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My Selfie Years


One thousand self-portraits, Nutella-level guilt

by Emily Threlkeld, Contributor

My Selfie Years | A Practical Wedding

Can I tell you guys something embarrassing? I have over a thousand photos of myself on my computer. I like to think of them as self-portraits, but the parties in the Great Selfie Debate of Aught-Fourteen would probably prefer the diminutive form.

My interest in self-portraiture makes me feel the same as when I eat Nutella out of the jar with a spoon. I’m not supposed to be doing this, I think. This is bad. I think these things despite the fact that I enjoy doing it, despite the fact that I know other people are doing it as well, and despite the fact that it fulfills me creatively. (The photos that is, not the Nutella.)

Considering the innocuity of the act of aiming a camera at oneself, there is a surprising amount of negativity aimed at the people—let’s be honest, at the women—who dare to take, much less post, self-portraits.

So why do I have so many? Well, after struggling to complete Project 365, a yearlong project where you take a photo everyday, I was intrigued by a similar project, 365 Days, which focused on self-portraits. I made an anonymous account using a phrase from Walt Whitman, I joined a Flickr group, I put on a dress, lay down on my bathroom floor and snapped a photo of myself, and that’s how, starting in June of 2007, I ended up photographing myself almost every day, give or take some lulls, until September of 2009.

I know how self-involved that sounds, believe me. In fact, although I uploaded the photos as I took them, I’ve never really connected the project to my name, save for two self-portraits that were published, one online, and one in print.

Aside from adorable baby photos, I had never really liked a picture of myself, and I’d never been entirely comfortable in my own body when a camera was pointed at me. I froze when someone said, “Cheese,” with a horrible plastered-on smile and unconsciously tense shoulders.

So here was my chance to control the lens myself. I had a say in the way I looked. I could take hundreds of unflattering photos of myself, delete every single one, and no one ever had to know. I had the freedom to discover my image, the ability to play with it, and push it in directions that interested me. Doing these things on a regular basis ultimately made me more comfortable in my own skin.

We live in a society that is entirely content to judge us on our appearances, yet doesn’t want us to be participants in the way we’re portrayed. When you take a self-portrait, you don’t have to smile. You don’t have to brush your hair. You don’t have to wear clothes. You don’t have to look like yourself. In fact, sometimes it’s more fun when you don’t. As Anjelica Huston says in her new autobiography: “People often think that looking in the mirror is about narcissism. Children look at their reflection to see who they are.” You don’t have to wait for someone else to show you who you are. You can pick up a camera any time you’d like.

Photo from Emily’s personal collection

Emily Threlkeld

Emily’s first marriage was to her stuffed raccoon Ringo (named for the Beatle). She wore her yellow Easter dress to the ceremony and her mother officiated. She has a BFA in Creative Writing, a cat named after the heroine of To Kill a Mockingbird, and a permanent case of wanderlust.

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  • KH_Tas

    After reading this, it occured to me that my few self-portraits are among the least-bad (I hate photos of mtself) photos I have. Maybe some practicing is in order.
    And the last time I ate nutella off a spoon was… 6 hours ago. Guilty here

    • http://breckwinokur.com/ Breck

      The only place I can find Nutella here in Caracas is this super pricey specialty grocery store. It’s like $8 for a tiny jar, but I just. Can’t. Help. Myself.

  • Laura

    Nutella from a spoon? I’ve been missing out.

    • KC

      I’m an anomaly, in that I prefer nutella on graham crackers. I can eat more that way. :-)

      But why we should feel guilty about things we enjoy if they’re not harming anyone, I am unclear on.

    • http://www.smittenchickens.com/ Sarah Hoppes

      Ahhhhh nutella from a spoon. Soo good. So bad.

      Maybe it was just bad because I overdid it. I studied abroad in Germany my freshman year of college and basically lived on nutella, bratwurst, and beer.

      • http://breckwinokur.com/ Breck

        Well, that sounds amazing.

      • Laura

        That sounds like heaven to me. But I’d need to add some coffee in there to round out the flavors.

    • http://twitter.com/mollyepollard Molly P

      It is THE BEST thing.

  • KEA1

    Not for nothing, but I see no more reason to feel guilty over Nutella in *any* form than I see to feel guilty over having photos in which you (gasp!) like how you look. %)

  • KC

    I think writing and most other art also falls under the “too self-involved” ban. What, you think you can say something new or improve on what has already been said or in some way add to the contributions of the ages on the topics of the flowers in the spring or being a human? You must have an ego the size of whatever…

    But 1. that’s not totally why human beings make art, and 2. we’re all different and same human beings, coming at things from different (yet similar) points of view, and that makes each individual pixel of the giant picture interesting.

    (that said, the melodramatic poetry phase of teenage angst *is* usually a bit overproductive. But even that serves a purpose)

    • http://brokensaucer.blogspot.com/ sera

      Yes! Why is it that just by making art, writing, doing anything for ourselves just for the sake of doing it, the act is judged for being self-involved or narcissistic? I for one can attest to the fact that having repressed my creative nature because it isn’t focused on others, I can’t be my best self in order to take care of others. Art in whatever form in needs to take is self-care, at least for me.

  • april

    Peanut butter. Straight from the jar. With a butter knife …

    • Violet

      Tablespoon here!

  • http://www.smittenchickens.com/ Sarah Hoppes

    This is exactly how I feel about self portraits/selfies/focusing on whether or not I like the way I look in pictures. I really responded to selfie month because I realized a. I’m not the only one with thousands of photos of myself on my computer and b. My many self portraits aren’t something I should just discredit as vain.

    I talked about it on the #apwselfie hashtag on instagram, but I have some theories on why I take what might be seen as an obsessive number of selfies. 1. I want a record of my own existence, just like I try to give to other people with my photography, and I want control over how I present myself. 2. I spent years using photography as a defense mechanism, as a reason I could stay behind the camera instead of in front of it. Having control of the photo meant I could gradually become more comfortable in my own time and my own way. 3. Sometimes I just have really good hair days and having a picture of it makes me happy. What of it?

    • Emily

      4. Sometimes I want to try a long exposure ghost thing and I don’t want to ask someone to pose, count to three, and then roll off the bed like a stunt double.

      • Guest

        Yeah, so many of mine are jumping or ridiculous faces just because I’m curious of how crazy I can look.

      • http://www.smittenchickens.com/ Sarah Hoppes

        Oh, yeah, so many of mine are jumping or ridiculous faces just because I’m curious of how crazy I can look.

        • http://brokensaucer.blogspot.com/ sera

          love! And also, this is why I long to procure a dslr. You just can’t do everything with an iphone.

  • Emily

    Between this and Frito Pies, I’ve just realized I’ve got to stop making food metaphors in my writing, because everyone comments about food and now I’m hungry and all I’ve got at my desk is a Special K bar.

    • http://www.smittenchickens.com/ Sarah Hoppes

      daaaaaaamnit now I want a walking taco AND nutella.

  • Alyssa M

    Selfie month has been something I had an overall hard time with, because my feelings about selfies are so jumbled.

    I have not one, but THREE selfies framed and proudly displayed in my living room. Trying on silly hats with my best friend. My partner and I at Yosemite. Another friend posing with her babies. They’re some of my favorite pictures.

    I’m totally indifferent to the typical selfie, except that I feel duck faces and simultaneously sticking out your boobs and butt looks goofy, and I kinda wish my kid cousin(ok she’s a teen) would stop trying so hard to be a sex kitten, but I understand it’s just a part of growing up.

    My jumbled feelings actually come from this idea of controlling how your image is out there. APW has been focusing on this as a body positive way to take back some agency… but in my (admittedly limited) experience it can lead in the exact opposite direction. A close friend of mine allows herself to have around 5 pictures of herself visible to the public at a time. She is an amazing and beautiful person, with hundreds of wonderful pictures of her having fun and living a full life. But with her web cam she can take hundreds of photos and critic and destroy herself in every one until she has one that’s so distorted to fit beauty standards, it doesn’t even look like her beautiful self any more. And those are the pictures she’ll allow “out there.” None of the adorable pictures of her real self in real life are good enough. Because she has this power to control her image, instead of loving herself she critics every little bit until she can put out this controlled fake image of herself. And it breaks my heart.

    • Emily

      I think that selfies are a tool. (Entirely aware of how ridiculous that sounds.) They’re not inherently good or bad, but you can use them to accomplish different things.

      • http://brokensaucer.blogspot.com/ sera

        Agreed, selfies are a tool. I think you have to decide what you want from taking them. I started doing this selfie thing not to tear myself down but to build myself up. I made a conscious effort to do so. A year ago, I couldn’t have even contemplated this project, let alone looked at myself positively.

  • lady brett

    i do not do the selfie thing (if i can avoid it, i don’t participate in any sort of photos). but back in my art days all of my favorite (and, more objectively, best) drawings, paintings, prints were self portraits. in order not to feel self-conscious about it, i chalked it up to exposure (i mean, i see myself a lot, of course i do a better job re-creating me than re-creating others). well, that and my willingness to sit still for myself for hours (which just feels rude to ask of someone else).

    but that quote really hits it: “People often think that looking in the mirror is about narcissism. Children look at their reflection to see who they are.” (especially since my art years were my teenage years.)

  • Kayjayoh

    I also have a folder of self-portraits on my computer, thanks to Mac’s Photobooth program. I don’t show most of them to other people, though one or two have become profile pictures.

    One thing I discovered that was a revelation to me is that the way that Photobooth flipped the webcam images. The photos it took were basically mirrored, and I found them all to be super flattering. Then I tried flipping other photos of myself in Photoshop, and liked those better than the originals. I realized that one of the things I found so off-putting about photos of myself is that it wasn’t the me I was used to seeing.

    I am used to seeing myself in the mirror. Not only does that mean that I am only used to my face at certain angles, but that the subtle asymmetrical properties of my face look different in the mirror vs in the camera (or to the eyes of others). Photos of myself always looked wrong to me because they looked unfamiliar. Photobooth, my phone’s back-facing camera, and mirror selfies show me the me I know.

    • Meg Keene

      THAT’S CRAZY.

      • Kayjayoh

        Try it sometime. Take a picture of yourself that other people like and you do not. Flip it. Magic will happen.

        • http://www.smittenchickens.com/ Sarah Hoppes

          SO TRUE.

    • http://brokensaucer.blogspot.com/ sera

      I completely understand that. Also, I noticed that if you take a photo from within instagram, it will be a mirror image of yourself or what you see in the mirror. I always think of my part as on the other side of my head – so weird.

    • Laura

      I just did this and cannot get over how completely true it is!

  • http://www.thehousealwayswinsblog.com/ Rachel Wilkerson

    “We live in a society that is entirely content to judge us on our appearances, yet doesn’t want us to be participants in the way we’re portrayed.” THIS. For me, it goes back to the idea of the effortless woman. We’re expected to be beautiful, but we aren’t allowed to work to be beautiful, to spend time on the pursuit of being beautiful, or to think we’re beautiful…except of course then Dove tells us all it’s so sad we don’t think we’re beautiful, so now we have to think that we are…but we’re not allowed to talk about it or to do anything that hints at the idea that we think we are. (Or, to put it this way: you can’t call yourself fat. You also can’t call yourself beautiful.) And the thing is, posting a selfie isn’t inherently even saying, “I’m beautiful”…sometimes, it’s just saying, “I’m here. I exist.” The criticism often just feels like one more way existing as a woman is “doing it for attention.”

    • Emily

      “you can’t call yourself fat. You also can’t call yourself beautiful.” I think that sums it up right there.

      • Lauren from NH

        Maybe this is taking it too theoretical, but there’s the whole problem right? As a woman you are not supposed to call yourself anything. It doesn’t matter if you like you. You are here for others to approve or disapprove of, for their visual enjoyment, you are not supposed to have a say in that. You are just to exist beautifully, no one wants to hear your back story of what it took to look like this or how it made you feel. It just makes me think of all of the male photographers and fashion designers and the female models as the mere objects of their art. It makes me think of the Oscars coming up and Cate Blanchet calling out that camera man panning her body at the other awards show. It makes me think of the people who’s whole job is to criticize the dress and bodily appearance of (predominantly) women on the red carpet.
        A bit of feminist rage happening. Perhaps I should take a selfie of politely setting something on fire (one of my favorite APW lines).

        • http://breckwinokur.com/ Breck

          You know, I don’t think you’re being too theoretical at all. There’s nothing wrong with putting effort into your appearance or drooling over red carpet gowns (lord knows I’ll be watching on Sunday), but the lack of agency in so many of these scenarios is what gives me a bit of the icks. Like, women are supposed to be decorative, but if its intentional or of their own volition, it’s showy and narcissistic. I’m not a model, but I’ve absolutely been in situations where I felt like a pretty ornament, nothing more, and it really, really sucked.

        • Meg Keene

          YES.

          Also, this has been called out to me as a problem by readers. We’re not allowed to call ourselves other (arguably way more important) things. Like, successful. Women are not supposed to EVER call themselves successful. Or good mothers (calling yourself a bad mother is, however, encouraged). But you know what reinforces goodness? The words we use to describe ourselves. Call ourselves successful (think of ourselves as successful humans) and we’re far more likely to achieve (at whatever we care about). Call ourselves good mothers (and think of ourselves that way) and we’re far more likely to do well for our families.

          • http://brokensaucer.blogspot.com/ sera

            Exactly, but the societal norm does not want us to achieve success in order to be good for our families. Yet another aspect of the conundrum of being a woman. grumble.

        • http://brokensaucer.blogspot.com/ sera

          Exactly!! This isn’t theoretical. This just is. We aren’t allowed to think of ourselves as anything, as if we aren’t allowed to think of ourselves at all. Not only are we just walking/talking ornaments, there for others to judge, but we’re not allowed any introspection in order to find ourselves or be true to ourselves. It’s as if “I think therefore I am” was only intended for men.
          You know, another thing about my own selfie project – I don’t think I would have been able to do it without feeling as if this, here, APW is a safe space with like minds. Thank you for that!!!!

    • http://breckwinokur.com/ Breck

      “The criticism often just feels like one more way existing as a woman is ‘doing it for attention.'” Yep, this.

      I also feel like this whole idea (the criticism of selfies, the pressure to be effortlessly beautiful/put together, etc.) has been co-opted to further competition between women. Like, “She’s so showy/obvious/into herself, while I’m subtle and effortless.”

      • http://www.thehousealwayswinsblog.com/ Rachel Wilkerson

        “She’s so showy/obvious/into herself, while I’m subtle and effortless.” YES YES YES!!! Such a good point!!

  • http://www.staciafuchsiaphoto.com stacia fuchsia

    I had a similar experience taking self-portraits, starting in my teens, when I got my first digital camera (3 megapixels, y’all!). At first they were blurry, indistinct close-ups, but gradually I got more creative and more brave. My photos showed more of my body (and showed it more clearly), and I was more willing to share them with others. Being able to choose which images to show and which to scrap was very powerful. The photos that I made public were ones I felt represented me well or communicated something about me that I wanted to communicate. They helped me shape my identity as well as be comfortable in my body. They also helped me grow as a photographer — I was the best, most patient model I could hope for. :) I don’t take as many self-portraits as I used to, probably in part because I am past the bulk of that intensive identity-creation (though it’s an ongoing, lifelong process, of course) and probably in part because I have lots of other people to take photos of these days, but every once in a while I find myself setting up my tripod, to get back in touch with that power.

  • MG

    This post has nothing to do with wedding advice! I would have loved to find pieces like some of the non-wedding related ideas about feminism before looking for wedding advice. Maybe we need a new website for everyday practicalness…

    • Julia27

      While I can understand where you are coming from, I would have to disagree. The author is talking about self-image in relation to selfies, which, from my perspective can impact how you see and plan your wedding, and more importantly your marriage.

    • joanna b.n.

      But I love what MG is saying – that this is worth broadly sharing, maybe more broadly than get reached through a “wedding” named site…

    • Meg Keene

      Running two websites (and monetizing and hence being able to afford) two websites is harder than you’d think. So yeah, in theory, it’s a rad idea. In practice, it’s not one I can afford right now as a unfunded bootstrapper. APW is expensive to run, and it’s taken me six years to build this business model and staff. Maybe at some point, but less a pile of money, not today.

      • http://brokensaucer.blogspot.com/ sera

        I still think these conversations are relevant to the wedding community. I thought the whole point of “reclaiming wife” was to discuss who we are as individuals as we enter into a relationship with another person. Yes, I’ve been married for 4 years now but this discussion is just as important to me now as it was then. And for those who prefer just the particularly wedding related stuff, skip over these. But if you do, I think you’ll miss something.

  • ruth

    Thank you for posting this. I had had mixed feelings, when I heard APW was doing “Selfies” month, because I’ve always had mixed feeling about selfies. But I think that was because I’d never considered them in this light: “We live in a society that is entirely content to judge us on our appearances, yet doesn’t want us to be participants in the way we’re portrayed….You don’t have to wait for someone else to show you who you are.”
    I’ve never taken a selfie in my life – and now I’m wondering, why is that? What is the fear and self imposed censorship that makes me terrified to take my own picture? This post is really inspiring me to reclaim my own image and take some selfies!

    • http://brokensaucer.blogspot.com/ sera

      do it!!! It’s a strange experience!

  • ruth

    Also – having grown up in the pre-selfie generation, I think my “selfies” when I was a teenager were my journals. I wrote hundreds of pages of self reflection from the age of 10 until my mid twenties. Having just discovered several boxes of these journals recently, it was such an invaluable perspective on how I became who I’ve become. To me those journals were that way of saying, as Rachel so beautifully put, “I’m here. I exist.”

    • Meg Keene

      Me TOO!

      • http://brokensaucer.blogspot.com/ sera

        you know what’s awful? I think I tossed all of my high school journals.

    • Aubry

      Journals are a great way to learn about my past self. If I didn’t know it was me writing them I wouldn’t believe some of the post written in my past (abusive) relationship were written by me. It really makes me feel good to know how far I have come and makes me feel so good about current relationship with C. Also, if you ever stumble across your old livejournal (for those who generationally apply) get ready for the LOLs. We really were just as bad as teenagers today.

  • http://www.missgiggles.com/blog Giggles

    I really like this. We all are constantly working on defining ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with using visual cues to help the process along.

  • Anon

    *Formatting issue, not a content related comment!

    The new pop-up side bar blocks text. Can this move elsewhere on the site design? The problem goes away if I don’t have the window maximized.

    • Meg Keene

      It’s a new plug in that… we’re working out.

  • http://brokensaucer.blogspot.com/ sera

    First, I’m still processing the brilliance of the statement: “You don’t have to wait for someone else to show you who you are. You can pick up a camera any time you’d like.” I’m also still processing the end of my 28 days of selfies – I’m not sure I could go on much longer although I may try. In 26 days so far (because I started on Feb 3), I have become creatively pressed, surprised at impromptu shots being good, and irritatingly challenged by grey daylight. And I’m shocked that I’ve only taken one photo of my feet (a selfie not including my face) and that I haven’t yet included a full body shot in a mirror. I’m still trying to process what these 28 days have done for me, and I’m wondering if I don’t need to persist until I’ve wrapped my head around how I do see who I am. And if I need to use my camera to do that, so be it.

  • elsie

    Oh my gosh, I am literally eating straight out of the nutella jar right now while reading this.

  • http://brokensaucer.blogspot.com/ sera

    By the way Lucy, that self-portrait “Roma” is stunningly beautiful.

  • Rebecca Lynn

    love. love. love.