I came across a set of pictures I took a few years ago - selfies in fact taken with a good friend of mine. I kept (and posted) the pictures despite the fact that she informed me - with her usual frankness (no brutality attached) - that I do not know how to take a selfie. For some, this may have been a point of shame, but for me this information was not unwelcome or surprising. I take pride in not being able to fulfill the obligations of pop culture acceptability. If a book is really popular, I avoid it. If everyone is watching a show, I wait until season 3 to start. (Let's not unpack this - maybe the easy explanation lies in how the "cool" kids treated certain types of boys. Maybe those certain types of boys did not want to be associated with anything "cool" after a time. Maybe.)
One evening while enjoying tapas at one of my favorite restaurants with my then boyfriend and one of his coworkers who considered himself quite the proficient amateur photographer, this coworker kindly informed me that I must not be very photogenic - I'm too uptight and self-conscious. This was the first time I met him - the boyfriend made no attempt to defend me, what a joy. I took it personally - the more offended I became, the more closed-off and awkward I appeared, proving his point - much to his smug satisfaction.
This was years ago now. I used to be mortified when someone told me I should smile more or asked me why I looked upset when I was just sitting there deep in my own thoughts. In her autobiography, "Offstage," Betty Comden (shown above) wrote that she received the same criticism from her children - she told them it's just the way her face looks, not a reflection of her emotional state. But it was when I read these lyrics by Ani Difranco from "Evolve" that I began to reconcile myself to my own visage and appearance:
"I walk like I'm on a mission
'cause that's the way I groove
I got more and more to do
I got less and less to prove
It took me too long to realize
That I don't take good pictures
'cause I have the kind of beauty
Image has become more important than ever for the artist in the age of selfies. Universities and conservatories offer classes in how to brand yourself (we are now cattle - moo! - branding ourselves - ouch!). I have been in casting meetings for shows where the decision to hire someone has hinged on the number of Instagram follows he/she has. If you browse through the suggestions on Instagram, you will likely find members with hundreds of thousands of followers - on their page will be an array of selfies - no other content to speak of, perhaps an ad disguised as a selfie or a picture with someone else who will equally promote them. If you go a step further and study the gay versions of these self-aggrandizing profiles, body image becomes even more paramount. Young or old, a six-pack is required (unless bulking, duh) to enter into these treasured existences of monthly Mykonos vacations, protein shakes, and parties where the only necessities are tiny shorts, mobile phones (for selfies), and little blue pills (or whatever color is currently popular - I'm sure there's a rainbow array of choices).
And what does this image represent? These gym (and steroid) produced bodies? Health? Athleticism? Or just look like these things? Image, image, image. As Edina says on Ab Fab while perusing several magazines in order to choose a kitchen design (to replace the one Patsy burnt down) - "I want people to think I'm ALL these things." To be our most happy (gay) selves, we must pretend to be the image of masculinity we developed in our formative years. Childish boys dancing around in packs of lookalikes pretending to be the men they always wanted to me. But then we're used to pretending aren't we? Even dancers in theatre - thanks to social media and, if I may say, certain fundraising efforts aimed at exploiting the bodies (and the lust for the bodies) of such dancers - even these actual athletes have changed the way they approach fitness in order to conform to this overinflated anti-effeminate, muscle-bound model of masculinity - to the point where one wonders how they can pirouette at all without falling forward for the weight of the pectoral mounds.
My own Instagram is filled mostly with objects or places I encounter along the way through life. I'm not sure I have even one selfie in the mix. At some point I need to get headshots for my career - how I've avoided it so far must be no mistake and related directly to my own self-consciousness (see the above story - he will NOT be taking the photographs). I used to say I don't show up on film when someone wanted to take my picture - but with digital photography, that pretense loses its modicum of veracity (let alone humor). I'll leave you with Ani to enjoy below. As always with her songs, more than pop songs, listen to the words!