“What’s that?” My friend said about a month ago, peering down at my phone over her sunglasses.
“It’s a selfie,” I explained patiently. I had bought a new pair of earrings and I was gamely showing them off. Or so I thought.
She leaned closer and squinted. “Of who?”
I believe this is what the kids call rock bottom.
I am bad at selfies. I always have been. I was bad when I turned a Polaroid on myself as a teenager and I was even worse when that Polaroid camera metamorphosed into a digital one. (The flash! The horror!) In fairness, the iPhone’s teeny front-facing camera never really had a chance.
My friends, meanwhile, are good at selfies. I have pals who can angle their heads with the dexterity of a bobbing doll, light bouncing off their cheekbones like they’re a kid who just had their first Fanta. They look hot. Me? I don’t really look like myself, especially if I’m not smiling in the picture. I don’t know how to make shapes with my face. I’m terrible at angles. The pictures usually end up badly lit and poorly framed, my face leering into the camera, eyes wide and terrified and terrifying. They are always blurry. I don’t know why this is, and yet, they always are. Abandon hope all ye who enter here, is what I should rename my selfie album.
With my face woefully absent from my own Instagram feed, and the very important holiday, National Selfie Day (today), approaching, I decided enough was enough. My friend Ashleigh, a beauty editor whose selfies are so good they should be hung in the Louvre, gave me a much-needed pep talk. “The internet deserves—nay, NEEDS—to see those cute freckles up in lights,” she texted. “It’s time to get snapping woman!” I figured that if I got better at self-documentation, I might learn something about myself, or perhaps boost my self-esteem, along the way. I’m not sure I really believed those things were possible, but I thought it might be fun to try.
Although I like to plunge into the deep end as much as the next marine diver, this felt like too deep a dive to do alone, even for me. I needed guidance. I needed professional help. So I called a selfie coach.
Liberty Edwards’s career began as a photographer, but her training to become a selfie coach started much earlier. “Ever since I was 15 or 16, I’ve been dressing up and pretending I was a model and going to the drugstore to get my picture taken,” she told me. Today, Edwards’s Instagram page is sprinkled with selfies that put her blue eyes and pink hair in pride of place. A few years ago, her friends and family began asking her for help when it came to improving their selfie game, so she decided to launch an online course. Now, her selfie school has around 200 students every month. Many of them are entrepreneurs who are the faces of their own businesses and feel they need to learn how to connect with their followers. Others simply want to take better selfies. It’s a broad church, and Edwards will preach to them all.
To kick things off, I sent Edwards a batch of selfies taken completely unassisted, and her feedback was surprisingly positive. “I was looking at them and I was like, What does she mean she’s horrible at selfies? I like them!’” Edwards said, encouragingly. She even enjoyed the hurried snap I took in front of the cheese cabinet at Whole Foods. Although, “it’s a little dark,” she conceded, “but we don’t necessarily worry about the perfect lighting when you’re out having fun, we’re just trying to show the atmosphere. I think you did a great job. I could tell it was cheese and wine.”
These kinds of selfies, she told me, are “living-your-life selfies.” The other kind, and the one that she teaches her clients in her course, she dubs “selfies that WOW.” These selfies stop scrollers in their tracks, encouraging them to read the caption and learn more about the person who posted them. Her most important tips for taking them are to find good light—not too high, definitely not too low—and frame your face correctly.
“If you don’t have a ring light, the refrigerator light is usually very flattering on your face,” she told me. I repeated her words back to her, in case I heard wrong. Did she say the light in my fridge? “I know. But it’s genuinely a good trick,” she responded. “Try it, and don’t feel silly either, because you have to get super close into the refrigerator to get the light on your face so that you’re not photographing the meat and cheese in your fridge.”
I tried it the next morning, shoving my face right up to the light in my fridge and grinning maniacally. The pictures were horrible: my fridge’s light is a spluttering, weak thing and it isn’t flattering at all. Also, the height of my fridge is completely wrong and I had to crouch to squeeze into it, the top of the fridge cutting off my face in the picture.
And then my flatmate caught me. “What on earth are you doing?” she said, looking at me like I’d lost my mind.
“Taking a selfie,” I mumbled.
“Right,” she said. A humiliating pause stretched out between us like a cat. “Can you pass the coffee?”
After the fridge incident, I wasn’t game enough to try Edwards’s other suggestion in the common areas of my apartment. This is mainly because Edwards’s other suggestion was to open my selfie camera and stare at my face for an enormous 30 minutes.
“This is what I think most women struggle with because in order to get the perfect angle, you have to stare at your face for a very long time,” Edwards explained. “And I think somewhere along the lines in this world, women were told they shouldn’t look at themselves and they shouldn’t be noticed. Which I think is baloney.”
I sat on my bed, opened my camera, and looked. Given that I don’t wear that much makeup, I don’t think I’d ever spent so long looking at my own face. I looked at the freckles on my nose, the scar on my forehead, the bags under my eyes (model’s own). I need to get my eyebrows done, I thought. There was a breakout staking its claim on my chin. I liked the way my face looked when I tilted my head just so. It looked the most like me, or the me I want people to see: fun and approachable and someone you could have a beer with.
This is what Edwards was getting at: “What I say is: become a professor of your face.” For the first time in my life, I felt like I was—maybe not a professor, exactly, but definitely an eager adjunct teaching associate keen to mark some group assignments.
I took a furious burst of selfies that weekend. This was in part because I got my hair cut and my Swedish hairdresser really knows how to give a girl a blowdry. But it was also because I was having a lot of fun with friends visiting from Australia, drinking cocktails, eating enormous plates of pasta, and dancing in the street. I was so relaxed and happy that I stopped treating the act of taking selfies that seriously, which in turn made the pictures better.
“I have to take some selfies for this story I’m working on,” I said at one point, rolling my eyes dramatically.
“Oh, shut up,” my friend replied, laughing. “You fucking love it.”
I did, actually. I’m not at the advanced, Kim Kardashian-level of 1500 selfies a day. (Two for every single minute she is awake, if you really want to know.) But I’ve come to enjoy it. I like the act of self-documentation and the way it feels like I’m marking out my life, picture by picture. And I do feel more confident. Really spending time looking at my face, something I hadn’t done much before, has made me appreciate what I have.
It’s not all fridge lights and self-confidence, though. Anxiety rates among young people are soaring, courtesy of social media, and selfies can play a huge role in that, according to counselling psychologist Dr. Sarah Davies. As she sees it, navigating that particular minefield is all about intent. Why are you taking that selfie and why are you sharing it?
“Honestly ask yourself,” she said. “Is it to make people laugh? Inspire others? Or is it a self-esteem boost? Do I need certain feedback to feel okay?” If it’s the latter, it’s not necessarily a problem in and of itself. “It’s okay if you do [post selfies] to get a bit of attention or self-esteem boost from time to time,” Davies added. “It’s just important you are honest with yourself about what it is you are hoping, if anything, that selfie brings.” And, she added, maybe think about coming up with some other coping mechanisms when the self-esteem cup runneth under.
My week of digital narcissism almost over, I sent my latest batch of selfies to Edwards. She liked one of them, telling me to move the camera closer to my face next time. The fridge one was a disaster, as was another one of me pulling what I thought was a silly pose, though she offered the consolation that they “definitely showed my personality and made me seem like a fun woman.” She ended on an encouraging note: “I’m so happy with your enthusiasm to keep trying, you are doing great!”
My enthusiasm, which admittedly became less ironic as the exercise went on, surprised me. Even though I failed at the “selfies that WOW,” I passed the “living-your-life selfies” with flying colors. And my selfie album no longer feels like a sad collection, but rather a grab bag of joy and exuberance, a reminder of how much fun it can be to see yourself.
Photos provided by Hannah-Rose Yee.