Everywhere I go, there is a group of young women engaged in an endless photoshoot: screaming with laughter, posing for group photos, selfies or taken by waiters or other hapless staff. At cafes. Libraries. Concerts. Funerals. It is Dante’s 11th circle of hell.
Certainly there is fun in capturing a joyful moment, but I did not see much joy on the many occasions I observed a group of women doing this. Twenty plus minutes of fidgeting, adjusting clothes, posing from this way and that, retaking the photo, looks of frustration, displeasure, anxiety… this is not fun. This is work. For whom? For what?
Why must young women perform happiness in public, to show to others how happy they are? Is happiness the only emotion they should display? Does there need to be a display?
When I was young, I thought my friends and I were the center of the universe. But we kept one eye trained on the world, readying ourselves for the sucker punch, the assault, the attack. We knew the world was not kind but we still wanted to take it on.
Today’s young women risk simply disappearing inside themselves, instead of orienting themselves to the world. In their fear and anticipation of the outside attack, they carve out pieces of themselves and offer it to the world in pixels and bytes, hoping the world will be kinder. It won’t.
This is what others have called the Selfie Generation. Always posing, always performing, never a moment out of the lens or the limelight. “Look how young and beautiful we are! See how we throw our heads back and laugh! Everyone envies us, wants to be us, wishes they were amongst us. We have taken the power of beauty into our own hands. We deal in the currency that men have always made out of us; we set the rate and determine the price. We are master and slave, goods and services, owner and property all at once. Are you watching me? Are you watching me? If you don’t watch me, do I even exist?”
Beauty bloggers, health and fitness and wellness influencers, role models and inspirational figures drowning in the “poetry” of Rupi Kaur and Lang Leav. Drenched in self-regard, growing smaller instead of larger. The continuous inward look, the self-scrutiny. They think the world is watching them. It isn’t. It is merely waiting for them to get over themselves before offering its own gifts and poisons to them.
Men kill themselves instantly and brutally with guns; women do it slowly, with smartphones trained on themselves like precision weapons, pointing out every flaw. They pore over their pictures later, devouring themselves like self-eating pythons. One in five girls in the UK self-harms because of an inability to cope with the stress of life. An empty stomach awash in its own digestive acid will start to consume itself.
The Instagram filter is the most anti-feminist device I know. It has turned today’s young women into their own pornographers. They do not deal in the pornography of the body, but the cannibalization of the soul. They give away that which cannot be redeemed through popularity and influence. There is a reason people from tribal cultures feared having their photographs taken; they feared the camera would steal a piece of their soul.
They were right.
EDIT: Since publishing the first paragraph of this very short essay on Twitter, I have received a lot of pushback from people — women, mostly — telling me that I’m policing young women, that they’re having fun, that they should be loud in public spaces without fear, so on and so forth. I’m afraid that wasn’t the point of this essay.
It was also pointed out to me that men and middle-aged women also engage in these moments. Yes, they do. But I would argue that the camera gaze affects young women in the early stages of identity formation in vastly different ways.
I wonder what the reaction to my thoughts would be if I identified those women as “aunties,” “begums,” “upper class,” “designer-clad”, or anything else…
AND FINALLY… This is just an essay. Just an opinion. It is not a recipe for solving all the world’s problems. These are my thoughts, metaphorical and philosophical. Interpret them literally at your peril.