Ugly selfies are all about girls trusting other girls

Women’s rights have taken a battering this festive season. The Briggs fiasco, the Gayle insult to the professionalism of Channel Ten reporter Mel McLaughlin, and marauding hoodlums in Germany using women’s rights as a cover for a violent rampage against refugees all show the battle for gender equality is far from over.

But there is good news, too: good news about girls and selfies. Ugly selfies in particular, and what I believe is their subversive, feminist intent.

The ugly selfie that has caught my eye is that taken and shared by the girl herself. It may have been snapped with the intent of capturing her double-chin or zitty skin. Or perhaps it was chosen from a phalanx of selfies in which she was trying to look good. She might share it with just one person or a few, either through text or a social media platform like Facebook or Instagram.

To be clear, I’m not interested in the selfie posted on websites next to a “pretty” image of the same girl. Or a selfie a girl tags as an #uglyselfie when in fact she’s tried hard, and succeeded, in looking good. These selfies are confirmation, as if any were needed, that the toxic cult of appearance is live and well in Australia and imposing the same limits on today’s young women as it did on generations past.

Truly ugly selfies reflect positive self-regard and trusting relationships between girls – both must-have items on any feminist wish-list for empowered women.

Despite older generations wringing their hands about the moral jeopardy of the internet generation, there is no evidence to suggest that the current generation is more narcissistic or socially isolated than those preceding it. Instead, like the rest of us, they just live more of their lives online. For teenagers this makes cyber space just another place to communicate with one another for a range of purposes. These include information sharing, identity formation and searching for intimacy in friendships and sexual relationships.

The girls I interviewed didn’t send ugly selfies to boys or, if they did, only to ones who were friends. The exception was the hot selfie sent to a love interest by a girl pretending it’s ugly (see above for why this is not really an ugly selfie at all).

Ugly selfies are all about girls cultivating, displaying and enjoying close and trusting relationships with other girls.

They show girls are trusting and close because implicit in a girl’s decision to share an ugly selfie is trust that her friend won’t share the unflattering image with anyone else, and won’t judge the sharer for it.

Ugly selfies can also test the water of a new friendship. As one 15-year-old girl told me: “Sometimes I just send one for the sake of it. The first ugly selfie of the friendship kind of confirms how comfortable you are with this person and sets the [trust and intimacy] standard for the friendship”. Where a girl wishes to hedge, she might send the unflattering image via Snapchat, which erases an image seconds after it is viewed. While this doesn’t stop the receiver taking a screenshot of the ugly image and sending it around anyway, this mode of sending makes the sender’s intention, and thus her friend’s betrayal, obvious.

Sharing an ugly selfie can also deepen the friendship between girls. This is because ugly selfies are funny and we all know that sharing a joke creates intimacy. As one 14-year-old told me: “The closer the friend, the uglier the photo!”

Ugly selfies can also be used to show that a girl doesn’t have tickets on her appearance but is worthy enough to be taken seriously. As one 19-year-old girl explained to me, this is because kids tend to agree with adults that “selfies are generally seen as a kind of self-obsessed thing to do”. Sharing an ugly selfie says you aren’t self-obsessed but a woman able to laugh at herself, even when it comes to appearance, which in days gone by, was a deadly serious affair.

Gone are the days of rare and treasured stills of momentous occasions, formally composed and curated for albums that are a self-conscious record of a family’s preferred story. Selfies have come of age in a world where images are like words – cheap and plentiful enough to throw away.

But like a throw-away line, selfies can be meaningless or incisive. They can demonstrate conformity or a rebuke – however coded – to the world as it stands.

Ugly selfies have emerged from the same place as the animated before-and-after-Photoshopped images made famous by feminist outlets like Jezebel. While the Photoshop-reveal genre seeks to shore up female self-esteem by revealing the fakery of the ideals girls are invited to envy, the ugly selfie reassures girls that good looks are irrelevant to one of the most important sources of satisfying intimacy – their female friends.

Both show feminism is alive and kicking, and making a difference in women’s real and cyber worlds. Through their demolition of the claim that women do and should compete with each other for men, the ugly selfie and Photoshop-reveal demonstrate the power of the sisterhood to defend women against the self-doubt and isolation from which patriarchal consumer cultures profits.

Publication history

Ugly selfies are all about girls trusting other girls  The Age
Leslie Cannold is an ethicist, researcher and educator on gender, values-driven leadership and respectful relationships. This story was found at: