The Psychology of The Selfie


Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all? Poor Evil Queen indulged her insecurities by asking her magic mirror if she was pretty enough – if indeed she was the prettiest. As the star in our own fairy tale, we turn to magic mirrors in the form of cell phone cameras to click, post, and wait for some sign of acceptance. From grannies to toddlers, everyone’s got a selfie.

While the Oxford Dictionary named “selfie” the word of the year in 2013, fitness junkies have been capturing depictions of physical strength and transformations since Arnold Schwarzenegger first flexed his biceps as Mr. Universe and Cory Everson struck a pose as Miss Olympia. Photographs led way to formal photo shoots, providing visual records of transformations to peak physical conditions and, ultimately, serving as evidence in support of how the human body can be challenged beyond capacity.

Today’s “selfie” is a different kind of showcase – it provides instant gratification to feed the basic human desire to be noticed, appreciated, and recognized. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, and numerous other social media outlets provide the ideal forum to feed these needs. Within seconds of capturing and uploading an image online, one single photo can receive hundreds of “likes” or “repins”.  What better measure of instant appreciation and acceptance than a virtual “thumbs-up” to your physical appearance? You and I have the opportunity to be in the limelight- with full control of the image projected; that’s more control than Arnold or Cory had in their day!

Strike a Pose, Stay on Track

It has never been easier for fitness enthusiasts to market themselves to the community at large in a way that is both accessible and affordable.  Social media has opened the door to opportunity by providing easy access to industry professionals, magazine photographers, and supplement companies.

Under healthy conditions, fitness selfies serve as a positive way to monitor your fitness journey. Similar to journaling, the selfie represents a visual narrative of your life and can be effective in tracking the changes your body is undergoing. Not only is this type of tracking a positive source of motivation, sharing your journey can spark motivation among friends, family, and like-minded individuals looking to make health and fitness changes in their own lives.

Fitness selfies can also serve as a form of accountability; publicly sharing goals is a great way to stay on track with your plan. Many people fear failure as the feelings associated with personal defeat are certainly not favourable; when your journey is followed by countless other people, the drive to keep progressing forward is elevated. Encouragement among the fitness community is extremely high and complete strangers will often provide motivating comments or suggestions on photos, helping propel you through challenging times.

One Selfie Too Many?

So you feel motivated, inspired, and driven to achieve your goals, but when taking and posting selfies becomes your main form of self-validation to fulfill an underlying issue of low self-worth, it warrants concern. As women, we are socialized to seek validation of our attractiveness from external sources and can easily fall prey to a selfie obsession. Given that selfies are intended to boast one’s appearance, an obsession with this type of photo places an unhealthy emphasis on the body, affecting perceptions of attractiveness and what is deemed fit. One single image does not take into account the value of intellectual achievements and qualities such as caring for others, contributing to the community, honesty, generosity… the true character of the person behind the selfie. And as women, isn’t this what we’ve been fighting for, to be seen as more than just our bodies?

Additionally, projecting images to a large online audience brings the possibility of cyber bullying. For every “like” a photo receives, there are often just as many trolls and jealous individuals hiding behind their tiny screens, ready to criticize your physique if it doesn’t match their own personal preferences. These comments can be very hurtful to someone who doesn’t have thick skin and is unable to brush them off easily.

Of larger concern, research states that selfies may have contributed to the recent increase in reported cases of Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). Individuals with BDD allow thoughts of their physical flaws, either real or perceived, to overtake their days (Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 2010). Although there is no direct causal relationship, the selfie phenomenon appears to exacerbate psychological distress in individuals vulnerable to this disorder.

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Irene Petsopoulis is a licensed Psychologist with over 15 years of experience, as well as a Certified Coach Practitioner.  She is passionate about helping people achieve peak physical and emotional well-being using an innovative approach that combines psychotherapy techniques with exercise.  Irene has had her own journey in this regard and strongly upholds the belief that a body and mind connection is the key to optimal health and wellness.

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