In 1997, my school friends and I, much like others of our generation, became obsessed with The Spice Girls. We were a collective of eleven year old misfits with low self-esteem, and the thought of becoming a member of that band of bolshie young women in brightly coloured assorted stretchy outfits stood out to us as the highest level of ‘cool’ that one could ever hope to achieve. Of course, the main reason The Spice Girls were so appealing to us was that each of them had a distinctive, one-dimensional image, allowing us to ‘choose’ a Spice Girl with whom we most identified, religiously following and admiring them as an aspirational figure. The ‘Regina George’ (This is a Mean Girls reference that I am going to be using throughout. On the tiny off-chance that you haven’t seen Mean Girls, read ‘Bitchy Queen Bee’ here) of my pathetic group of pale Scottish book nerds assigned us all a Spice Girl, with whom we were permitted to relate and mimic. No duplicates were allowed, and anyone unhappy with their assigned Spice would have to appeal to the group in order to request a swap.
At the age of eleven, I was short, skinny, flat-chested, quiet and unassuming, with dark blonde/mousy brown hair, so I was allocated the role of Baby Spice. I was extremely unhappy with the higher power’s word on this matter, because it meant that my friends’ perception of me did not marry up with my internal perception of myself. Truth be told, I admired and strove towards the understated sophistication of Posh Spice – and as my family had Sky T.V. and went on holidays to Florida every year, I technically was the poshest of my group. I begged the group to allow me to trade for Posh, but was told in no uncertain terms that I needed to be Baby because I had the lightest hair colour. I couldn’t argue with deep and well- considered logic like that, so grumpily, I accepted my role as Baby, always secretly confident that I was the ‘real’ Posh Spice.
Fascist pre-teen dictators aside, what is clear from this whole experience is that each of us little Spices understood the importance, even then, of finding an identity set apart from the other members of the group. In the classic teen movie Mean Girls, Lindsay Lohan’s character Cady makes a clever observation about fellow clique member Gretchen: ‘She knew it was better to be in the plastics, hating life, than to not be in at all.’ While finding a clique within girl world was of great importance, we all knew it was of equally high importance to have an individual, exaggerated identity within that group. I resented my Baby Spice label, but I knew that clinging to the label would be more beneficial in the long-run than denying it, which would result in me potentially sacrificing my role within that clique. As I grew older, I took the path of least resistance, embracing the Baby Spice role, playing up the ditzy, cute aspects of my personality and downplaying my intelligence and shyness. I dressed in baby pink wherever possible and had blonde highlights put in my hair (not a good look for me; think pasty tiger mouse); I made sure to get things adorably ‘wrong’ from time to time and allowed my friends to push me around and tease me for my perceived gullibility and femininity. This cutesy ‘little girl’ image is one that followed me into my late teens and early twenties, so much so that I eventually had to make a concerted effort to shake off the image, undergoing a mid-twenties rediscovery of who I was; working out which parts of my image were just traits I had adopted to please people, and which ones were a genuine reflection of myself. I learned a lot during this time, such as where I stand on the colour pink. It turns out that I do love the colour pink, but not to the extent I had allowed people to believe I loved it. I love other colours too, and as an adult, I actively dislike baby pink clothing. Last year, I got married in a handmade dusky/blush pink wedding dress, and specified to my dress designer, ‘NOT BABY PINK PLEASE.’
The quest for identity and self-definition is necessary to all humans, but particularly to young women. Our entire lives are spent being perceived and defined by those around us. As children, we are defined by our parents (I was deemed ‘the quiet one’ from a very young age), and then we are judged and reduced to labels by our school friends before we even have a chance to work out who we are. The result of this is often an adolescence spent desperately searching for an identity set apart from those assigned to us by others.
For years I felt that I was leading a double life: playing the smart, quiet, studious young woman at home, and the outgoing, ditzy party girl when out with my friends; there was such a stark contradiction between these two perceptions of me, that when I took the Myers-Briggs personality test in 2007, and yielded the result of ENFP (Extroverted Intuitive Feeling Perceiving), my family actively argued with me about my result, informing me that this couldn’t be accurate, as they didn’t perceive me as an extrovert. It took me years to reconcile my two lives which seemed to me mutually exclusive. It wasn’t until I finally made some supportive and understanding friends in my early twenties, that I began to find myself. By refusing to see me as the dippy stereotype I had reduced myself to, and accurately perceiving that I had adopted this image as a result of social anxiety and lack of confidence in articulating my opinions, my friends helped support me in learning to present myself as the smart, strong, emotional, articulate, opinionated, outgoing, stylish, funny, cute, creative, ambitious warrior I am today.
“All of this is well and good, but how does it relate to ‘selfie culture’?”, I hear you scream! I spent years feeling helpless because it seemed impossible to change people’s perceptions of me. One of the benefits of social media is that it gives young women the opportunity to control how others perceive them, essentially defining themselves as they wish to be defined. There has been much discussion on the issue of ‘selfie culture’, with many bloggers and internet journalists claiming that the selfie marks a feminist movement, allowing young women to make themselves visible on their own terms. Simultaneously, there has been backlash against social media culture that is deemed narcissistic, such as selfies, instagram, and self-indulgent Facebook posts. I’m not going to repeat what’s been already said in this debate, but just in case you’re unclear on this argument, fellow WordPress user, radicallyvisible presents an excellent overview of the argument whilst providing a touching explanation of how taking selfies allows her to present herself on her own terms as a fat woman in a society that values a set ideal of female beauty over other types.
While I agree that taking selfies can be a very empowering experience for a young woman, and can therefore serve as a feminist statement, I would further propose that selfies and the wider culture deemed ‘internet narcissism’ offers young women a new tool with which to engage with questions of feminine identity, and not just in relation to their physical appearance. It’s no secret that fashion offers many women an avenue of self-expression, and for myself, as an avid follower of fashion, dressing creatively allows me to define myself in ways that feel appropriate for any given day. Fashion is for me, and for many other women, an art form. With the right outfit, I can be anyone I want to be. I take inspiration for my outfits from many different time periods, films, books, and the world around me. I often throw around the phrase, ‘I’m not a jeans and t-shirt sort of girl’, but what I mean when I utter this phrase, is that I am not the sort of person who wakes up in the morning and just throws on an outfit. I put great time and thought into an outfit on any given day, and if I were ever to wear jeans and t-shirt, it would be the most carefully calculated jeans-and-t-shirt combination ever worn, deliberately engineered to conjure a specific image of femininity that I happen to identify with on that given day.
Fashion allows for creative self-expression and role playing, and the selfie allows women to capture that self-expression in a permanent image. Often, when I take a selfie, or ask my husband to take an ‘outfit photo’, I’m not necessarily looking to appear pretty or seek attention – I’m proud of the creative and inspired ensemble that I’ve put together and want to keep a reminder of it. At times when I have been lonely, in a toxic relationship and feeling helpless, fashion served as an escape from those feelings. It provided me with control over my appearance and others’ perceptions of me when I felt my life was spiralling out of control. It is for this reason that many of my outfits over the years might be deemed ‘over-the-top’ or ridiculous. Although I now have a more subtle sense of style, fashion for me is still about fantasy and playing dress-up. It provides a fun escape from an ordinary and sometimes demotivating routine. Taking a great photo of my outfit in the morning can even help me work up the motivation to go to work on a bad day. Selfies to me are self-expression, self-definition, self-identity, and I believe that every woman should have the right to self-expression in whatever form that takes. If creativity and a propensity for self-expression are characteristics that mean I’m a narcissist, then so be it. This is my body and my identity, and it is my right to show it as I deem fit.
We as human beings are constantly trying to define ourselves, and the internet has provided us with more opportunities to do so, but this search for self-identity is definitely not a new one. Just as my friends and I argued about which Spice Girls we were most like in 1997, my feed is filled with Buzzfeed quiz results entitled ‘Which _______ character are you most like?’ every single day. I myself have taken many of these quizzes and could quite easily provide you with a comprehensive list of the characters Buzzfeed has compared me to (Elmo, Lady Edith from Downton Abbey, Dionne from Clueless, Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter, Inara Serra from Firefly…the list goes on and on). Why do I take all of these quizzes? I suppose I take quizzes for the same reason I take selfies: to express my personality, and remind myself that I am not alone. A selfie serves as a modern day photo booth picture or polaroid, capturing the image of a particular time, place and person, providing laughter and amusement for years to come, or even just in the short-term. In this sense, the selfie is no more damaging to society than the ‘Which Friends character are you?’ quiz I once answered in a 90s teenage magazine (Phoebe, just in case you were wondering, and as if there was ever any doubt).
Philosophers, psychologists and ordinary human beings have been obsessed with this concept ‘self’ since the beginning of time, and the internet generation has simply brought this search to the forefront of society. This post is just a further attempt to define, and identify what it means to be a human living in 2014, and I suppose it serves as a modern day diary entry or letter.
The ‘Regina George’ of my teenage social group kept trying to define us all, even years after the Spice Girls debacle. When we were ready to leave school, she ordered us all to write down answers to questions in notebooks so that she could put us in boxes, and we were assigned labels. My assigned label was ‘the slutty one’. I ripped the pages defiantly from my notebook years later, determined to wipe the slate clean and start over, defining myself on my own terms. It seems I am still trying.
Regina’s path was much less rocky than mine. It seems that she knew just who she wanted to be in high school and followed that path through to its logical conclusion, whereas I tried on multiple identities before I worked out who I was, and who I wanted to be. Even now, my definition of myself is fluid and changeable. That’s okay though. It just means I am curious, always searching and striving for more. If I had to limit myself to just one label today, it would be ‘The Wanderer’, because I am forever searching for truth and justice, as is apparent from this entire blog post.
If you’re still not convinced by my ‘internet narcissism is okay’ argument, ask yourself why, in 2014, you’re about to take this ‘Which Spice Girl Are You?’ quiz on Buzzfeed. I got Scary Spice, so the quiz is clearly defective, but I know you’re going to take it anyway.
x L x
P.S. You can totes follow me on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr. I will most likely follow back, unless you’re a douchecanoe. Spoiler alert: I take a lot of selfies.