As a girl poses for a “selfie” she acts both as artist and subject, allowing for complete control of how her image is portrayed to the public. Young women and teenage girls are the biggest users of the technology that makes this possible.
In the big picture, teen girls are merely trying to understand themselves and the selfie provides an easy canvas. As they pose or pick an image to display they can consider “which version of myself would I like to show people today?” Social comparison and social feedback are two healthy ways that teenagers come to develop their identity.
There is a positive aspect to unabashedly celebrating who a person is and feeling proud of that person. Unfortunately, in my experience, girls who do this on a frequent, ongoing basis may struggle with low self-esteem and doubt their self-worth. Initially for them posting a selfie can feel empowering. They are acting on a desire to feel better about the self through, ideally, obtaining positive feedback. Over the long run it becomes disempowering because, for younger girls in particular, self-worth may come to rest entirely on what others feel about them and not enough on how they feel about themselves.
Most teenage girls are looking for positive feedback. They want to prove their worth to themselves by getting others on board their positive feedback train. There is value in feeling good about who you are and to learning how not to feel embarrassed about putting your real self out there in the form of a picture. On the other hand, for some, the selfie is an addiction; every time a girl feels low she might put another image out on social media. If she receives positive feedback, she may feel better. However when she receives nothing or negative feedback (which is inevitable for most) her sense of self plummets.
And too, the voyeurism potential in the audience for a selfie may inadvertently sexualize teen girls. Although taken and posted by the subject, the nature of the process of taking a self-portrait is private. For some girls that privacy is misunderstood as safety, which opens the door to trouble because a way to gain more feedback is to take a more provocative photograph.
Girls in particular are socialized toward seeing themselves as loveable and worthwhile if others value them. For some this can become the only way they seem themselves as valuable. When achieving someone else’s definition of perfection is the primary standard, girls dismiss their own and by the time they turn into women they find it comfortable to forge connections with those who do not take their feelings seriously. There can be a downward spiral to this when as women they continue to turn to external avenues for self-validation, focusing on appearing good enough and focusing less on self-knowledge and emotional intimacy.
As a girl or woman works to achieve acceptance through physical perfection she is also becoming disconnected from her own internal needs and desires. As I describe in Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy, the thrill of being wanted and desired can be so powerful for girls who are hyper-focused on being valued by others that they may consent to a sexual experience before their feelings are fully on board.
The selfie culture, for some girls is yet another mechanism for them to hyper-focus on the external and to neglect the internal. Notice if this tendency is going in over drive for you or if you are a parent, notice if your girls are obsessing and fixating on the perfect picture.
Girls need to pull back and redirect their attention toward how they view themselves. As girls grow and learn to do real things in their lives that make them feel important and as they accomplish things that remind them that they can have a larger impact, they focus less on striking the perfect pose and more on their internal sense of contentment.
Jill P. Weber, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships. Follow Jill on Twitter @DrJillWeber.