The first selfie

The Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2013 is “selfie”, and selfies are upon us in all their lip- and cleavage glory. But the idea is more than a hundred years old. 

© 2013 Jeff Coleman |

© 2013 Jeff Coleman |

The Oxford Dictionaries’ definition of a selfie is “a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website”. They also list numerous interesting spin-offs like helfie (hair picture), belfie (butt picture), welfie (workout selfie), drelfie (drunken selfie) or even shelfie and bookshelfie – which may actually be a breath of fresh air if there are indeed books in the shelfies.

Because selfies are often boring to the point of annoying. Especially when people keep posting them to boredom come as if it’s a new and particularly challenging kind of “spot the difference” (tip: look for slightly wider eyes, a slight twist to the fringe, or a slightly more successful pout). Apparently the trick, or one trick, is to breathe out right before you take the pic so that your lips look as close to bursting as possible.

On the other hand, they’re quick and practical as mug shots, and some of them are cute and/or fun. Selfie defenders will say they can turn any situation around, making it fun. Funeral selfies seem to be one example of that, meaning selfies taken while attending a funeral. And since you are both behind and in front of the camera, and as importantly your own editor, selfies also make it easier to express who you really and truly are, or as one blogger states: “You are your own work of art”. Just make sure you follow the selfie rules, such as always making sure you pick your best angle and are blemish free – thank you Photoshop. Surely the express-who-you-really-are thingy is why the search words “statement selfie” result in a slightly uncanny mix of duckfaces and cleavages.

The Urban Dictionary definition of duckface: A term used to describe the face made if you push your lips together in a combination of a pout and a pucker, giving the impression you have larger cheekbones and bigger lips.

There’s an undeniable connection between selfie and the self. The more likes and the more hot comments, the deeper the cleavage and more nonchalant the duckface next selfie-time around. Confirm who you are. Even though some might have the self irony to take a helfie on a bad hair day, selfies seem to be serious business for now.

One good thing that has come out of the selfie business is the Twitter initiative #unselfie, encouraging people to post pictures of themselves holding a poster with the name of a charity that they recommend people donate money to. It is easy to picture a lot of other unselfies.

But hey, the word in itself is great. For Oxford Dictionaires, a criterion is that the word of the year has “attracted a great deal of interest during the year”, so when picking selfie, they played it safe. In fact, the editors say that the frequency of the word has increased by 17 000% since November of last year.

The term selfie was first used in an Australian online forum back in 2002. But the very first selfie may have been taken by Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. In 1908, while admitted to a psychiatric clinic in Copenhagen, Munch held out his arm and took a picture of himself. Much like a selfie. But this was a struggling Munch, very unfiltered, his partial nudity very honest. Much unlike a selfie. And infinitely more interesting.

Munch was born 150 years ago this December. We are thankful for his legacy. Most likely much unlike selfies.

By Unni Holtedahl, December 2013. 

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