What's behind the 'ugly selfie'?

Sharonda Jackson, 22, of North Philadelphia, says, "I think people take ugly selfies to break the social norms of society as well to show relatable personality, [and] to show that nobody is perfect and they accept it."
Sharonda Jackson, 22, of North Philadelphia, says, "I think people take ugly selfies to break the social norms of society as well to show relatable personality, [and] to show that nobody is perfect and they accept it."

It can be social-media fun, but some experts see a humanizing challenge to norms of beauty.

Posted: September 05, 2013

First there was the selfie.

Those were the self-shot, self-portraits posted on social media that - inadvertently? - invited the world to dish out the compliments. It was the image of your best self being candid and cute, and it fit nicely with the bazillions of other carefully curated pictures you posted online of you with your good-looking boyfriend, your marathon trainer, your enviable house, your adorable dog, your BFFs.

Yet in a what's-your-status world filled with overwhelming pressure to look camera-ready at all times, it can be liberating to drop the facade and laugh at society's obsession with the exterior.

Thus, in the last few years, the ugly selfie - a selfie that's intentionally silly or unattractive - was born.

As the number of social media apps and sites such as Instagram, SnapChat, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Flickr exponentially grow, so do ugly selfies. They are equally embraced by celebrities - including Justin Bieber, Miley Cyrus, and even Madonna - as they are by Jane Does. Although anyone is qualified to take an ugly selfie, females between the ages of 10 and 40 seem the most inclined, with teens the predominant participants. According to the Pew Research Center, 91 percent of teenagers post selfies.

At least for them, the reasons are many.

Andréa Jobe, a 17-year-old Northeast resident and selfies advocate, says, "It's all in fun."

Others say ugly selfies signify a revolution challenging the status quo.

"Ugly selfies display the real and raw facets of one's personality," said Alexandria Wright, 17, of South Philadelphia. "They show the public that nobody's perfect and nobody has to always appear flawless."

It's why in 2011, Sonya Renee Taylor, an influential poet and founder of a body empowerment project, initiated a Facebook campaign called "Bad Picture Monday," a designated venue for sharing unflattering pics. Soon after, others followed suit. Reddit's Pretty Girls, Ugly Faces page currently has more than 18,000 readers.

"An ugly selfie challenges not just contemporary beauty standards but the willingness to buy into the behaviors that support it," wrote Pamela Rutledge, director of the Boston-based Media Psychology Research Center, in an e-mail interview.

Selfies say: Look how pretty I am! Ugly selfies say: I'm unpretentious. The world may value vanity, even overt sexuality (hello, Anthony Weiner), but I don't. I am genuine. For celebrities, especially, that can transmit a nice PR message.

In the words of Lauren Yapalater, senior editor of BuzzFeed.com, "If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a selfie is worth 3,000."

"The ugly selfie might be seen as an antidote to the pressure to be perfect, or derailing perceptions of narcissism," Rutledge wrote. "The ugly selfie also humanizes people and, by extension, the Web. But it also shows up in expressions that acknowledge real life, and not just the fluffed-and-buffed version of women. We all have #badhairMondays, #exhausted, or #nomakeup moments. The ability to tag and share can create a new level of affiliation."

Also, where selfies open the door to criticism, ugly selfies can save their subjects from judgment.

"If it doesn't look like you were trying to look good, then other people feel less of a need to find a flaw," said Cassie McHugh, a 15-year-old from Harleysville.

If someone does, no matter - you thought it looked bad, too. But could someone give your ugly selfie the thumbs up?

"In the back of a person's mind, they're craving a positive response," said Angelica Borda, 16, "hoping that even their unattractive pictures are still considered cute."

Manipulated self-portraits, of course, are nothing new.

Artists throughout the centuries (think Rembrandt, Picasso, da Vinci) have painted remarkable portraits of themselves. Cameras came on the scene in the 19th century, increasing the number of posed portraits, and then the timer the following century brought on the photo selfie. Amateur digital cameras made them more prevalent in the early millennium (no worrying about wasting film), and the growing options of smartphones - especially those with front-facing lenses - and the venues in which to post pictures, made selfies standard fare.

While selfies are playing an integral role in today's culture, the ugly ones could make the biggest impact.

Karen Kirsheman, the children's librarian at Thomas F. Donatucci Library in South Philadelphia for the last seven years, often notices girls giggling over Facebook, looking at pictures of themselves and their friends. She makes it a point to compliment the teenagers on their personal strengths, hoping that they see the beauty in their individuality.

Perhaps, she said, the ugly selfie will show them that "We all don't need to look like a Kardashian to be pretty."

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