For centuries, we have measured ourselves against Greco-Roman standards of perfection. While the tendency to live up to powerful cultural expectations predates Ancient Greece, the historical foundations of western individualism is often traced back to this period, where ecological factors helped nurture a proto-entrepreneurial guile amongst citizens, eventually contributing towards a culture of self-sufficiency where people viewed themselves as individuals rather than part of a connected whole.
This atomistic understanding of man has persisted throughout various historical epochs, from the Renaissance and Enlightenment to the era of mass production and digital technology. With man no longer embedded in a broader social context, western civilisation eventually catapulted the individual to the de facto marker of social identity — the net effect of which fragmented communal bonds and precipitated its descent into narcissism.
In this intriguing odyssey of self-expression, nothing captures this disquieting reality more than the modern epidemic of selfies, where digital portraits represent the latest incarnation of individualism and pressures to conform to an externalised ideal.
Today, the selfie phenomenon is the natural outgrowth of the market-based economy and is symptomatic of the widespread shift toward market-driven values. Professor of Clinical Psychology Paul Verhaeghe argues  that our identities are formulated in light of neoliberal forces such as the free market, deregulation, privatisation, and socio-economic competition that condition individuals into being a one-man enterprise. Simply, our obsession with how our image is perceived by others owes itself to a neoliberal meritocracy where the ability to propagate your capacities is encouraged as part of a winning disposition.
The fixation with selfies however, warrants special scrutiny given the toxic personality traits with which such a culture-wide practice is implicated. While the tragedy of individualism lies to a great extent in its normalisation of atomising forces, its impact on our psychological well-being is profound. The suggestion that the judicious use of selfies can help reclaim photography for our self-empowerment rings hollow when weighed against the overwhelming research indicating otherwise. Our carefully curated images are in many instances borne of depression and low self-esteem, resulting in various impediments to mental health and a tendency for self-loathing that numerous studies have corroborated. They are also a reflection of our situational pressures, superficial craving for celebrity and inflated sense of self.
My disdain for selfie culture reached a climax during a recent holiday to China, where selfie-enhancing apps are literally transforming the face of the nation. From The Great Wall in Beijing to the Avatar Mountains in Zhangjiajie National Forest Park and beyond, my journey took me through breathtaking vistas including mountain spires, ancient villages, imperial palaces, and a diverse topography. Although an eclectic blend of experiences for culture vultures, throngs of selfie-snappers presented themselves at every turn, splitting hairs over filters and angles, preening themselves with pouty duck faces in locations steeped in historical significance.
For globetrotters enriched by the experience, the sheer disregard for an ancient civilisation by those so immersed in their screens and enraptured by their appearances was pitiful. Not taking the time to reflect on the meaning of the occasion came across uncultured and intuitively wrong.
It dawned on me that we are in the age of social-media fuelled tourism where connectivity means jumping on board the photo bandwagon for the reception of others just as much for our own pleasure. Travellers are increasingly inspired by the instagrammability of destinations, hardly invested in the moment and more concerned with being seen by others as having a rollicking adventure. Luxury travel companies and photo-sharing platforms are promoting this trend as part of their global branding which means a typical holiday is virtually impossible without encountering this superficial craze. Viewing the world through a filtered lens instead of a genuine curiosity and inquisitiveness, a new breed of tourists are drifting aimlessly from one wonder of the world to the other, rendering UNESCO Heritage Sites to mere likeable items on their timelines.
Vacations aside, the ubiquitous desire for exposure and impulse to not only fill every frame with our face but also share the inane and dull minutiae of everyday life has contributed to an unprecedented age of self-centredness. We want to be noticed and can’t risk disappearing into oblivion. The myth of Narcissus has grown prescient with time and we appear to be trapped in the image of our making.
American author John Paul Titlow likened this thirst for attention to a ‘high school popularity contest on digital steroids’  where we are no longer interested in maintaining our conscious self. We seem to be blurring the boundaries between reality and fantasy for peer recognition, as part of a process described by sociologist Erving Goffman as ‘impression management’. Bereft of any guiding principle which can locate meaning beyond the image, succumbing to instapressure and measuring self-worth by the number of likes our photos have generated proves to be a false confidence obscuring reality and is an unhealthy outlet for processing emotions.
The narcissism, which many selfies veer towards, speaks volumes of our insecurities and the toxic cultural values that have allowed this tendency to proliferate. In the history of western civilisation, we can only turn to isolated examples to help journey beyond this narcissism. Baroque painters like Rembrandt demonstrated that the self could be captured with a tremendous degree of empathy and realism. In Harry Berger Jr’s Fictions of the Pose: Rembrandt against the Italian Renaissance, Italian philologist Claudio Tolomei is quoted in a letter to Sebastiano del Piombo revealing that his portrait offered him a stimulus to purge his soul of its many defects.
Yet today, we have succumbed to a culture of unbridled individualism and posturing, culminating in the collapse of the public spheres into endless and shameless representations of the self. Thus, selfies are hardly the product of serious soul searching. Self-aggrandising by their very nature, rarely do they prompt us to turn inward, unlike other art forms such as literature, which often involves a probing of our emotions, memories, and regrets.
Far from being a harmless fad, there is an existential crisis lurking behind the trend. On close inspection, research indicates that many selfie-addicts are compensating for their failure to achieve a healthy degree of intimacy with others. In the attempt to stave off any feeling of emptiness, their obsession with selfies appears rooted in the fear of rejection and longing for affirmation. Something beneath the self-objectification is crying out for a sense of belonging. If our generation is feeding an inner discontent, it begs the question: In the relentless pursuit for gratification, are we seeking affirmation in the right places or are we yearning for a higher calling?
US author and theologian Dr. Craig Detweiler unravels this quest for meaning in Selfies: Searching for the Image of God in a Digital Age . Placing selfies in a long history of self-imaging, he addresses the tendencies enabled by modern technology to supplant the glorification of God with an excessive self-adulation.
According to Detweiler, the clamour to activate the front-facing camera on smartphones bears symptoms of a gaping hole in a life constantly in search of ‘peak experiences’. This quest for existential meaning often motivates selfie-addicts who seek fulfilment by broadcasting themselves galore. The fetishization of the self masks a deeper desire for the divine that represents the ultimate peak experience that selfie addicts crave but can never attain. Instead, they fill the emptiness through unfettered self-promotion, often in the form of vapid selfies that amount to little more than a vanity project, failing to satiate their longing for enduring love, validation, and connection. He suggests that in an image-saturated world where selfies dispose us towards self-exaltation, only through untapping its divine potential can we salvage those who are lost in the technological hubris.
As an observant Muslim, I also believe faith can help to extricate ourselves from this unrelenting egoism. Islam denotes submission to a supreme being in all aspects of life and urges followers to honour their monotheism by averting any tendency that may compromise the uniqueness and indivisibility of the Almighty. Given their propensity for self-veneration, selfies could wade into this dangerous territory.
Thus, I am wary of any indiscriminate consumption of social media as that would mean allowing my values to be subtly shaped by the juggernaut. Therefore, my online presence is naturally more guarded against the corrupting influences of technology. Underlying my online interactions is a sense of humility to my creator, which helps immunise the ego against pride and root out the performance anxiety that selfies exude in abundance. By reigning in these tendencies, I don’t feel the need to outsource my self-worth to social media metrics since my image is not hostage to the trappings of technology that promises to fill a void that can only be satisfied by God.
This does not imply criticism of casual snaps and the capturing of special memories that many of us share with others as a window into our thoughts and experiences. Indeed, much of our social media presence is relational in nature and the desire to be part of an ongoing conversation or memory is perfectly natural. However, at a time when many people’s self-definition rests on swaggering profiles and airbrushed images to display wealth, status, and beauty, taking attention away from ourselves is the cultural detox we must urgently undertake.
With God as an anchor to navigate the choppy waters of the digital age, perhaps we can unearth a spiritual potential behind selfies, thus redeeming the practice from its fallen state. Since we often turn to our images for solace and meaning, they can be a powerful catalyst for reflecting upon God’s creation when not yielding to the cultural forces conspiring to keep us striving for perfection. With physiognomy divorced from performance, it can have an introspective, almost pedagogical purpose. This can help us strive towards a more authentic self by illuminating the flawless immaterial reality that resides beyond our photos while challenging the megalomaniacal temptations embedded in our self-imaging.
As Muslims, we have a role in reclaiming the agency that selfies have perverted and must elevate photography to a literary level to shed a brutally honest perspective on human behaviour and psychology. One way of unmasking the artifice is to develop a sacramental approach to photography. Harnessing the democratising powers of technology for it to operate as a testament to the presence of God in our lives is a way of tapping into our appetite for imagery. Taking to social media to capture sacredness in its various forms could usher a transformative practice by shifting the source of the self back to its origins.
The introspection through which Muslims can approach selfies should not be conflated with the Christian doctrine of original sin, which encourages a self-flagellating iteration of the self. Islam helps to square the circle as far as it urges mankind to acknowledge our limitations in the path to realising our immense potential. This can be achieved by using selfies to convey gratitude for the source of our blessings while embracing our God-given imperfections. This is ever more important seeing how many are labouring under a toxic psychological environment where the cultural expectation to appear invulnerable amounts to a faux empowerment which belies the human condition.
We must resist the temptation to project false images by making our photos a medium for worship as opposed to an unrelenting quest for self-perfection. This can herald the rise of a fresh, broad-ranging pedagogy of the self, capable of building and sustaining new online communities that challenge the widespread capitulation to narcissistic cultural norms and pioneer a new social pattern for public consumption that offers a powerful antidote to the identity dissonance exemplified by selfies in their current manifestation.
So where do we find a core identity that is poised to endure the difficulties of being liked or unliked online?
I believe we find it with God, who loves us without filters.
- Verhaeghe, P. (2014). What about Me? The struggle for identity in a market-based society, Scribe
- Titlow, P. John, #Me: Instagram Narcissism And The Scourge Of The Selfie, 2013, https://readwrite.com/2013/01/31/instagram-selfies-narcissism/
- Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life, New York: Anchor Books
- Junior, H.B. (2000). Fictions of the Pose: Rembrandt Against the Italian Renaissance, Stanford University Press Detweiler, C. (2018). Searching for the Image of God in a Digital Age, Brazos Press.
About the author: Hasnet Lais is a guest contributor. He is a qualified teacher and freelance journalist, with a Master in Islamic Societies and Cultures from SOAS. He is also a contributor for 5PillarsUK and Independent Voices. You can follow him on Twitter here.