The Psychology Of Selfies

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Stylist Team
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Self-expression or a malady of the techno-savvy world? Stylist finds out why we’re all so self-obsessed

You can’t help but see them, peeking at you on Instagram; daring you to click on them on Twitter; filling up your Facebook feed. The selfie – that is, the self-taken photograph – is the artistic expression du jour and, love them or hate them, they’re not going anywhere fast. Because whatever the early 21st century is remembered for – the Arab Spring, the economic crisis, One Direction – it’s also been the era where we have documented ourselves. Relentlessly. According to, 10% of all the photos that have ever been taken were snapped in the past 12 months. On top of that, reveals that Facebook hosts 4% of all the pictures ever created. We are taking billions of photos. Many of ourselves. And, more to the point, we’re choosing to share them.

“Selfies have become an acceptable way to communicate,” suggests psychologist Diana Parkinson. “It’s the modern version of peacocking because, as more of us are meeting and communicating online, that’s how and where we project ‘ourselves’. Humans have always done this, whether it’s with cave paintings or self-portraiture – it reaffirms our identity. It’s a natural evolution.”

But is it a natural evolution to obsessively take pictures backstage at festivals for the sole purpose of making our friends jealous? Or to snap provocative full-body shots so that we can be admired by strangers online? “If we’re constantly displaying what we ‘have’, it tends to be born from insecurity and a need for external validation,” adds Parkinson.

A picture capturing an event also makes it feel like something has ‘happened’; without visual documentation, it’s no more than a memory. The fact is, there are myriad, complex reasons why some of us choose to post our image on the web. We asked four women who frequently take pictures of themselves, what drives them to do so, and psychotherapist Dr Aaron Balick explains the insatiable urge to photo-update.

Camilla Brown Aka @girlterate, 27, senior account manager at Manifest London.

Total number of selfies posted: 125

“I work in PR, so social media is how I communicate. If I’m in the dressing room in Topshop, I can post a pic and get another opinion in seconds. I’ve even got a date from it. A guy complimented me and two days later we were sat in a pub. I’ve started to post bikini-body shots – I’m really proud of all my hard work in the gym and I don’t get comments from pervy men. It’s all from girls who are supportive and inspired.”

Dr Balick Says:

“Much of what Camilla’s posted is an extension of her career. Her pictures are professional, in that they’re often taken at work, but with a whimsical element. They show creativity with her outfits and that she’s not taking herself too seriously. The shot where she is posed with an ice cream cone [opposite page] is typical of selfie-takers in that it is posed and non-spontaneous. There’s an element of self-promotion. But in certain professions, like Camilla’s, a profile is a glimpse into what it would be like to work with her professionally or as her client; she’d be fun and engaged. However, anything we post on a social network can pop up in a Google search and you can’t control who sees that. That’s worth bearing in mind.”

Lorna Mann Aka @shoebird, 29, publicity director at Lionsgate.

Total number of selfies posted: 100

“In the last year, I’ve been training for a marathon, so I started taking selfies of my progress and colourful fitness gear. Selfies have been an invaluable memento for tracking my health goals. If you’re documenting something, you should definitely do it for yourself; it’s not about validation from friends or strangers. It can be scary to put yourself out there and I’ve had people come up to me having recognised me from my selfies, which can be weird, but I’m inspired by the current #fitnotthin movement and want to support it. If I look back to a year ago and see how much weight I’ve lost and how fit I am now, that keeps me motivated.”

Dr Balick Says:

“Lorna’s pictures have a very different dynamic to the others featured here – they’re much more about motivation and encouraging online support. Her pictures are about achieving goals and developing a following through images of herself. There’s strong research to suggest that it can be more effective to document your goals visually (which lends itself very well to diet and fitness regimes) and, if you share them and make them public, you have to stick to them to be responsible to your followers. However, on the flipside of this, if you don’t stick to your goals then it can make you very vulnerable. You put a lot of hope into offering your life up online like this and if you happen to not follow through, or revert back to your old ways, then that becomes very evident. It’s a huge amount of pressure to put on yourself, but it can also be very motivational too, like Lorna has demonstrated here.”

Jemima van der Hoeven Aka @JemimaVDH, 24, account manager at Image Box.

Total number of selfies posted: 50

“I’ve always hated being photographed, because I don’t think I’m photogenic and I physically shake if somebody needs to take a picture of me, like at my graduation. That’s why I take selfies – I can control how I look and where they go. When people tag me in pictures they’ve taken, I untag them immediately. I worked in LA for a year and a half, which has affected me, and I have four sisters who are all photogenic. We’re close in age, so you do compare yourself – that’s natural. If I don’t look nice and feel great it can affect my day. So when you post a selfie, it does make you think you must look all right for someone to hit the ‘like’ button.”

Dr Balick Says:

“Selfies are all about control. Reputation management is a method of retaining control over public images that are, to a certain extent, part of the package when you ‘brand’ yourself in a particular way. A desire to control the way you’re perceived has psychological motivations. To speculate, this could be how Jemima might manage her insecurities. There is a revealing and alluring element with some of the pictures, which could point towards a sense of exhibitionism – a key trait with selfietakers. Everyone looks for some validation in the way that they appear to others: the kind that’s sought will be dependent on their personality. A selfie is a way to (sometimes unconsciously) engineer validation. It is often representative of the way we wish, ideally, to be seen by others. Jemima’s images are all quite similar, in that she’s very well groomed and made up, so it could be she’s hoping to project a glamorous image.”

Olivia Cox Aka @LivvyCox, 25, freelance beauty writer and TV presenter.

Total number of selfies posted: 40

“When it comes to your own brand, you need more than a portfolio to show employers. Twitter, Instagram and blogs are a public profile – if your content is engaging, they mark you out as an expert in your field. My selfies give a glimpse into the glamorous beauty and fashion world and getting ‘likes’ is a boost. I have had negative comments; people say what I do is vacuous. In a way they’re right; I’m not curing cancer. But you have to expect negative feedback. The media is a competitive and ruthless industry – I’m technically doing my own PR but I will admit to logging onto my boyfriend’s account to like my own photos to up the number – needs must!”

Dr Balick Says:

“Olivia uses social media as a way of branding herself in a competitive world. However, with highly glamorous images like these and similar ones that celebrities post, you’re only getting partial access to a person’s life. With celebrities, it’s their job to be exposed, but it can quickly become tough to control their public image. The same can happen if you’re a non-celebrity selfie-taker too. People will look at your images and judge you on what you’re projecting. But it is a useful tool of self-promotion if you’re sensible. The key is to make sure you avoid the psychological pitfalls. If you’re so keen to promote your ‘brand’ that you start to become reliant on likes and validation as a key to your success and if you just identify yourself as a brand, your self-esteem can become solely based on your pictures. You relinquish your control to people you don’t know and negative comments can be very hard to deal with.”