Posted by Mary Hendra on September 30, 2014

IMG_0702Have you ever taken a "selfie"? We all get a good laugh these days about selfies - the candid taken with a celebrity or in a striked pose - but could taking selfies help students dive deeper into the complexity of their own and others' identities?

A few months ago I saw the short film, "Selfie" produced by Dove, and I still think about it. It examines the way taking and posting selfies on social media can change our definition of beauty and transform our IMG_0704sense of our own beauty. (Click here for an article on the film, or watch it below.)

I don't know about you, but when I was a teenager, the LAST thing I wanted was a picture of myself. I hated how I looked in pictures. My parents had a plethora of photos of the back of my head as a result of my quick reaction to a camera being raised around me.

IMG_0707So, "Selfie" got me questioning:

  • How many times, if ever, did a young woman in one of my classes put "beautiful" on her identity chart? (It was rare if ever!)
  • Does our self-identification as beautiful or not impact our sense of belonging?
  • If others' description of us as beautiful contributes to being accepted, can redefining "beauty" also expand group acceptance?
  • The quick blame for almost unattainable standards of beauty often goes to corporations (Barbie, cosmetics, clothing, plastic surgery), but to what extent do mothers pass it on to their daughters, sisters to sisters, peers to peers, and so forth?
  • After so many generations of female beauty being defined by professional photographers. magazines, and cosmetic companies, is it truly possible that the democratic nature of social media and self-taken, impromptu photographs can redefine our standards of beauty? If so, "choosing to participate" could be as simple as... taking a selfie?

I grew into adulthood with "The Beauty Myth" by Naomi Wolfe - a critical examination of the social and economic costs placed on women by defining beauty as we have in American society. I transitioned to teaching by volunteering with the LA Commission on Assaults Against Women. I taught in their Teen Abuse Prevention Program and one of our lessons was to collect magazine print ads to more critically examine the images present in our society. I still vividly remember my collection of images - unhealthily thin, overwhelmingly white, completely covered in make-up. I remember Dove's first print ad causing quite a stir by breaking these image norms. Perhaps that explains why this video spoke so strongly to me.

So, how would I use this with young people?

I'm not a parent, but if I were, or had a young girl in my life (I have seven nephews), I'd do the same project shown in the video with my daughter/niece. I'd have conversations about beauty with her. I'd share my own insecurities and let her teach me about how she views herself. I'd find a place we could display our own selfies. I love that one of the mothers at the end comes to the recognition through this project that her daughter does not need make-up to "accentuate" her features, but is simply beautiful.

IMG_0708But, I would want to go further. This video, given that Dove produced it, focuses on physical beauty and coming to peace with our bodies, but what about trying to take selfies that show more about who we are inside as well? Can your selfie show the character attribute of which you are most proud?

As a teacher,

  • I'd consider doing self-portraiture as part of exploring the complexity of our own identity. Art teachers often have students create a self-portrait, but selfies make for another medium that even us history teachers could do!
  • Facing History teachers often use the Twilight Zone episode, "Eye of the Beholder" to highlight the subjective nature of "beauty" and the difference between how we see ourselves and how others' see us. In this Twilight Zone episode, not fitting in to societal standards of beauty has a very real consequence for individuals. "Selfie" could complement "Eye of the Beholder" and bring additional discussion around how we can contribute to shaping societal standards, and acceptance.
  • I'd turn it to the guys in my class, too. It's time to acknowledge the vulnerability many young men have about appearance as well, and for both genders to be more self-reflective about their unchallenged assumptions of a beauty standard for others as well as themselves. It could be further paired with the video, "Straightlaced: How Gender's Got Us All Tied Up."
  • This video could be a great focus for a Socratic Seminar, either in connection to identity or in bringing it back to students at the end of a Facing History unit when students think about how they may choose to participate in their own lives. It matters what we post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or other social media platforms.
  • In moving from self-portraits to photography of others, there is also an opportunity to explore ethical questions: What is our obligation as photographers when we take or post pictures of others? What is our motive for a picture we publish?

What about you? How did you respond to this film? Would you use it with students or young people in your lives? How?

Topics: Identity, Teaching Strategy, Using Technology

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