What do you really look like? Aren’t you the world’s leading authority on the subject? After all, we’ve looked at ourselves and studied our faces for years, not to mention with a life-or-death intensity, in all magnifications—lighted car visors and rearview mirrors, unrippled ponds, and old photos. I’ve even glanced at my face through an oven’s mirrored trim, the rim of my washing machine, and once I turned on my iPhone camera to take a peek after applying a new shade of hair color.
We are the keen observers of our looks, familiar with our individual faces with the exception of recent rhinoplasties, facelifts, injections, or just plain aging. That’s when the familiar becomes something of a surprise each time we glance at our reflection. Think of it as this: We’re all scientists interested in the laws of motion, particularly of gravity.
You are also the least qualified person to know what you look like—you’re too close to the subject, too prejudiced about the possible outcome; a new blemish, a rash on your forehead, or pink hive surfacing on your left cheek.
The amazing part is this: you have no idea as to how you look from the outside, the way others see you because you have to use your face to view you—a non-negotiable quirk of the human anatomy. You are both the observer and the observed.
Everywhere you look, people are whipping out their phones and snapping ‘selfies.’ Girls gathered at the edge of the ocean turn to each other and begin organizing the best shot of the group, oblivious to the beauty of the waves crashing on shore, or the changing of the ocean’s color from deep gray to neon blue. They’re focused in a different direction—on themselves.
Go to an exotic place of your choice and observe what is being recorded for the sake of history. It isn’t the Japanese gardens in Portland, or the beauty of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, nor the uniqueness of D.H. Lawrence’s home in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire England—it’s the face or faces of individuals gathered there.
Why are we so fixated on our faces, together or alone? What are we recording? Are photos from our phones some sort of proof that we are capable of relationships with friends and family even if we aren’t able to communicate with one another? Or is it just another diversion from one-on-one interplay, intimacy, or connection?
We can easily switch from one photo to another whenever we feel the need. We bond with our selfies like they were people flying in for a visit, stopping by for tea; folks we haven’t seen or heard from in a while. Do we really believe our Facebook friends posting photos, happy birthday messages, or short anecdotes are actually our friends? If you’re lucky, a small percentage might qualify as bona fide friends. Do we think we can send a selfie to someone and connect with them in a meaningful way? Perhaps it’s considered a prelude to actual bonding and allows us to continue to ignore opportunities to grow closer—in a way that may take time, thought, effort, and energy. It’s easier to Instagram, text, tweet, or Facebook for hours at a time, never thinking about the recipient with any degree of understanding.
When we look at received photos, it’s as if we’re gazing at an exhibition at a gallery; a place where we can only guess at the artist’s motives for taking the photo, similar to what we do when we view paintings. But there is still that profound distance, disconnect, loneliness that lurks between us and the photo; a space in time, a longing to know more, to listen in, to stand closer, to hear a distinct voice with all its inflections, feel a gentle touch, lean over to kiss them, or reach out to someone human with our phones tucked away in a purse or a pocket, ringer off.
Those of us who are unhappy with selfies, myself included, distain them not for the reasons they say they do—the vanity, narcissism, primping necessary for perfection, but more because they isolate this basic discomfort at the center of human life. We not only present ourselves, but we think about the presentation.
Now when I’m tempted to post a selfie on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, I refuse to pose and instead unleash myself (unselfies) to the world with a face obscured, by a mask, a mist, unexpected motion, or a blurred vision of myself forcing the observer to look a little harder.