Psychologists Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell concluded in their 2009 book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living In the Age of Entitlement that, “we are in the midst of a narcissism epidemic.” One of the studies they examined showed that among a group of 37,000 college students, narcissistic personality traits rose just as quickly as obesity from the 1980s to the present. Frightening…we have an entire generation of people who suffer from COW disease… they see themselves as Center Of the World. One of the behaviors associated with Millennials and their COW disease is the selfie, the picture you take of yourself. To add to the effect, we have the mirror selfie. The mirror has been the symbolic tool to measure vanity. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the prettiest of them all? The mirror selfie, hence, is the love child of modern technology and vanity.
I’m classified as Generation X, and I suppose I’m not too far away from Millennials. So why do I find the mirror selfie ridiculously despicable? Shouldn’t I be the bridge that closes the gap between perplexed Baby Boomer and self-obsessed Millennial? Shouldn’t I, at the least, understand the desired effect of the mirror selfie as something that is, at the minimum… a useful tool to share a piece of oneself to a wider audience? Well, I don’t. I find it despicable and annoying. I have a friend on Instagram who constantly posts mirror selfies at the gym. Ok we get it, you’re getting fit. But dayum, every single post has to be the same mirror selfie pose? It gets old as an audience. And it makes me think you are full of yourself. Why are you so freakin full of yourself?
Now that you know how I feel about mirror selfies, allow me to provide a confession. Today I took my first mirror selfie. For reasons undisclosed, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and took a picture of myself. I even smiled. No pursed-up lips, no side profile turn, no skin exposure (I was wearing work clothes)…quite a plain vanilla mirror selfie. I didn’t post it to any social media site, nor did I use it as a profile picture for any accounts. I sent it to one person, with a note that this would be my only mirror selfie ever. He replied with a compliment, and it felt nice. Hell, let’s be real here, it felt really nice! Imagine the multiplication factor of feeling nice from 100 compliments, or 1,000 compliments, or … you get my point. And now I get it, too. These Millennials are playing out Charles Cooley’s Looking Glass Self Theory of Everyday Life. Cooley explains that “the ‘I’ of common speech has a meaning which includes some sort of reference to other persons is involved in the very fact that the word and the ideas it stands for are phenomena of language and the communicative life. It is doubtful whether it is possible to use language at all without thinking more or less distinctly of some one else, and certainly the things to which we give names and which have a large place in reflective thought are almost always those which are impressed upon us by our contact with other people.” In this theory of identity formation, our identities are not our own. They are a product of contact with others. And in a postmodern society, contact with others is anywhere and everywhere. It is no wonder young people take selfies en masse. They’re soliciting the feedback that we all crave as we search, seek, and shape our identities. So while psychologists explore the sense of entitlement gleaned from examining the selfie obsessed, sociologists need to be assessing the sense of fulfillment that the selfie obsessed experience when they get feedback from others. Because, seriously, who takes a selfie for themselves? What is the point of capturing yourself on camera, just for yourself? We mostly do it for others. I can postulate that the selfie (avec or sans mirror), while leading to narcissistic personality traits, can serve some purpose other than self absorption. And that is the task of the sociologist, to explore the selfie not as an act of self, but an act for others on behalf of the self.