When was the last time you took a selfie? How often do you taken them? Do you share them? If you do, how many shots does it take before you settle on the perfect one? Did you tell a tiny fib to yourself as you totted up the numbers there? When it comes to admitting our selfie habits, it seems only questions about our sexual history come with more awkwardness.
I take them almost every day, usually a burst of about three or four. I take them and forget all about them; I don’t tend to make them public. They’re just for me. Sometimes I’m drunk, sometimes I’m worried about my hair and sometimes I wonder how I’m looking in this light, but I take them, am momentarily reassured – or, more usually, horrified – and then they’re out of my head. I’m only ever reminded of them when I scroll through my camera roll, looking for a sassy meme or that GIF of Sable in Dynasty looking back over her shoulder and laughing. How strange, I sometimes think, that I took a picture of myself then. What was I thinking, I wonder. But I never know the answer. Well, almost never. There’s one set of selfies I remember very well, that’s with me every day.
Today it’s exactly five years since I took the picture of my eye that you can see in the header of this blog, and that has followed me round ever since, attaching itself to my byline like an embarrassing little brother or an ex who can’t accept that I’m just not that into him any more.
It is part of a set, of absolutely loads of photos I took of myself on 19 September 2011. I was alone, obviously, in my flat in Camberwell. I spent a lot of time alone in that flat. There is a big difference between being alone, actual solitude, and loneliness, and at the time I imagine I would’ve very emphatically denied I was lonely, but thinking about it now, with my crystal clear hindsight, taking in all these photos, looking into my eye, I know I was.
There are 50 pictures in the set, and I know it was an impromptu “shoot” because a) they always were, I’m not vain enough to plan them (yet) and b) my hair is a mess. I hadn’t styled it at all that day. The first picture was taken mid-afternoon, and no product on my hair by that time of day can mean only one thing: I was hungover. Not all the pictures have my hand over my eye. Some of the photos show my face, and in a few you can see my whole face but the eyes are closed. What is it that makes a face recognisable, I wonder? In the photo above, you can see some of my nose. Would you now be able to spot me if you walked past me in the street? How much would be just enough for you to know me? It’s odd, isn’t it? What makes you you? It’s something I ask myself a lot.
This wasn’t the first time I’d taken a run of pictures of myself, and as my Photos app can testify, it certainly wasn’t the last. When I took the photos, selfies weren’t yet really a thing – I don’t even know if they were called that by then. This means the selfie backlash hadn’t really taken off either; nobody had yet bothered to condemn someone for taking a picture of themselves. I used to take a lot of pictures of myself when I was alone in the flat, and that was often. I look back at them now and worry that I’d fallen into Julie Burchill’s trap – she once said that she found herself “utterly fascinating”, but don’t we all, to a degree? We are the main character in our very own storyline. As long as we don’t employ it at the expense of others, a little bit of self-interest can be a positive thing.
Taking them, I can now say from the future, was an opportunity to study myself like I never had before. Finding myself single at 34 began a weird and enlightening journey of self-disocvery. I’d been part of a couple for so long, and before that part of a crew of friends and flatmates and flings, and before that living at home, getting on with growing up. I had never spent so much time with myself, so much time on myself. It was strange having nobody else to think about, and nobody thinking of me. I had never felt like such an individual, and it was unnerving. What did I really like? How was I? Was I a good person? Would I ever be loved again? Did I want to be? So much time to think, and I had no TV to watch and block it all out. Shopping at the supermarket was harrowing – only ready meals seem to cater for the sad singleton – and that flat, while tiny, felt like acres and acres of space. All mine to do as I wished with it. So I did what any normal bachelor would do with all that free space – I made a mess of it and never cleaned.
My flat was painted bright white, optimum backdrop for selfies, and had loads of windows, making it very light inside. My favourite place to take my selfies, however, was my windowless hallway. It had an intercom for the door entry buzzer, and it was just the perfect height for placing a camera, setting the timer and, well, getting my selfie on.
I wonder what was going through my head as I took my first one. It seems odd to think of it now, the getting into position, taking a few and weighing up whether it was a good angle. What was I even thinking of using them for? This set was for my blog, I remember, but all the others, all the ones I never shared – why? I don’t think I’d ever studied myself so closely. The shape of my head surprised me; the deepness of my brow, my imperfect skin and my uneven lips disappointed me. And my eyes which I’d never really paid much attention to, stood out, blue and clear but weary, resigned. I’ve never believed all that bollocks about eyes being the window to one’s soul, but they were certainly an accurate barometer of my mood that day.
I was 35, then – the same age as Beyoncé. That I am 40 now seems as unimaginable to me today as it would’ve five years ago. Time comes for you. Taking all these pictures was therapeutic in a way. I was taking some time to myself, to get to know myself. It’s not strange to me now that I chose the close-up of my eye through my fingers, complete with bitten-down nails that nobody seems to have noticed, to be the picture that represents me. It’s revealing and yet leaves plenty to the imagination. It’s hiding but it wants you to see.
Selfies are more than just a mugshot, they tell you who you are at a specific time in history. And I believe they’re a confidence boost. Why shouldn’t you take a picture of yourself? You’re worth the time, deserving of the click and the edit and the filtering. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. They’re just envious nobody wants to take a picture of them.
Whether you take one to share or just for yourself, take one today, and have a good look. This is who you are today. You will never be you again.