Journal Photos

On the taking of selfies for mental health

I was 47 when I took my first selfie.

Defining ‘selfie’ as a photograph of oneself by oneself for purely social reasons – i.e. not because I needed a profile pic for a website, or an identification picture for my national speed awareness course – my first selfie was taken in Brighton train station. I was eating a jumbo sausage roll from the kiosk there, except not really, because I was so embarrassed at taking a picture of myself that I had my scarf obscuring the lower part of my face. I think I posted it on twitter, on an account that no longer exists, and I did not enjoy the experience at all.

I’ve never had a great relationship with my body. Yes, during my teenage years when I hilariously still thought of myself as a normal cishet male, there were times when it wasn’t too bad. In fact there were several inches of my body that I was quite close to on a regular basis. But for the most part my body, including my face, was too fat, too thin, too short, too ugly, too gendered, and generally Just Not Quite Right.

And I think this was partly at play in my unwillingness to take selfies. Granted, I am not a millennial, and when I was that age taking a photo consisted of sitting perfectly still for an exposure of several minutes before the image could be developed with the treatment of heated mercury fumes. I confess to not at all understanding the millennial fascination with selfies and treating it as a symptom of narcissism, if not some malady far more serious, the sort of malady likely talked about disparagingly by C. Montgomery Burns.

But more likely, I just didn’t want to take a picture because I didn’t want to look at myself. In my head I didn’t look the way I looked in photos. When I caught sight of myself in a shop mirror, I always thought the person looking back at me resembled in more than a passing way Darth Vader when Luke removed his helmet in Empire. Why, then, would I want to look at that?

Secretly though I’m fascinated by the idea of selfies, but not traditional, Instagram-era, duck face selfies. Vivian Maier produced some amazing selfies, some of which have a melancholy poignancy about them. Lee Friedlander produced dozens if not hundreds of highly imaginative, non-traditional selfies. More than their aesthetic qualities though, I wondered about their potential as a mental health tool.

I found a bunch of articles, like this one, pointing to the idea that there are three main types of selfie taker:

“According to the study, communicators use selfies to engage with their followers and stimulate discussion, so the goal is two-way communication. Autobiographers are focused on documenting and sharing significant moments and events that are important to them. They want to share, but are less concerned with actual feedback. The smallest group was self-publicists, who use selfies to document pretty much their entire life, from a trip to Europe to a trip to the DMV.”

Whilst that makes sense, it’s more about description and understanding than action. I much prefer this quote:

“As a guideline for “safe selfie-ing,” Rutledge says, “make sure you’re taking it for a purpose. Like, ‘I’m taking this selfie to show that I’m at the gym again today,’ ‘I’m taking this selfie because I love this cup of coffee,’ or ‘I’m taking this selfie because I want to tell my sister how much I love the present she sent me.’ In other words, uses that [reflect] fundamentally positive emotions so that when you revisit them, you feel good.” And even if that reason is “my eye makeup is on point today,” that’s A-OK.”

I really like this idea. It’s almost like reprogramming the brain. When you take a selfie, make sure that it’s associated with a positive memory or emotion. That way, when you look at your own image, you learn to associate it with that positive feeling.

That alone feels like a good reason to take a selfie. But for someone like myself, there’s a second good reason: self-identity. “A selfie is an expression of a person’s identity. It is capturing a moment in a person’s life that meant something to them, but it is also a method of finding oneself, of getting to know oneself.” As someone whose gender and sexual identities has in later life proven to be somewhat fluid, getting a grip on my identity has proven surprisingly difficult.

That’s why I thought that, in these dank times of social distancing and enforced home stays, a selfie project might be an interesting project for my mental health. For one, it would give me something creative to do and focus on while our liberties are necessarily curtailed. For another, the creation of a decent selfie would be a positive emotion to associate with that image (it’s hard to tell from looking at them I know, but I’m a fierce critic of my own photos and a keeper photo is very unusual for me). And thirdly, I hope it would help me get a grip on my own identity. The creation of this blog is a safe and anonymous place to help me make sense of that – it’s part photo project, and part journal.

There is of course another reason, because there always is, isn’t there. There’s a reason that I like to experiment with genderfuck and androgyny.

And I will rant about that, at length, elsewhere…

5 replies on “On the taking of selfies for mental health”

I am intrigued by this post, as it instantly made me think of a moment when my daughter and I were in London for a day, and somewhere during that day, with the London Eye in the background, she said: “Come on, mom, I want to take a picture.” She took a selfie with the two of us in it, and I didn’t even bother looking at it, because I don’t like selfies. On the bus back home, she paged through the photos she had taken. The selfie came up and with a smile, she showed it to me. I immediately said: “I look terrible!” Her reaction (bless her): “No, you don’t. You look lovely. And, that’s us, mom and daughter!” I smiled, and said: “Yes, but I still have a double chin and look terrible.”

After having read this post, I thought back of the moment she took the image, and how happy she was to be in London, how happy I was to have her there with me. And I realize now, that selfie is the memory of that happy moment, is one of the memories of the happy day we have spent together. Thank you for reminding me of this, and I do think I will look different at selfies in the future, even if I still don’t like my double chin!

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It’s interesting to live in this era of the selfie and the extent to which people use selfies to portray the world around them. I also struggle with photos of myself, especially those with my face in them. Taking photos and putting them on my blog has helped me come to terms with various aspects of my body image. I hope that this project has positive outcomes for you too.


I wanted to say firstly how much I enjoyed reading your post. It was really interesting to think about the reasons for taking selfies and the idea of commenting moments which have positive memories attached to them makes so much sense. Your post has made me think about this much more, so thank you for that. I don’t have a good relationship with my body either and so tend not to like pictures of myself. I absolutely love this image of you. It is really strong and sexy and the black and white edit is stunning. I like the softness of your legs at the top of your stockings and the way the light catches your skirt. I look forward to seeing more of your images as your use them to explore your identity so I hope that you will continue to share. missy x

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