Selfies: The high cost of low confidence

While social media has its negatives, it has also allowed for a broadening of what it is to look “normal”

Chantelle Winnie, International Supermodel on Selfie: The high cost Of Low Confidence Women In The World London Summit, Cadogan Hall, London on October 9, 2015.

“In my mum’s day, she had to look cute for a couple of years to catch that elusive thing called a man,” said Dr. Susie Orbach, co‐founder of the Woman’s Therapy Centre speaking at the Women in the World Summit on Friday. Nowadays, however, preserving and repackaging our lives in the creation of public digital selves has become a part of nearly every young woman’s behavior.

Nina Nesbitt, a singer and songwriter speaking on the panel presented by Dove, wrote a song called “Selfie,” which she said is “a modern day breakup song” that illuminates the darker sides to sharing on social media. Sometimes guilty of this herself, Nesbitt describes the phenomenon of “people using social networks to try to get assurance and validation for themselves.” Her song, in which she recounts the act of putting up a smiling selfie after a breakup, has struck a nerve with many young girls from whom she receives piles of confiding letters. “It surprises me still how many girls have a darker side beneath the surface of their Twitters or their Instagrams, where you see smiling pictures of friends.”

Orbach goes further, explaining that body confidence is not only a key issue for the developed world, but wherever women are suffering. “Civil society is being robbed by the robbing of girls’ confidence.” She stressed the seriousness of the global pandemic of body confidence issues that she sees as “a very serious public health emergency” which needs to be addressed. “We’re now seeing girls as young as six in the playground transacting around body dislike, saying they feel fat, getting cosmetic surgery apps. We’re stealing their childhoods.” To Orbach, this early exposure to physical evaluation is highly destructive: a “virus of body hatred, entering into their experience of their own capacity.” And why does it happen? “I’m afraid there’s a lot of money to be made.”

For Terri Senft, professor at New York University who in 2014 began an academic Selfies Research Network, the selfie has its positives: “I’m old enough to remember “Tears of a Clown” by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles. The idea that you put on a brave face during a breakup — it’s a pretty old idea.” She took a moment to calm her trembling voice, before talking about her 12‐year‐old niece, for whom she is an “ersatz caretaker” since the death of her mother two years ago. “It’s been difficult for her to talk face to face with students in her class.” However, her involved online presence has allowed her niece to immerse herself in an online visual arts community in which she is comfortable and flourishing.

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Moderated by Laverne Antrobus, consultant psychologist and presenter on BBC documentaries, the conversation turned to being accepted by society as looking different. While social media has its negatives, it has also allowed for the broadening of what it is to look “normal,” because so many young people are able to brand themselves as beautiful to a wide audience. Into this world has appeared Chantelle Winnie, the first international supermodel with vitiligo, a condition in which the immune system recognizes skin pigment as a disease and destroys it like it would a common cold.

Winnie says that being accepted as different is still “history in the making.” Launching her career on the American TV show America’s Next Top Model, she had to carve a space for herself in which she could feel comfortable. At one point she had to ask the photographer who called her his “panda bear” to refrain from referring to her as an animal. “There are still companies who don’t see me as a model, but as that girl with the skin condition, like when I was at school.”

Speaking about what can be done to reverse the confidence issues of younger girls, Orbach sees the road to recovery as requiring the involvement of all participants in a young girl’s life. “The teachers, the dinner ladies, everybody who interacts with a 5-year-old, needs to actually go through a process of understanding their own relationships to their body, to beauty, because otherwise they’re just delivering a lesson that doesn’t work,” Orbach said.

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