The Self Portrait, The 'Selfie'

Self 2019, Projected image by Claude Lorrain


The introduction of the mirror in the 14th Century and the symbolism imbued in it allowed painters to paint themselves with more accuracy, and by the time the mid-15th century rolled around men were painting themselves either as a self-portrait or as an important character in the painting among their still-life’s and landscapes. This is not to say that there were no women painters, or that those women painters did not also create self-portraits. Catharina van Hemessen created what can be regarded the first self portrait of a painter at an easel in 1548. Women painters were, due to the nature of training required to be a painter, unable to practice drawing the nude in a studio, and so it makes sense that many women painters before the early 20th century specialised in creating portrait work, and by extension, self-portraits.

In the 17th Century Rembrandt was classed as one of the most prolific of self-portrait painters, although it is now known that Rembrandt had his students copy his self-portraits as part of their training. Self portraits historically depicted either the painter at work, or more personal portraits that whisper more about the subject, their beliefs maybe, or morality.

The self-portrait was also used extensively as a way of self promotion, especially for portrait painters and once the camera and photograph were available, artists began using this medium too, to create self-portraits. Robert Cornelius is credited with the first photo self-portrait in 1839.

But, I hear you ask, what does this have to do with selfies, and by extension the self portrait, especially as a woman?

Although women have been part of artistic movements, they have been overshadowed by men. Art, in all forms has been typically a male dominated space, despite notable women creating exemplary work, they have long been overshadowed.


The Male Gaze

In 1989 Guerrilla Girls created their widely shared and seminal piece ‘Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?’ A valid criticism all things considered.

There have long been associations of the female form in art, that has, historically been depicted by men. Men that have painted, drawn, photographed their ideals, their view of the ‘beautiful’ female form. To turn that lens to ourselves is to subvert how men think we, as women should be presenting. John Berger once wrote, in Ways of Seeing “You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.” To take a selfie is to control how we want to be viewed and how we want to present ourselves. Rarely do we share ‘selfies’ where we are not looking our best.

There are arguments to be made though, that when women share selfies they are knowingly, or unknowingly sharing images that appease the male gaze. Due to the saturation of images created of women by men, we have been socially influenced to see our own selfies through the gaze of a man. There is a more nuanced thought process where we do elevate the selfie to something more, where the the selfie taker is considerate of how they may have been viewed by men and either challenges or complies with that gaze.

To be critical of the selfie is often taken as to be critical of the subject. The selfie, like the self portrait is a projection of self, and the examples of selfies mirror those self portraits once taken. Many take selfies to demonstrate wealth, social status or beauty. Selfies have a layer of the taker showing their talent or creativity.

ellen degeneres, Jared Leto, Jennifer Lawrence, Channing Tatum, Meryl Streep, Ellen DeGeneres, Julia Roberts, Kevin Spacey, Bradley Cooper, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong’o, Angelina Jolie, famous selfie

A selfie shared by Ellen DeGeneres has now become classed as one of the most famous selfies; like those historical self portraits it demonstrates an element of social status and wealth, one that some may aspire too.

The selfie, like the self portrait is a way for anyone to create their own self.

Cindy Sherman was a fore-runner for subverting the male gaze, her Untitled Film Stills saw Sherman taking on fictional characters, the body of work a critique of the portrayal of women in the media in 1977. Sherman played director and subject, just as we do with our selfies.

In 2014, Amalia Ulman created an artwork solely on instagram. At risk of turning this into a(nother) tirade about instagram Ulman curated a ‘brand’ that played the game of instagram and popularity. Ulman showed us that like the historic self-portrait artists she decides how she wants to be viewed, and she can manipulate viewers to see her how she wants them to see her. It’s extremely clever.

selfie is feminist historical male gaze subvert

The selfie allows us to create caricatures of ourselves for online audiences, similar to that of self portraits and the self portrait artist, it is this power of the selfie that we, as women, can (and do) harness. Each selfie a woman takes, even if there is no more thought in it that “I look pretty” imbues power, it is, inherently a feminist act. For a woman to take a selfie, to decide that the composition, the light, the aesthetics are ‘on-point’ is to use our own agency and power.

Although the press has touted selfies as ‘narcissistic’, is this because we are not seeing the history? As mentioned previously, it was, at one point, commonplace to pay for a portrait to demonstrate wealth and social standing, is taking a selfie not the same? Is it because women are more likely to take a selfie that we class selfies as narcissistic? Women, in controlling the lens that is facing them, are pushing for the world to view women differently, and this is not changing anytime soon.

For all the derisive comments centred at women who do take selfies, women are still taking, and sharing their own self-portraits. Some women are using this to support others, some are sharing as part of political discourse. They are fat, black, scarred and damning the idea of the women we usually see in the media, they are using their bodies and their photographs to effect societal change, and shouldering the emotional labour this takes, too. These women are demanding that they are to be seen, having been hidden by societal standards for too long, and I support them.

Long live the selfie, and all who take them.

Censorship, Hypocrisy and Instagram

There’s a lot of censorship going on on instagram right now, and I have thoughts and a blog to revive, so lets get to it.


Since the dawn of the app instagram have been removing photographs featuring female nipples. Arguments are made in instagram’s community guidelines that the female nipple is ‘not appropriate for a diverse audience’. The community guidelines instagram has perpetrate the ingrained societal view that the female nipple is inherently sexual. But not the male nipple.

Obviously the most ingenious idea was to replace female nipples with male nipples, with Michol Hebron suggesting this idea back in June 2014. Interestingly enough, images that used Hebron’s idea of replacing female nipples with male nipples have now been removed by instagram. Many articles that displayed examples now show that instagram still removed these photos because nipples are offensive.

Many of us who do post nude photos to instagram take the risk of having our photo deleted, even when censoring genitals and nipples.

Some are finding clever ways to circumvent instagram’s archaic rules, such as @claudiasahuquillo. who uses the fact that Instagram is quite comfortable with photos of paintings and sculptures that display the female nipple. I struggle to find how instagram can draw the line between a painting or drawing or sculpture of a nipple and a photograph; is it because it is a photograph of a part of a woman’s body or is it because society views a female nipple as sexual? Lets be honest here, I’m sure that for some people it doesn’t matter how the nipple is depicted, be it through photography or drawing - someone is still going to masturbate to it. In the 1940’s Tom Poulton wasn’t just illustrating medical textbooks but creating erotica - there is a long history of individuals drawing erotic and pornographic material.


Instagram is a photo sharing app, one that businesses use to attract customers, and so it makes sense that those in sex work would utilise the app. But then instagram said, “Actually, no you can’t”, instagram states in the Community Guidelines that:

Offering sexual services, buying or selling firearms and illegal or prescription drugs (even if it’s legal in your region) is also not allowed.

‘Sexual services’ is a broad umbrella, but according to instagram, PornHub do not break their Community Guidelines but @katsandcrows, @tommyrose__ and a whole host of other sex workers do break their Guidelines. Which leads me to believe that these rules are arbitrary (and more on that in a bit).

Sex work is real work, and these individuals that are being targeted are not posting anything more explicit than Porn Hub, Liberator, or Love Honey. In fact, the Liberator and Love Honey accounts both break instagram’s community guidelines with their depictions of sexual positions:

We know that there are times when people might want to share nude images that are artistic or creative in nature, but for a variety of reasons, we don’t allow nudity on Instagram. This includes photos, videos, and some digitally-created content that show sexual intercourse, genitals, and close-ups of fully-nude buttocks.

I am no prude, I don’t believe that sex workers should be removed from instagram, and I don’t actually believe that images of sexual positions should be removed either, but I do believe that if instagram is going to set a standard, everyone should be held to that standard, including multi-national companies. @katsandcrows made an excellent point in Refinery29, that sex sells, and any savy company will use that to it’s advantage.


View this post on Instagram

I have been so insanely overwhelmed with all the beautiful messages you guys are sending and seeing the same thing happen to so many other strong amazing people has really got me thinking... @instagram - you’ve taken it too far. On trying to eliminate pro self harm and suicidal accounts, you’ve eliminated all the ones who are pure and good too. I never said I was better. I can’t just be fixed, it doesn’t work like that... Believe me if it did I would have god damn tried! I just want to help people grow through their darkness... grow WITH their darkness. This is why I’m going to start a hashtag... it will be #youcantcensormyskin Please support me on fighting back and use the hashtag on pictures and videos you’ve been too scared to share because of judgement, things you’ve been told by society is wrong and not beautiful therefore not acceptable, of things you’ve overcome in your life... I want to show that life CONTINUES with these things, we are real people with real problems. Why should we be censored for our past, for our bodies... for our skin? I will not conform to these social ideals and what the worlds deems as beautiful. People are being deleted and censored for being themselves and not covering up and hiding away? It’s not right. I want to help people, not hurt them. I want to show a real life, with a real past not the fake shit spewed our in the media. So please use the hashtag #YOUCANTCENSORMYSKIN to help 🖤💕🖤💕

A post shared by baby chlo ☆.。 (@_chl.o) on

A few months back I photographed @_chl.o. It was a good time, it was fun - we made some pretty wonderful images. And, surprise surprise, instagram don’t like them.

This is a direct action by instagram following the tragic story of Molly Russell who took her own life in 2017 after viewing images of self harm on instagram.

As someone who did self harm for many years, and looked at images of self harm before the days of instagram, I can understand the removal of fresh wounds - what I don’t understand is the removal of images that do not glorify or romanticise self harm.

I have photographed many an individual with scars, both self inflicted and otherwise. Those with scars that I have photographed are recovering, and to censor their bodies removes examples that there is recovery after self harm.

In trying to protect some, they are removing positive examples of people moving forward with their lives, and sending a message that visible scars are in someway unacceptable.

And yet again instagram show that they are arbitrarily removing these images, I can post the same image that I took of @_chl.o as she does, and hers gets deleted, whereas mine sails hidden from the prying eyes of instagram. Although I’m not actively trying to have my images removed, that they would treat us both so differently due to followers is telling.

It’s the same hypocrisy that allows a pornsite to have an account whereas a sex worker can’t.

The beautiful Sophie Mayanne who created the Behind The Scars project, is now also featuring censorship on facebook. Mayanne as yet to receive an explanation for this. I can only summarise that this is linked to instagram cracking down on any and all images of self harm.


As you can imagine, those of us affected by these indiscriminate rules are pushing back, we are requesting clarification and answers. There are individuals championing for change, @katsandcrows created a petition here, @_chl.o started the hashtag #youcantcensormyskin. There are many more hashtags and accounts springing up to challenge the new status quo.

In filtering out these accounts that instagram deem unacceptable, we are shown a diluted and sanitised version of life, when in actual fact, all bodies should be celebrated, nipples and all, that sex work is work, and there is a market for that, that skin is skin and censoring that reduces people to a scar.

In removing images of us, instagram throws a whole lot of people into the ‘inappropriate’ category. This message is being sent to so many, that their bodies, their scars, their lives are not worth sharing, because they may be a sex worker, because they may have a scar.

In some ways, instagram’s deleting spree highlights the need for a different picture sharing app that is not so strictly policed, although the last one I heard of Vero Social, appeared to fall flat on it’s face, and demonstrated how difficult it would be to create a service that can rival instagram. (As an aside, Vero does appear to have updated it’s privacy policy but you now might have a to pay a fee).

This dilution of who is allowed to share images on instagram is sad, really, (and not ‘ha-ha’ sad), I can’t be the only one left out in the cold feeling unable to relate to images because they’re so sanitised?