I had just gotten braces when I went to Europe for the first time with my family. There’s an entire photo album—with acetate sticky pages and all—of me looking awkwardly lanky and oddly unhappy in four weeks’ worth of posed shots: beside the Grand Canal, in front of the Coliseum, atop the Eiffel Tower, and below ground in salt mines of Austria. I didn’t want to smile and reveal a mouth full of metal and I hadn’t yet seen Tyra Banks preach the value of the “smise” (smiling with one’s eyes) on reality TV.
And this was at a time when only a handful of people would see the glossy prints we had to wait two days for and pick up from the drugstore. I sometimes wonder what fourteen-year-old me would have done if there were the promise (or threat) of family photos on Facebook.
To bemoan the pressure young people must increasingly feel to be “camera-ready” for social media risks falling in the category of “good ol’ days” nostalgia. And as an adult with a personal blog as well as my own array of social media accounts (and a compulsion to document life), it also risks condescension. In other words, feeling self-conscious and controlling one’s public image is not a new phenomenon. And getting over that feeling or letting go of control are not challenges reserved for the young.
Even now, I look at photos of my beautiful mother with me as a baby, images so fondly ingrained in my mind, and catch myself trying to compose myself for family shots with my son—hoping that he too will one day look back and think “look at me and my beautiful mother.” If I look at a photo of myself holding the baby, fresh from sleep, with bed-head and pillow wrinkles still pressed into my cheek, I am apt to cringe and tempted to say “delete”—always seeing the images through the eyes of an imagined audience. But with the passage of time (even days), I find that my vanity fades and I see how valuable these candid captured moments are.
What feels new is that these challenges of being “camera-ready” must be (or at least now tend to be) met so often, even hourly. With blogs and social media, everything is documented and shared. The playground and the cafeteria extend into the living room; and if you’re not the one telling your story, somebody else probably will be.
The cynic points to the unsavory image of pre-teens vamping in Facebook profile pictures, hoping to get more “likes,” or the attention (or envy) of others; the optimist talks about things like community, memory, and hobby (and maybe mumbles something about phases and trends).
At its most benign, the hundreds of photos we take with our phones test the limits of our hard-drives, but there are other more troubling consequences as the reach and the size of one’s imagined audience grows.
French theorist Michel Foucault talks about the Panoptican effect whereby the threat of being observed at any given time leads us to self-police (control, inhibit, regulate) our behaviors to fit social norms. Essentially he argues that we internalize the expectations (or desires) of others, with dangerous results for those who fall outside the norm.
There’s no resolution to this. There’s no “outside” from social pressure. So I suppose the only goal can be mitigation. I wonder sometimes what I might say to a daughter. How does one advise someone to put down the camera phone for a while and just enjoy the moment? To stop waiting for that imaginary audience’s approval? It’s something I could be better at, too.
[image by Brooke Fitts]