The Fairest of Them All: Selfie Culture, Gendered Vanity, and Art

In 2013, Oxford Dictionaries declared “selfie” as its word of the year, rocketing the colloquialism into common usage. The word, which is defined as “a photographic self-portrait; esp. one taken with a smartphone or webcam and shared via social media,” is unique in its dependency on modern technology—its use explicitly relies on the ability for information to be shared between people in seconds online, on the expectation that is will be seen by many people. Consequently, the selfie is increasingly viewed as an indication that our society is becoming more vain and narcissistic than ever before, as people place higher and higher value on their looks and on the approval of everyone and anyone who may come across their pictures. I wish to explore whether there is any truth in this theory; are we vainer now than ever before? How, historically, has vanity and narcissism been viewed by society? Does the popularity selfie only serve to glorify vanity and self-absorption, or is it an unlikely new art form for an online generation?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines vanity as the quality of having a “high opinion of oneself; self-conceit and desire for admiration.” This is similar in many ways to its definition of narcissism, which is an “excessive self-love or vanity; self-admiration, self-centeredness.” In both cases, the focus of the individual is intently reflexive; both describe an overly excessive appreciation of the self and ones abilities. In my own experience, vanity in common usage almost exclusively refers to a pride in and appreciation of one’s physical appearance and one’s looks. Indeed, a judge of whether someone is vain or not is often how long they spend pampering themselves, looking in the mirror, and, somewhat sadly, if they are of the opinion that they are attractive. This is certainly the sort of vanity talked about when we discuss contemporary media’s fascination with the phenomena of the selfie. Although this cannot be said to be a new invention, people have after all been taking photographs of themselves since the invention of the camera, it is unlikely that the motives behind such photography has ever come under such scrutiny before this decade.

This is undeniably a gendered issue, just has the subject of vanity has been all throughout history. Even though it has been proved many times that men are scientifically vainer than women, women are constantly accused of being the more self-obsessed sex due to their focus on their appearance. In his book Ways of Seeing, based on the BBC series of the same name, art historian John Berger provides and explanation for this. He describes the differences between the social presence of men and women, particularly in reference to art. He says that a man’s presence is focused on the power he possesses and that it “suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you,” that is that the object of his power is “exterior to the man” himself. By contrast, the presence of the woman suggests at all times “what can and cannot be done to her.” Everything the woman does is a reflection of her attitude to herself which forces her to have to watch herself constantly, checking every movement, action, and word against the image of herself she wishes to portray to the world, because ultimately, “how she appears to men is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life.” Women therefore live their lives split in two halves; herself and her image of herself, the watcher and the watched, as he puts it, “the surveyor and the surveyed.” Berger suggests that when women are forced to constantly survey themselves, they also objectify themselves, as the ‘surveyor’ within them is effectively an imagined male constantly gazing upon them. This, historically, has become the woman’s chief role; to exist as an object to be looked upon, “a sight.”

What does this tell us about vanity? If it is, as suggested above, society that enforces the need for women to constantly check themselves and their image by placing high value on the approval of men, why are women who take pride in their appearance so often mocked and accused of being vain or air-headed? Why, if men expect women to care deeply for their self-image, is vanity even considered a bad thing? The word ‘vanity’ itself stems from the Latin vanitas, which refers to the futility of life. This would suggest that personal vanity, as a practice, is deemed wrong or unacceptable because it is a futile act. The question of morality becomes involved when we look to scripture; in Christian teachings vanity itself is not one of the deadly sins, however it is taught as an example of Pride. It is associated with self-idolatry—that is, worshipping oneself as God, or thinking so much of oneself that one forgets the Divine grace of God. In other words, vanity is futile because it is earthly, focused on the material rather than on the worship of God that leads to righteousness. This is where the judgement of morality stems from, however to a more secular contemporary society, it is perhaps more difficult to understand why the trait of vanity is still so maligned. Of course it can still be claimed to be a futile pursuit, but without the threat of eternal damnation, wasting one’s time hardly seems sinful in the twenty-first century (especially when so many similarly futile pursuits go without criticism, as humans discover more and more ways to occupy and waste the hours of the day.)

Nevertheless, the connection between vanity and morality is a theme that occurs throughout art history, an interesting early example of which is Memling’s Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation (seebelow), which is dated circa 1485 and is unusual for its time in that the woman depicted in its centre panel is completely nude, with her genitals uncovered. She stands proudly, apparently unashamed of her nakedness, wearing only a diadem on her head and sandals on her feet, holding a mirror in her hand so that she may gaze upon herself just as the viewer of the painting does. This is clearly meant to symbolise vanity, with the panels either side of the woman showing the fate of those who give in to and entertain such earthly pleasures of the flesh. It is notable, I think, that the figures of death and the devil in the first and third panels are both depicted as male creatures; the woman is the sinner, while the men are figures of punishment and retribution. It seems that the woman has no other function here other than to be vain, and to be the subject of lust, however there can be no doubt that Memling uses the erotic image of the nude in a fashion designed to titillate, rendering his moralising quite hypocritical. As Berger points out,

You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure. The real function of the mirror was otherwise. It was to make the woman connive in treating herself as, first and foremost, a sight.

– Berger, Ways of Seeing

One could therefore surmise that the state of undress or the perceived vanity of female subjects within art should be seen as a reflection of the male artists’ own morality rather than that of the woman herself; she is, after all, just an object, a sight, that the artist chooses to depict.

Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation, c. 1485. Hans Memling.

Either way, the depiction of vanity, and specifically of the vanity of women, is a subject artists have been interested in for centuries, none more so than in the work of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, the group of English poets and painters who worked in the mid-to-late Eighteen hundreds and attempted a revolution inspired by classical art. Professor Kathy A. Psomiades, in her book Beauty’s Body: Femininity and Representation in British Aestheticism, discusses the Pre Raphaelite fixation with the split nature of femininity; “a manifest surface of lovely accessibility and a hidden depth of darker more mysterious meaning.” Though not completely the same, this idea is certainly echoed in Berger’s analysis of the female presence, of the surveyor and the surveyed. The Pre Raphaelites were particularly interested in representing not only the beautiful exterior of the woman, but also her multi-facetted interior. This, Psomiades suggests, is where the idea of the mirror, the woman contrasted with the image of herself, is essential. She talks about the woman and her reflection depicted in Symphony in White, No. 2 by James Whistler (see below), who was a friend of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founding members of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, and was known to be greatly influenced by his work. The painting shows a young woman wearing a long white dress standing at a mantelpiece, staring contemplatively at the mirror in front of her. She is not staring at her own reflection, so it is unlikely that the artist meant to portray her explicitly as a vain woman, however the expression on her face and the ponderous look of her reflection leads Psomiades to draw these conclusions of the use of the mirror as a symbol:

Her two selves are represented by her two bodies, or, more exactly, her two faces, one beautiful and empty, the other somehow distorted and freighted with unidentifiable emotion. The darker face would be completely hidden from the viewer were it not for the mirror that reflects it. Indeed the mirror is what holds the entire structure together, allowing the darker side of femininity to be acknowledged and yet remain hidden, to appear, in other words, as the repressed, secret content of a lovely form.

– Kathy A. Psomiades, Beauty’s Body: Femininity and Representation in British Aestheticism

The mirror here has the opposite effect than that which we may at first think; the reflection is not important in terms of duplicating and praising the external features of the woman, but rather in showing the spectator her hidden nature, her emotion, her thoughts and worries, that are without very much care for physical appearance. The woman thus momentarily separates herself from the image that she herself constructs. Is this analysis useful in our study of vanity? Could it be inferred that appreciating one’s image is much more about the release of our inner selves than our outwardly-projected image, as first imagined?

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl, 1864. James Abbott McNeil Whistler.

Of course, Whistler’s pensive maiden is not actively looking at herself in the mirror, but rather, it would seem, something else reflected in it. When the subject of the painting is looking directly at her reflection, she is more obviously absorbed in her own image, for example as in Rossetti’s Lady Lilith (see below). In this painting, the Lady Lilith sits surrounded by flowers, combing her long red hair while watching herself in a small hand mirror. The imagery and colours used suggest a range of contrasted themes, from the innocence of the white flowers, the lustful red of her lips and the tie around her wrist, to the clear yonic symbol of the garland laying on her lap. The woman depicted in this particular work is Alexa Wilding, one of Rossetti’s favourite models, who though a working class girl, is dressed in clothes one would expect of someone of wealth in a state of dishabille that, according to J. B. Bullen in The Pre-Raphaelite Body: Fear and Desire in Painting, Poetry, and Criticism, “offers her for display as sexually desirable.” In connection with this, Bullen associates the woman’s dress with her narcissism, as she is clearly in deep contemplation of her own reflection. The connection made here between narcissism and sexuality is an interesting one, as it seems possibly contradictory; the person looking at the painting acknowledges that the woman is beautiful, and yet the way in which she stares at her own reflection without any regard for anyone who may be watching her, suggests firstly that she doesn’t care about anyone but herself, that she is “indifferent to the passions of her viewers.” Secondly it suggests that she acknowledges and admires her own beauty, which in our society is seen as a negative trait. So, the woman is labelled as narcissistic, and yet most art scholars consider this disregard for the male gaze and appreciation of her own beauty as the most sexually alluring thing about Lady Lilith. Narcissism here is simultaneously maligned and sexualised by the male viewer. Why is this? Bullen suggests that “the mirror of vanity into which the narcissistic woman stares serves to cut out the man and emasculate him.” It could be possible that by ignoring the male gaze in her focus on her own reflection, Lady Lilith only further encourages the attention she receives, insulting the masculinity of her spectators by not returning, or even acknowledging, their gaze. It would seem that the most intriguing and simultaneously damaging thought surrounding this painting is that the woman has no interest in the male’s presence or gaze; he is not important, he does not matter. The male’s only response to this is to turn around and sexualise the very thing that should be telling him to lose interest.

Lady Lilith, 1866-68 (altered 1872-23). Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

So, once again, the female’s actions only serve to project her desirability, and not herself as a person, as a power, as a presence. Whether or not she cares for the male gaze, the core subject of the whole painting is still the idea of the male gaze. One has to start to question if there is anything at all a woman can do without it reflecting upon her as an object, sexual or otherwise. After all, when discussing Lady Lilith as we have above, we make a whole host of assumptions about her intentions that ultimately lead us to brand her as a vain narcissistic woman. For example, could she not simply be staring into the mirror so that she may brush her hair more easily, not because she enamoured by her own beauty? Does her dress slip off her shoulder because she is aware that her shoulder is attractive and wishes to look desirable, or has it simply slipped off her shoulder without her noticing as she is concentrating on the task in hand? Does she stare into the mirror, as opposed to staring out of the frame and into the eyes of the spectator, because she wishes to ignite their passions by ignoring them, or has she no idea she is even being watched by men dissecting her with their eyes? Whichever of these Rossetti had intended for his Lady Lilith, it is hardly of any consequence; if a woman exists, she exists as a “sight” and will therefore be sexualised, and then judged for it, whether or not it was her intention to invoke such attention. There is little room for the intention, or indeed, consent of women to their sexualisation and consequential judgement in a society where every gaze is male.

So then, are acts of self-love or supposed vanity on the behalf of women is still scorned and ridiculed in the same way and for the same reasons in contemporary society? Obviously our morals and ways of life have changed drastically since the Victorian era in which Rossetti lived, but how much have our views of women or the relationship between the female and her projected image changed? Writing in 1972, Berger concluded his analysis of art’s fascination with the nude by pointing out that little change has been made.

The essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed. Women are depicted in a quite different way from men – not because the feminine is different from the masculine – but because the “ideal” spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him.

– Berger, Ways of Seeing

In this way, the woman will never be truly freed from the binding relationship between herself and her projected image unless we, as a society, stop assuming the spectator to be male—that is, we stop trying to appeal to the desires of men, we stop reinforcing the idea that a woman is only worth how she is viewed by others, and, at the very least, women stop caring whether men find them attractive or not.

So is this what the selfie achieves? In many ways it could be suggested that selfies are simply an extension of society’s demand that women are constantly aware of their own image; as writer for Erin Gloria Ryan put it, “they’re a logical technically enabled response to being brought up to think that what really matters is if other people think you’re pretty.” However there is a movement in online spaces that seeks to reclaim the selfie as a tool of self-confidence building.

The selfie suggests something in picture form—I think I look (beautiful) (happy) (funny) (sexy). Do you?—that a girl could never get away with saying. It puts the gaze of the camera squarely in a girl’s hands, and along with it, the power to influence the photo’s interpretation.

– Rachel Simmons, In Defense of the Selfie as a Tiny Burst of Girl Pride

Of course, this still relies on the premise that the woman posting the selfie should care about the opinions of those she is sharing the picture of her face with, however it enforces a positive message that is sorely lacking from mainstream culture. It is a message that says ‘I am proud of what I look like in this moment, and I am unashamed to state that publicly.’ This is surely a step forward, not a complete rejection of the gendered gaze, but a reclamation of the female image by the female herself. If women can finally control their own image, without having to specifically tailor it to flatter the ideal male spectator, then they are finally able to control their own narrative.

To conclude, I feel that if society wishes to move on from these countless centuries of viewing the female as a mere spectacle, we must rid ourselves of the idea of the internal male ‘spectator’. If everything a woman does is perceived as a plea for male attention, then there is nothing she can do that will not invoke scrutiny and the label of vanity. If we stop, as a culture, assuming that every article of clothing she wears, every word she utters, and, especially, every photo she takes of herself, is all designed to please men, then the non-issue of vanity disappears. Our cultures obsession with beauty will die, as long as the obsession with the male gaze and constant body-policing dies first.


Header image via Today News

Triptych of Earthly Vanity and Divine Salvation, c. 1485 by Memling, via Web Gallery of Art

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl, 1864 by Whistler, via Tate Online Resources

Lady Lilith, 1866-68 by Rosetti, via Wikimedia Commons


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