauty standards.

Left is without a Snapchat filter, Right is with a Snapchat filter

Looking at myself like this makes me wonder how this is affecting my own self perception. According to the Pew Research Center in the social media survey of 2019, 62% of 18- to 29-year-olds in America use Snapchat, with 77% of those users saying they go on every day and 68% saying they go on multiple times a day. Having an app like Snapchat be used by so many young adults, like myself, a 22-year-old, may affect how those young adults develop and grow up. Because of the way that social media is so ingrained in our lives and how prevalent selfie taking and posting is in our culture, the constant use of these Snapchat Lenses may cause issues in how young people are developing their self identity.

Social Media and Us

These days almost every teenager has a smartphone. Smartphones are the mobile outlets with which people use social media. According to Patti M. Valkenburg and Jessica Taylor Pietrowski in their textbook “Plugged in: How Media Attract and Affect Youth,” “nearly 75 percent of American teens ages 13–17 have or had access to a smartphone” (Valkenburg, Patti M & Piotrowski 219).  Valkenburg and Pietrowski explain why youth and young adults are so attracted to social media and their phones by characterizing seven affordances for social media that are relevant to adolescents.

The seven affordances that Valkenburg and Pietrowski describe are as follows:

  1. Asynchronicity – To communicate when it suits them, in real time or delayed
  2. Identifiability – Decide to which degree content is anonymous
  3. Cue manageability – Show  or hide visual or auditory  cues about the self while communicating
  4. Accessibility – Easily find information and contact others
  5. Scalability – Choose the size and the nature of their audience
  6. Replicability – copy or share existing online content
  7. Retrievability – store and later retrieve posted content

One of the key objectives for young adults is the development of autonomy, “the capacity to independently  make decisions and act on the basis of what is deemed personally important or useful” (Valkenburg, Patti M & Piotrowski 221). However, to gain autonomy, young people must first form a stable identity. One of the ways that Valkenburg and Piotrowski say adolescents attempt to form an identity is through self-presentation, which is the “presenting of aspects of identity within the normative standards of a certain audience” (Valkenburg, Patti M & Piotrowski 221). This means that they display themselves to the public in the ways that they think are best. The seven affordances that I listed earlier help give adolescents “the  impression that they are able to determine with whom, how, and when they interact, and whether they should or should not reveal their identity” (Valkenburg, Patti M & Piotrowski 222).

Looking at Snapchat through these seven affordances can help us see why so many young users are attracted to the app. The affordances asynchronicity, identifiability, cue manageability, and scalability, help Snapchat users control when they snap, what they snap, and who sees these snaps. This level of control is very important to adolescents as they in turn “feel more secure and self-assured on social media than in offline situations” (Valkenburg, Patti M & Piotrowski 222). Having this online security means that whatever someone sends or posts publicly on their Snapchat, they are internalizing that Snap as a representation of their identity and who they are.  

Valkenburg and Piotrowski talk about the implications of how much social media can affect a person’s identity. There can be certain consequences on adolescent’s own-self clarity as the fragmentation hypothesis says. The fragmentation hypothesis claims that “it is very easy for teens to experiment with their identity online, they are faced with too many different views online. As a result, they may experience confusion and difficulty in integrating all these new views into their (already fragile) identity” (Valkenburg, Patti M & Piotrowski 228). That means when a person sends a selfie using these different facial filters that Snapchat offers, they may start to identify with the filtered version of themselves instead of what they actually look like. The prevalent use of social media can also affect a person’s self-esteem. There are two ways that adolescents can experience self esteem: feeling in control of the environment they present themselves to and feeling approval from same environment (Valkenburg, Patti M & Piotrowski 228). When people post on Snapchat they can get replies from their friends complimenting how they look, which can then affirm to them that this is who they are.

Why the Selfie?

I’ve been using the word “selfie” multiple times now when describing the type of snapchats that people tend to send to others. When users are implementing these facial filters they are usually taking a selfie, a photo of themselves that they are taking. The first known selfie was thought to be taken by Robert Cornelius in 1839. Cornelius sat motionless for up to 15 minutes in order to take this historic picture of himself (Goodnow 124).

Robert Cornelius’ Self-Portrait: The First Ever “Selfie” (1839)

Now, taking a selfie can happen in seconds because most smartphones have a digital photography feature. Selfies can also upload on social media without a fee so there is no printing expense. Selfies became so popular that in 2013, “Selfie” was named word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries.

Dr. Trischa Goodnow is a professor at Oregon State University and studies the visual rhetoric of photography and memorials. In her paper, “The Selfie Moment: The Rhetorical Implications of Digital Self Portraiture for Culture,” Goodnow explores the implications behind selfies. She assigned 40 students in her Visual Rhetoric class to examine a minimum of 20 selfies each and categorize them. The selfies were either the student’s own or found on social media sites. The students characterized them in three groups: adventure, popularity, and attractiveness. Goodnow found that each of these categories related somewhat to a value found prominently in our current society. The adventure photos, which could feature a selfie of someone doing a cool activity or in an exotic place, is an example of people’s need to show others what they are doing. The popularity photos, which often depicted selfies where the person is in a large group, is yet another example of people wanting to prove themselves to others, in this case that they have friends. The third category, the attractiveness photos, are usually photos of people’s face or a workout selfie. These photos are posted often in order for the user to gain affirmation from others (Goodnow).

Goodnow’s studies prove how much value that people put in their selfies. Without even knowing it, many users are posting selfies in order to create an online persona of themselves. This online persona can further affect how they view themselves and make them feel like they have to be this presented version. The adding of Snapchat’s augmented reality facial filters makes it easy to present ourselves in a curated way that lines with American beauty standards. Goodman’s research leads me to believe that a lot of people post these face filtered “attractiveness” selfies in order to gain affirmation from others.

What are the dangers?

The implications of taking a selfie and posting it on social media can range from not caring what others think to intaking reactions to that selfie as integral to who you are. Some people may start to want to look like these filtered versions of them just because that is all they see on social media. Some people may get comments on their filtered versions of them that make them want to keep up this appearance as well.

According to Heather Senior Monroe, “a licensed clinical social worker who holds a masters in social work and serves as the director of program development at Newport Academy, a mental health treatment center that provides support to teens and their families,” people who use selfie filters can experience a harmful detachment between the selfie that they are presenting and the self that they truly are.

One of the risks can be linked with Body Dysmorphic Disorder, a “very serious mental health condition in which a person’s misperception of how they appear becomes obsessive to the point that it severely affects their everyday functioning.” Heather says that social media can not directly cause BDD, but it can provoke teens with genetic or psychological predispositions towards BDD and also maybe worsen symptoms for those who already suffer from BDD.

According to an article on the US National Library of Medicine online database, several academics are noticing a trend where people are starting to lose their perspective on what they look like due to Snapchat, bringing life to the term “Snapchat Dysmorphia” (Ramphul, Kamleshun & Mejias). While this is not an actual recognized condition by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), it is definitely something to think about. This trend was brought to light after there had been reports of several plastic surgeons saying that clients are describing desired changes that Snapchat filters also do for you.

Dr. Michelle Yagoda, a facial plastic surgeon in New York City, says that more people are looking at social media for beauty inspiration. “Overall, people are concerned with their pore size and the texture and color of their skin ― those are the things filters really address the most,” Yagoda explains.

This idea that people want to actually change what they look like may point to the fact that when others see filtered photos, they don’t register it as fake. Heather Senior Monroe says “They find it hard to believe that everyone else is doing the same thing, so they end up comparing their real, imperfect lives — and their real, imperfect bodies — to not only their own filtered images, but other people’s carefully crafted selfies. Thus, in their minds, they are always coming up short.”

Not everyone who uses a Snapchat facial filter is going to want to get plastic surgery. And I am not blaming Snapchat at all for having these filters. In the end, they are a fun thing to play with but users just have to keep in mind what the implications are if they post a photo of themselves using one. Before Snapchat or any photo editing app was made for general users, social media has been telling us that there is a “right” way to look. With magazines showing covers of Photoshopped models and Kim Kardashian filming herself with the flower-crown filter, these self-image issues have been presenting themselves in media for a while. As constant users of social media, we have to be more aware of the implications of certain features we have. There is nothing wrong with trying on Snapchat Lenses with your friends, but we have to make sure that in the end we do know it is just fun, not real life.

Works Cited

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