On the taking of selfies for mental health

Do you want to know something? I was 49 before I had a mirror in my bedroom. That’s how long I spent trying to deal with the way I look.

I was 47 when I took my first selfie.

Defining ‘selfie’ as a photograph of oneself by oneself for purely social reasons – i.e. not because I needed a profile pic for a website, or an identification picture for my national speed awareness course ID card – my first selfie was taken in Brighton train station. I was eating a jumbo sausage roll from the kiosk there, except not really, because I was so embarrassed at taking a picture of myself that I had my scarf obscuring the lower part of my face. I think I posted it on twitter, on an account that no longer exists, and I did not enjoy the experience at all.

It’s only now I realise the folly of a selfie that looks like you’re eating a jumbo sausage roll while you have a scarf over your mouth.

I’ve never had a great relationship with my body. Yes, during my teenage years when I hilariously still thought of myself as a normal cishet male, there were times when it wasn’t too bad. In fact there were several inches of my body that I was quite close to on a regular basis. But for the most part my body, including my face, was too fat, too thin, too short, too ugly, too gendered, and generally Just Not Quite Right.

And I think this was partly at play in my unwillingness to take selfies. Granted, I am not a millennial and when I was that age taking a photo consisted of sitting perfectly still for an exposure of several minutes before the image could be developed with the treatment of fulminated mercury fumes. I confessed to not at all understanding the millennial fascination with selfies.

But more likely, I just didn’t want to take a picture because I didn’t want to look at myself. In my head I didn’t look the way I looked in photos. When I caught sight of myself in a shop mirror, I always thought the person looking back at me resembled in more than a passing way Darth Vader when Luke removed his helmet in Empire. Why, then, would I want to look at that?

Secretly though I’m fascinated by the idea of selfies, but not traditional, Instagram-era, duck face selfies. Vivian Maier produced some amazing selfies, some of which have a melancholy poignancy about them. Lee Friedlander produced dozens if not hundreds of highly imaginative, non-traditional selfies. More than their aesthetic qualities though, I wondered about their potential as a mental health tool.

I found a bunch of articles, like this one, pointing to the idea that there are three main types of selfie taker:

“According to the study, communicators use selfies to engage with their followers and stimulate discussion, so the goal is two-way communication. Autobiographers are focused on documenting and sharing significant moments and events that are important to them. They want to share, but are less concerned with actual feedback. The smallest group was self-publicists, who use selfies to document pretty much their entire life, from a trip to Europe to a trip to the DMV.”

Whilst that makes sense, it’s more about description and understanding than action. I much prefer this quote:

“As a guideline for “safe selfie-ing,” Rutledge says, “make sure you’re taking it for a purpose. Like, ‘I’m taking this selfie to show that I’m at the gym again today,’ ‘I’m taking this selfie because I love this cup of coffee,’ or ‘I’m taking this selfie because I want to tell my sister how much I love the present she sent me.’ In other words, uses that [reflect] fundamentally positive emotions so that when you revisit them, you feel good.” And even if that reason is “my eye makeup is on point today,” that’s A-OK.”

I really like this idea. It’s almost like reprogramming the brain. When you take a selfie, make sure that it’s associated with a positive memory or emotion. That way, when you look at your own image, you learn to associate it with that positive feeling.

That alone feels like a good reason to take a selfie. But for someone like myself, there’s a second good reason: self-identity. “A selfie is an expression of a person’s identity. It is capturing a moment in a person’s life that meant something to them, but it is also a method of finding oneself, of getting to know oneself.” As someone whose gender and sexual identities has in later life proven to be somewhat fluid, getting a grip on my identity has proven surprisingly difficult.

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