Time for a proper blog post drawn from my cabinet of writing ideas. This one seems apt, since – according to Twitter – today is #NationalSelfieDay. Unhelpfully, the hashtag doesn’t tell us which of the couple-of-hundred-odd nations of the world celebrates this day. (It is, of course, the United States – a country that could certainly do with taking a good hard look at itself right now, but let’s not get into that here.)
Confession time. As a Generation-X-er, I used to look with bemusement and not a little disdain on those who grew up with digital photography. They seemed to be trying to create a two-dimensional visual record of the world, including themselves, rather than engaging with the richness of the world around them and enjoying each moment as it came. When I first saw a selfie stick, I thought things had gone a bit too far: whatever happened to asking a passer-by to take a photograph of you? As far as I was concerned, this was nothing less than an epidemic of vanity, and I took to calling these mini-camera-booms ‘vanity sticks’. I’m sorry.
It’s too easy to jump to unhelpful conclusions about why people take selfies (or for that matter why artists have created self-portraits for as long as there have been portraits). If you take selfies, I won’t even attempt to guess why, but I have come to appreciate that most selfie-takers – even serial selfie-takers – are not actually vain narcissists. So why have I done an about-turn and belatedly entered the selfie-taking community?
Reflecting on transition
It probably won’t come as much of a surprise to other trans women that I began taking selfies at around the same time as I began my transition. I also began paying much more attention to what I looked like in the mirror.
Let me tell you, though: the mirror is fickle! I never know if it’s going to be kind or hateful. Sometimes I feel totally confident in my womanhood only to be dealt a cruel blow by the reflection I’m shown: the angular features, the high forehead, the not-yet-unnoticeable facial hair, the lack of a discernible upper lip, the broad shoulders. At other times, the mirror can be my friend, reminding me when I have low self-esteem that, on those occasions at least, I look a lot more presentable than I feel.
Our perception of our own appearance is coloured by our expectations, which in turn are informed by what we looked like in the past. Those of us who are of a certain age (which for the sake of argument I’ll call 51) and began transitioning later in life (for the sake of argument, let’s say at age 49) might look back with regret on those wasted years. Not only do we come across gorgeous trans women who transitioned at a young age and avoided many of the ravages of ‘testosterone poisoning’, but we also carry in our heads the mental image of what we saw in the mirror during those decades of ‘hiding’.
I suppose I’m asking quite a lot of my brain to accept that I now look something like I always should have looked. Instead, burned into my retinas is this image of me as a man. This is therefore often what I expect to see when I look in the mirror, and the mirror provides a pleasant correction on those occasions. But if I’ve somehow overridden that burned-in self-image and am feeling relatively confident (over-confident?) about how I look, then as soon as I glance in the mirror, it’s as though my brain starts to question what it sees, looking for any signs of what it used to see there instead – and letting me know in no uncertain terms when it finds them!
I’ve taken selfies for a number of different purposes. Mundanely, I’ve needed a picture of myself online – well, I’ve chosen to use a picture of myself – to visually represent me in social media, for instance. When I’ve tried on clothes and looked in the mirror to see how they look (as you do), I’ve sometimes taken a mirror selfie at the same time to remind me of a particular style.
But more recently, I’ve started taking regular selfies partly in an attempt to record my imperceptibly slow physical transition (hair growth, hair removal, changes due to HRT etc.) and partly so I can remind myself of some high points when my self-esteem is at a relatively low ebb. In both cases, it’s about self-affirmation.
I do try to ‘catch myself out’ occasionally by taking quick selfies while I’m walking along the street, but most of my selfies are reasonably staged so that I don’t look too awful. If my smile goes wrong, the selfie is deleted. (My wife kindly reminded me earlier of just how lopsided my smile is – so I don’t always need an actual mirror to feel bad about my appearance.) If there’s an unfortunate glare from my high forehead, the same thing happens. If my nose looks too big, bye bye selfie. So there’s an element of curation (and, I dare say, self-deception) involved. Because of this, though, the selfie can be more affirming than the mirror.
(Incidentally, photographs taken by other people are almost always painful to look at, especially those from the side or behind. My brain just can’t help seeing maleness in such photographs and they can send me into a state of self-loathing.)
Validation by others
Many trans people regularly post their selfies on social media and doubtless find it validating when other people like or comment on their photos. At first, I saw this as a slightly vain tendency among certain sections of the trans community, but then I realised that it was really a form of self-care, in the face of a society which still doesn’t see our gender as ‘real’, and which values us less highly than cis people.
(Consider the recent survey of employers in the UK, as reported by the Independent, which suggested that a third of employers would be ‘less likely’ to hire trans workers, and four-fifths would be ‘unsure’ about doing so, despite equalities legislation. Or consider a recent US study on dating preferences, which showed that four-fifths of those identifying as lesbians would not even consider dating a trans woman.)
There’s no doubt that having other people say you look good does wonders for your confidence and sense of self-worth. Sometimes people have told me in person that they like something I’m wearing or that my hair looks nice, and that’s always lovely to hear. So in some ways I’d like to post more selfies on Twitter (and you may notice I’ve included some in this blog post!), but at the moment I tend to shy away from overdoing it and usually only post selfies when I’m on a train, using the #TransOnTrains hashtag as an excuse.
There’s a flip side to validation-by-Twitter-likes, and that’s invalidation-by-Twitter-indifference. If you’re one of the beautiful young trans people, you can be fairly confident that lots of people are going to like your selfies. But it can be fairly dispiriting to put a carefully selected selfie online only to find it studiously ignored. So for the most part I’d rather not risk it.
But that won’t stop me taking selfies for my own personal use, and every now and then I might still let one slip out into the wider world, just to test the waters. At the very least, if it makes other trans people feel a little bit better about themselves, it will have been worthwhile.