“Dorian made no answer, but passed listlessly in front of his picture and turned towards it. When he saw it he drew back, and his cheeks flushed for a moment with pleasure. A look of joy came into his eyes, as if he had recognized himself for the first time….Yes, there would be a day when his face would be wrinkled and wizen, his eyes dim and colourless, the grace of his figure broken and deformed….The life that was to make his soul would mar his body.” –Oscar Wilde, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”
I like to take selfies as much as the next almost-twenty college student with an iPhone and an Instagram – which is to say I like to take selfies a lot. Selfies have become something of a staple in the world of social media, which means they’ve become something of a staple in the world, because I think it’s safe to say that society is getting to a point where the real world and the virtual world overlap almost constantly.
I’ll admit that I still have yet to work up the courage to actually post a selfie, likely because of two factors: one, I took about 300 selfies a day back during freshman year of high school when Myspace was still popular and people had whole albums of selfies with song lyrics as captions, which means I’m kind of sick of seeing my face appear repeatedly across a webpage. And two, because to me, behind every selfie lies something rather vain and boastful – a sort of “look at me! Look how beautiful I am today!” (Of course, there are those who post these pictures every day, and that just makes me feel bad. I for one am not that beautiful every single day.)
The challenging thing about selfies is that they’re so incredibly varied that it’s a little bit uncomfortable to write them all off as vain and selfish. Some selfies are not so much self-indulgent as they are moment-indulgent, by which I mean that they are monuments to good times with fun people. Selfies can preserve memories of exciting experiences and then share these experiences with the world through social media, as Jenna Wortham noted in her New York Times article, “My Selfie, Myself” back in October.
The article also discussed the power of the selfie – a power that allows people to preserve themselves in pictures, to prove that they have a story that deserves to live eternally, even if only in the ones and zeroes in a line of computer code. I don’t believe that this desire for immortality is a particularly immoral one. I believe that people should celebrate themselves and their lives, and if that means posting a hundred pictures of their faces to Instagram and Twitter, then so be it.
But there is still something rather unsettling to me about a selfie. Perhaps it is the permanence of it – that once a selfie is posted, it really is out there forever (you can still find pictures of me as a fourteen-year-old with bright blue hair if you really know how to use Google (I encourage you to look it up if you’re ever having a bad hair day). But perhaps it is the fact that a little bit of me still feels like selfies are just a little bit too vain.
Maybe I’m the one who is vain. Maybe I only feel this way because when I take a really good selfie (maybe using a sepia filter while looking off into the distance for a truly hipster effect), I feel like a thing of beauty – like a fine object that should be admired and perhaps envied. And even as I think those thoughts, I know that my vanity is dangerous, so I resist the urge to post the selfie and, if I’m feeling particularly strong that day, I delete it from my phone.
There is a reason that vanity, particularly vanity that stems from taking a flattering picture of yourself, is dangerous, and the reason is this: when you see a picture of yourself that looks that beautiful, you can’t help but wonder whether you’re that beautiful all the time, or if it was just how you looked in that particular lighting using that particular Instagram filter, which happened to highlight your green eyes and turn your hair a slightly redder shade of auburn.
It’s sad to think that maybe beauty is only transient, captured in the flash of a smart phone and then gone. It’s also sad to think that selfies have become so important that we might forget about our personal value beyond just the way we look on a three-inch screen and that we might truly fear the day we no longer look that beautiful, hoping to God that day hasn’t come yet.
Dorian Gray lost his soul because he saw a painting of his beauty and couldn’t let it go. Perhaps his vanity was the same as the vanity that haunts me when I take a selfie – that haunts so many of us as we post pictures of ourselves to prove the worth of our lives. The endless wave of selfies isn’t aging for us or taking on all our faults so we don’t have to, but maybe it’s doing something much worse. Maybe it’s washing away everything three-dimensional about us, until we are only Instagram filters and pixels, a collection of ones and zeroes in a line of computer code.