Monday, August 17, 2015

The Evolution of the Selfie

 by Dr. Suzana E. Flores

There are several terms and phrases that define our generation, and “the selfie” is one of them. The word selfie has become so widely-used, that in 2013 it was actually proclaimed the word of the year by the Oxford Dictionary.

The concept of self portrait has really taken on a new meaning in today’s self-image and photo-obsessed world, and people have invented a wide array of selfie categories such as: the shirtless guy selfie, the bathroom selfie, the cleavage selfie, the belfie (the butt selfie), the sleeping selfie, the no-makeup selfie, and the food selfie, and more. All we're missing is the Congressman Wiener selfie (you know what that is). Here are some other unique (and recently publicized) selfies:

The Airplane Captain Selfie:

And on that note, we have...

The Airplane Emergency Mask Selfie:

The Recent Car Crash Selfie:

The Why Women Live Longer than Men Selfie:

The Super Hero Selfie:

The Terminator Selfie:
And even ...

The Last Selfie You'll Ever Take Selfie:  

What made selfies so popular in the first place and how did they develop into a social media self-expression "thing?" Before we analyze what selfies do for us psychologically, I thought I'd first take you on a historical tour of the evolution of the selfie so that you can get a glimpse into it's past, current and future landscape. Many people think that the selfie was invented just a short time ago when Facebook and Instagram became popular, however, it has actually been around for a while.

1) The Oldest Selfie

The oldest known selfie was taken by Robert Cornelius in 1839. He took this photo outside the store his family owned. It became famous for being the first self-portrait or as it is commonly now known, a "selfie."

2) Early Self-Portraits -- Vincent Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo

Van Gogh did not have money to pay models to pose for portraits, so he painted his own portrait. He painted over 30 self-portraits between the years 1886 and 1889.  His collection of self-portraits places him among the most important self-portraitists of all time. Van Gogh used portrait painting not only as a means to make money, but as a way to develop his skills as an artist.
Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear is one of his more interesting and popular self-portraits. Painted in January of 1889 just weeks after a portion of Van Gogh’s ear was cut off. His right ear is bandaged in the portrait though in reality the wound was to his left ear; the discrepancy is due to his painting while looking at a mirror image.
Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is another artist famous for her incredibly graphic self-portraits. Her first self-portrait Self -Portrait in a Velvet Dress was made in 1926 and was her first serious work and the first of many self-portraits to come.

Drawing on personal experiences, Frida's art doesn’t just leave an impression. Her work expresses the intensity behind her emotional conflict. Frida’s physical pain became one of the enduring motifs of her work. Of her 143 paintings, 55 are self-portraits, which often include interpretations of physical and psychological wounds.

3) The Polaroid Camera

Polaroid founder Edwin Land first demonstrated his model 95 Land Camera, as it was originally known, on February 21, 1947 at a meeting of the Optical Society of America in New York City.

People began experimenting with selfies using polaroid cameras, and they were successful at it, if it weren't for their thumbs getting in the way of the lens or the off center aiming. Over time, digital photography lessened the appeal of instant cameras. In 2008, Polaroid announced it would stop making instant cameras.

4) Disposable Cameras

Disposable cameras became very popular with tourists in the 1990s. They were also a common solution for underwater photography by those who don't own a dedicated underwater camera. In time, they became increasingly popular as wedding favors. Placed on tables at wedding receptions, they encouraged guests to take on the role of wedding photographer and capture their perspective of the event. These low costing "accident cameras" encouraged impulsive photo taking and when turned around gave the photographer the opportunity to include themselves in the action, that is, unless that darn thumb didn't keep getting in the way of the selfie.

5) Flip Phones

Inspired by the Star Trek communicator, Flip Phones were invented to take the place of large and bulky mobile phones. On January 3, 1996, the Motorola StarTAC was available to the public for purchase in North America. It was the smallest phone available at the time. Flip phones contained a lens no wider than 1 millimeter, therefore, you'd need some pretty long arms in order to take a selfie...but that didn't stop people from trying.

6) Webcams

Webcams have an interesting invention story based on the laziness of Cambridge coffee fans - The Trojan Room coffee pot was the inspiration for the world's first webcam. A coffee pot was located in the corridor just outside the so-called Trojan Room within the old computer laboratory of the University of Cambridge. The webcam was created to help people working in other parts of the building avoid pointless trips to the coffee pot by providing, on the user's desktop computer, a live 128×128 picture of the state of the coffee pot.  The webcam was a great way to take selfies, but due to poor resolution, your self-image would leave much to be desired.

7) Front Facing Cameras

The first camera phone was sold in 2000 in Japan, a J-Phone model, about a decade after the first digital camera was sold in Japan in December 1989. By 2007, the first cell phones and other consumer products appeared using technology enabling them to make the move from still cameras to full motion video. These devices birthed the concept of selfies as we know it today.

8) Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat and Any Other Social Media Network

These networks are the very foundation for the selfie-obsessed generation. We see them absolutely everywhere.

Selfies expressed through social media allow people to capture and construct personal and group experiences, maintain social relationships as well as expressing personal identity. As smartphones are almost constantly carried  and we remain continuously connected on social media networks, we are able to capture our self-image at an given time and share it with hundreds of people through immediate transitions with the click of a screen. 

The Psychological Impact:

Clearly, we love getting our best face out there, and who better to determine the most stunning, breath-taking, envy-me photograph than ourselves? But as we continue to evolve into a Selfie Nation, is our over-indulgence into self-expression harming us in any way? Narcissus drowned himself because he fell in love with his own reflection. Are we setting ourselves up for some sort of personal existential crisis with our selfies or are they a harmless way to share a brief moment in time with loved ones? I believe it depends on the motivation behind the selfies.  

If you're taking multiple selfies with the mindset that you can't post one where you look "flawed" and feel a compulsion to take them over and over until you find one that's perfect enough in your mind's eye...then you might have a bit of a problem when it comes to the self-esteem arena. On the other hand, sharing a photo of yourself where you're looking pretty good results in positive comments from friends can be pretty empowering. Recently, people have created social movements where women have used selfies to gain control over their own image. For example, through deciding how our image is portrayed in social media, we can reset the social standard of beauty. In my book, Facehooked, I outline the positive power behind social media through collective social influence. What better way to start changing the world, than beginning with ourselves?

Selfies only become a problem when you seek so much reassurance and validation from others (through "likes" or positive comments) that you're trying to create an inauthentic persona of yourself. Social media platforms, such as Facebook, encourage this kind of obsessive feedback loop, and when this behavior is practiced too much over time, your self-esteem will take a hit. When this happens, a person is simply incapable of having her photo shared without editing or enhancement. Worrying and obsessing over social approval becomes too profound to simply take a selfie for the sake of taking it.

If you find yourself obsessing a little too much about how you appear to others, make efforts to share a selfie now and then that reflects the more genuine you. Take the time to enjoy a moment before impulsively going into editing mode...So what if you're having a bad hair day or if you’re caught wearing sweatpants? Who cares? This is you in reality. Embrace your natural self, and express your authentic beauty. Start by caring a little more about how you feel about yourself, and less about the opinions of others.

Dr. Suzana E. Flores is the resident clinical psychologist to Prose & Cons and best selling author of Facehooked: How Facebook Affects our Emotions, Relationships, and Lives through Reputation Books.

As a social-media expert and commentator, Dr. Flores has appeared on national and international newscasts, podcasts, radio and talk shows including Al Jazeera - The Stream, "Leiberman Live" on The Howard Stern Show, PBS, WCIU Channel - "The U," National Public Radio (NPR), "Just Jenny" Sirius XM Channel, WGN Radio Chicago, The ManCow Show, Univision Television News, Mundo FOX, Charlotte News WSOC-TV, The Ron Kelly Show, and radio broadcasts out of Germany, U.K. and Canada.

Dr. Flores has been quoted in The Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post,,,, Men's Health Magazine, Everyday Health Magazine,, Dame Magazine, The Nation Magazine,, New Parent Magazine, Hispanic Health & Beauty Magazine, La Raza Newspaper,,, Mujeres Sin Censura, and

Dr. Flores can be reached at or through her literary agent, Liz Kracht at


Sue Coletta said...

I love the "last selfie" image. Hilarious!

Eliza Cross said...

This advice is priceless: "Embrace your natural self, and express your authentic beauty. Start by caring a little more about how you feel about yourself, and less about the opinions of others." Thank you for a thought-provoking post.