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Picturing the Self

selfypicMy Twitter feed is a random mix of celebrity gossip and theology.  I must say, this makes observing the feed quite enjoyable.   The coupling of religious and theological tweets occurring beside those of the latest Hollywood scandal can lead to some very interesting ponderings.   Recently, I saw a tweet from a member of the clergy who spoke of God’s limitless love for his people.  This occurred directly above one discussing the latest celebrity ‘Selfie.’  

Interesting ponderings ensued.

If you aren’t aware of what a Selfie is, let me explain:   A Selfie is a picture of an individual captured via Smartphone and posted to their social media sites.   Consider it the pop culture version of a self –portrait.  Heidi Klum, Miley Cyrus, Amanda Bynes, Rihanna, and many others, have all mastered the art of the Selfie.  Here is my attempt: selfy

 Ok, so maybe I have a bit to learn.

 Just recently, The Pope himself has engaged this trend.   You can read a report of this here.  Needless to say, this says something about the cultural weight behind this trend.  After all, when both the theological and celebrity spectrums of my twitter feed speak of the same event, you have to know there is something to it! 

 Initially, we may wish to dismiss the Selfie as some expression of shallow narcissism, but consider what is going on.  Celebrities, who live with the ever constant invasion of cameras in their faces, are actively turning the camera upon themselves.  Instead of protecting their times of privacy, they are choosing to publish them.  It seems almost counter intuitive.  So what is the rationale behind this?

 Personally, I think it is all about identity.  Like the self portraits of Romanticism, Selfies undoubtedly are an attempt to make a statement about one’s identity.   They counter the image foisted upon them by main-stream media and the likes of paparazzi.  In essence, a Selfie says ‘the touched up picture in the magazine on the rack is not really who I am. . . .THIS is who I am!”  Within the Selfie, then, there is a rejection of the inherent judgementalilsm which is found in celebrity glam.  The celebrity exists as they truly are, without the manipulation of agents or stylists.  Outside the pressures of Hollywood praise or ridicule, the Selfie celebrates ones natural and authentic identity. 

 Thus, on one hand, there are elements of the Selfie to be valued and even respected.  It reinforces a celebration and ownership of identity removed from the judgments of what is or is not popular.  It cares not for current styles, and flattering captions, nor does it look to what anyone else is doing for inspiration or guidance.  The Selfie does exactly what its name suggests; it celebrates the self. 

  It is unfortunate, then, that this celebratory act is ultimately self-defeating.  While the likes of Rihanna, Gaga and Klum may assert that their portraits are an attempt to reclaiming their own sexuality (as they post semi-nude pictures on social media), all this does is reinforce their own sex-symbol status.  It strips them of any notion of personal identity beyond the sex-symbol brand they have developed.  Ultimately, while the Selfie may use the rhetoric of celebrating the self, it does nothing but lock the individual in a system that judges people based solely on their physical attractiveness.  The Selfie may originally be a means of self expression – a celebration of true identity – but it turns into a standard for which the celebrity is continually judged.   The image no longer describes who the celebrity is, it declares who they desperately want to be, and even feel that they must be.  The celebration of their ‘sexuality’ is turned into the constant demand to maintain their sexual appeal; a picture of their glamour and success becomes the level of fame and fortune that they must exceed. 

 What starts as the celebration of the self becomes the celebration of that which is not the self.  The self is abdicated on the altar of popularity.   While the snapshot contains a “self portrait” it is in fact a condemning image of that which continually judges the individual.

 How do we as Christian people interact with this trend?  As celebrities, and most notably female celebrities, continually engage in this activity, this trend automatically trickles down to the fans and followers.  In fact, a cursory investigation of the Selfie finds that it is most prevalent amidst pre-teen and teenage girls, who wish to emulate their celebrity idols.  Given this, the heightened sexuality of the celebrity Selfies surely has unhealthy consequences.  As these pre-teens and teens emulate the portraits of their favorite idols, and take their own Selfies in like fashion, the Selfie becomes a fantasy fundamentally removed from reality.  Again, it ceases to be a snapshot of the self.  Instead it is a wish for how they wish to be viewed by others: Beautiful, Desirable, Successful, and Worthy.

 All of a sudden then, the Selfie isn’t a simple and fun pass-time is it? Within the Selfie we see a cry for acceptance; an internal longing to be valued; a wish to be seen as one amidst the elite and powerful.  We also see the confusing message that this culture relates to impressionable minds:  “Value and celebrate your true self by being like someone else.”

 If the inherent issues of the Selfie are not sexuality or morality, but identity, then we as a church must speak about identity before we speak about sexuality.  We must strive to build an understanding of our biblical identity as based in our creation and celebrated in our baptism.  We must strive to preach the message that one can be beautiful without being sexy, successful without being rich and happy without being popular.  For the fact is, for pre-teen, teenager, adult and Celebrity alike, if we have no satisfaction with our identity when the cameras are turned away, then any inward sense of completeness and wholeness will always elude us – despite how good the images may look.

 How have you striven to inform people’s understanding of true identity?

Kyle Norman

About Kyle Norman

I am a Priest in the Diocese of Calgary, serving the wonderful people of Holy Cross, Calgary. I watch reality television, I drink Starbucks coffee, and I read celebrity gossip columns. I am also a magician and often use magic tricks to teach the children at church the lessons of the Bible. I believe that God is present in the intricacy of our lives, and thus I believe that Pop Culture can provide intriguing lessons, examples, and challenges for our lives of faith. Connect with Kyle on
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