We’re all selfish superficial and too fat? Tedx talk by Kat Tiidenberg

This is a video and the transcript of my Ted talk at Ted x TTU in April 2016. It’s about body image, consumer economy and selfies.


I have some sayings here; let’s do a show of hands if you’ve heard these: “don’t judge a book by its cover” or “beauty is only skin deep.” The point seems to be that we shouldn’t be judged based on how we look, is that true? That we are more than our appearances, more than our bodies, do you agree?

Let’s do anther show of hands. During the past week, how many of you looked in the mirror and wished for something to be different? To be a little taller, or a little thinner – just, you know, the belly; or the thighs. Maybe you looked and wished to be more muscular or younger? To have smoother skin?

It seems, we are at an impasse. We don’t think we should be judged by our looks, but we quite harshly judge ourselves based on them. We think beauty is only skin deep, but we spend a lot of time, effort and money on trying to make ourselves look better, thus constantly engaging in something that is supposedly trivial. And it’s not just me and you either – according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, butt implants were the fastest growing type of cosmetic surgery in 2015. On average, there was a butt implant procedure every 30 minutes of every day. When I search for “love your body” in just Amazon Books, I find 14 399 results. 14 000 titles just to help us get comfortable in our own skin. Clearly we need a lot of help.

So the relationship we have with our bodies seems best described as tense. Why is that?Some say it is because we’re self-centered, narcissistic and superficial. I don’t think so. I also have some ideas on how to soothe this tension. To explain those ideas, I will use an example of something many people think is self-centered, narcissistic and superficial – selfies.

But first we have to go back in history a bit.

The advent of scientific surgery in the 18th century is said to have created and idea of a bounded, predictable body. With it came a widespread desire to control and monitor bodies according to what is “normal” and “not normal”. About a century later, perhaps for the first time in Europe, people who could afford to eat well began to systematically deny themselves food. People of course had restricted their food intake before, Ancient Greeks dieted for self-mastery, and fasting was routinely practices by Christians for spiritual purification. But as the philosopher Susan Bordo writes, the purpose of this new type of dieting was just to pursue an aesthetic ideal. Or – in other words – to look thin. Until then, being physically prominent had been a sign of being socially prominent among the middle class. But as slenderness slowly became a status symbol, excess body weight was linked to moral or personal inadequacy. This continues to be true to this day, where being fat is often associated with laziness, or lack of discipline.

In other words, through a variety of social and cultural changes, our bodies became indicators of our selves. And the sociologist Anthony Giddens argues that this has only intensified with the dissolution of traditional social order. Without the rigid rules of the class system, we are left with endless choices and a perpetual sense of insecurity. So our need to ground our identities in the body – which is much easier to control, than the self – can be linked to our desire to make sense of our lives during a complicated time.

This explains how we became our bodies and how we got preoccupied with being thin. It doesn’t quite explain why this preoccupation leaves us all so dissatisfied and conflicted.  To understand that, we need to look at the evolution of advertising.

According to some accounts, 1871 was the first time a sexy image was used in an ad. During the first half of the 20th century, sexual references in advertising were not the norm, but when used, were fairly straightforward. An image of a naked woman would be used in a varnish ad, and the text would draw an explicit parallel between the appeal of the surface of a woman and the appeal of a surface of a freshly painted object. 1953 gave us Playboy and the consecutive branding of the “horny bunny” is said to have changed marketing forever. The sexualization of the body continued, and took a turn towards raunchy and objectifying in the 80s. It’s then that a drastic change in profits was noticed whenever ads showed sexy women. By 2000, mens bodies were increasingly treated the same way in media images. It had become a marketing trope that sex sells and that showing a hot body in an ad links the product with qualities such as desirability, vitality, youth and indulgence. Research of media images over the past 50 years has shown that this sexualization has steadily gotten worse, particularly for women. Bodies in media have progressively become more sexual and more thin, and the standards of what is considered beautiful are more and more difficult to reach. The era of photo editing has given us the latest generation of new, often physically impossible body images.

Combining the transformation of our understanding of the body with the changes in using bodies in advertising puts us in a place, where, today, at least in wealthy consumer economies, our worth as a person is linked to the appearance of our bodies, but practically no one’s body lives up to the ageist, sexist and ableist standards. In a poignant example supermodel Cindy Crawford has said that even she doesn’t wake up looking like Cindy Crawford. And yet, we keep telling girls that while everyone else has something to say about how they look, they shouldn’t get too obsessed, because modesty is a virtue. No wonder we’re confused.

The system functions in an almost flawless cycle of self-reproduction – as long as we feel we don’t measure up, we keep buying things that promise to make us better, and the marketing machine, in fears of losing our attention as we become desensitized, keeps amping up the kinds of images they show us.

So what can we do? As individual humans with bodies, we can’t really just step out of the system. Most of us are aware that the representation of bodies within the visual economy is tragically skewed, but being aware of it does very little to help us resist it. We all seem to fall back into the same trap of “does this make me look fat?” If only we had a way to change how we understand and experience our bodies. If only we had a way to articulate a version of what we find sexy.

Oh wait, we do.

This is Katie, she’s one of my research participants. I’ve been researching how people use photos on social media since 2011. She’s in her early thirties, mother of two, all around upstanding citizen. She’s also been posting sexy, naked selfies on the internet for the past 5 years or so. When I asked her, some time in 2012 why she does it, she said that she started a few months after having her second child, because she was frustrated with the way society strips pregnant and nursing women of their sexuality. She needed a way to reconnect with her body and her sexual self. I’ve had many interviews with her since, and every time, what sticks is that for her taking and sharing selfies has been an empowering, therapeutic, and fun experience. So sharing sexy selfies unfixes Katie’s body from being disregarded as aesthetically inferior due to its status as a mother.

This is made possible by an assemblage of conditions. Certain aspects of the platform where she posts her images, the community she’s a part of, and the pseudonymous but long-standing nature of her own account make it feel like a safe space. This gives Katie a sense of agency and control. And as she says – it’s all about ownership. Owning her body, owning her sexuality. Doing it first and foremost for herself.

This experience of unfixing that I mentioned, is common for all of my participants, although it differs based on how the existing norms have overburdened each particular body. For my participants, who are older than Katie it’s been about their shelf life as desirable; for those who have more body mass, it’s been about being accorded sexual subjecthood at all. For some of my participants, both men and women, selfies are the first photos, where they like how they look. They’ve hated pictures that other people have taken of them. But being able to experiment, to move in front of the camera, and do so in private, away from a set of someone else’s possibly judgmental eyes, has allowed them to discover a version of their body they like.

And this is so important. It’s about so much more than finding your “good side”. It’s about having a tool at your disposal that produces a body that looks and feels good. A tool that you are free to use anywhere. A tool that you control, unlike the pens, printing presses and cameras that wrote the history; systematically erasing some groups, or only portraying them as grotesque or comical.

Now, it’s wonderful that spaces for such positive selfie sharing exist. But they don’t exist in a vacuum, do they? This goes on inside a broader system of norms and standards that continue to be limiting and discriminatory. It goes on on commercially owned platforms, for whom people’s sexy selfies are very much a commodity on which to turn a profit, even when pretending that they do not exist.  And people don’t have control over how their selfies are perceived by others. A stranger may look at a selfie that has brought self-love to a person, who has never known any, and call it fat, or old, or ugly.

The fear that these unregulated images may unsettle the status quo leads the gatekeepers of the visual economy to either disparage selfie taking, or try and co-opt it. For example, the bedrock of middle class pretentiousness, Vogue magazine, published an article in august 2015, where they wrote: A selfie is only acceptable on a few occasions: if you work in fashion and are showcasing an outfit for work purposes or if you are somewhere awesome and there is no one to take your picture. Any selfie that involves the “kissy” face is not acceptable. These pictures are not sexy. You look like an idiot. But despite the persistent shaming and nagging, we seem to be really into taking selfies, and looking at other people’s selfies, so its increasingly common for brands to try and pay the more popular selfie-takers to become their ambassadors. Remembering Essena O’Neill’s very emotional exposé of her own Instagram account we can say that getting paid to selfie tends to poisons the practice. It turns selfie takers into cogs within the existing machine, stripping it of any sense if ownership selfie taking may have given them. In this light, I want to show you another mother of two, also in her early 30s, who also regularly posts nudes on the internet, just like my informant Katie does.

You might know her.

What I want to point out here, is that while people are, perhaps rightfully so, suspicious of her, because, she is, indeed, a professional of the attention economy, and her fame, may indeed, encapsulate a lot of what is considered toxic about the celebrity culture, her own comments as to why she posts nudes, are very similar to those of Katie’s. She’s said before, that posting pictures of her butt is fun.  And she said now, after posting two consecutive nudes last week, one of which is a throwback to when she hadn’t had her second child yet and was, according to her own words 25 lbs lighter, that she does it to feel empowered by her body, by her sexuality, and to be able to show the world her flaws without being afraid of what anyone is going to say.

Of course she has the privilege of posing nude from under her own name, with her face in the frame without the fear of losing her job or a custody battle over her kids. She doesn’t need to ghettoize her self-acceptance to anonymous spaces, where all images headless, and all tattoos have to be edited out. But even she is not free from being shamed and judged.

However, what I find most interesting in the context of this talk today, is that a woman, who has made a fortune off her body, a woman who regularly uses images of her body to compel us to but stuff, seems to have the exact same tense relationship with her body that the rest of us do. And also, seems to think, that naked selfies may help.

So what is my point? I am not claiming that every picture of your boobs is automatically empowering or will start a revolution. I am, however, claiming that taking and sharing selfies has the potential to change how we understand and experience our own bodies, and through that our selves. By taking and sharing selfies, our body may become not only beautiful or sexy, but also in control and truly our own. Our bodies may become worthy of being seen, despite of what their material and social conditions are. Maybe, selfie practices do have the potential to disrupt the collective body angst we seem to suffer from. Maybe they can be one element of a broader set that we need to take back our bodies from the consumerist visual economy.

Some of this is up to you. Take good selfies, make good choices about where to post them, be kind to others. If you feel like kissing the screen, don’t let Vogue tell you it’s stupid.