Would Jesus have taken selfies? Probably not. Only one tradition holds that He ever condescended to have His portrait painted, and the image was not exactly a flattering one. In purported replicas, Jesus looks impatient, as though He’s already begun to regret wasting His precious time on such foolishness.
Growing up, I could have related without reservation. I hated class portraits. Year after year, my height landed me in the least distinguished zone: not nearly tall enough to be imposing, but not nearly short enough to be adorable. The 16.5-diopter eyeglasses I wore were a shade too thick for a boy genius but perfect for an adult sex offender. For all their disfiguring properties, they didn’t mark me convincingly as someone for whom facing daily life required extra stores of character. I wasn’t a brave kid, just a homely one.
And so, long before hearing the word “goth” in any context, I tried in my naïve way to redefine chic. I cultivated a scowl, through which I meant to signal lofty intelligence and gravity of purpose. In second grade, I insisted on wearing a Civil Defense helmet dating back to the Second World War and patterned after the British tin hats of the First. That photo, thank God, no longer exists. Anyone who saw it now would assume I was helmeted on doctor’s orders to prevent my concussing myself when I banged my head against walls.
One lesson here might be that distinctiveness should be a privilege reserved for people who possess some natural distinction. Edmund Burke would have agreed. The subject of selfies never came up during his career, but I have a hunch if he’d seen into the future, he’d have begged our generation to confine the use of Snapchat and maybe all digital cameras to nature’s aristocrats — statesmen, learned divines, possibly the supermodel-pretty. Allowing them to descend into the hands of Joe and Jenna Six-Pack would vulgarize the whole notion of visibility.
For an exemplar, Burke might have offered his portraitist, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Not only did Reynolds work almost exclusively for society’s leaders (prominent actresses, like Mrs. Siddons, were about as low as he was willing to go), he drummed up their business by making them look better than they did in life. Even if, with all his skill and deference to rank, he never quite succeeded in making William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland and Butcher of Culloden, look intelligent or thin, he at least managed to make him look harmless, a grown-up version of Bobby from King of the Hill, in a wig. Who, demands the painting, would begrudge a tip of the tricorn to this lovable butterball? Only an envious churl.
Well, too late. Like it or not, the revolution is complete. Not only has visibility become democratized, beauty itself has. People who, in a well-ordered society, would have lost their teeth to scurvy, their noses to syphilis, and their faces to smallpox, are keeping themselves pretty darned comely well into middle age. And, with a little help from ever-more affordable gadgets like cell phones and web cams, not to mention Tumblr, Reddit, Twitter, etc., they’re making sure everyone knows it. And Likes it. And shares it.
The result is a beauty glut so overwhelming — and even for shut-ins, so inescapable — that some people, just for the hell of it, are advertising themselves with their least attractive photos. In an article for The Cut, Rachel Hills declares, “Ugly Is the New Pretty.” For anyone who needs it, here’s more proof that folks will do anything to stand out from the crowd.
But don’t be fooled by larks and gimmicks. Just as Burke might have predicted, the victors in the visibility revolution are creating their own, merciless, power structures. Not long ago, on her unguarded Facebook page, a paralegal named Caitlin Seida, made ample by polycystic ovarian syndrome, posted a photo of herself dressed for Halloween as Tomb Raider heroine Lara Croft. When the image went viral, drawing comments like “Heifers like you should be put down,” Seida found herself facing more ghouls than Croft fought in a lifetime.
In Salon, Seida tells her critics, in so many thoughtful words, to go screw themselves. This Halloween, she muses, “I might just reprise my role as Lara Croft, just to give all the haters the middle finger.” And good for her. Burke warned that in a leveled society, “A king is but a man, a queen is but a woman; a woman is but an animal, and an animal not of the highest order.” Who does that make Seida’s parvenu haters, anyway, but a bunch of animals who happen to have perfect ovaries? One middle finger is too good for them; Seida should let them have it with both.
If this sudden gust of conservatism sounds like the stodginess of sour grapes, well…okay, it is. Just as the lower-middle class was the natural enemy of the workers’ revolution, so are ordinary-looking people at a disadvantage in this new age of being seen. In a given day before the Internet, we had to see — and suffer in comparison to — maybe a few dozen pinup types. Now, we’re drowning in them.
Thank God, in that case, for Catholic bubbles. On my little corner of Facebook, posting too many personal photos isn’t really bon ton. Even as profile pictures, they’re hardly more common than cathedrals, Divine Mercy images, chalices, monstrances, etc. People do post photos of their children, but that’s less a celebration of their personal fecundity than a salute to the institution of family. It is, therefore, counter-revolutionary.
I guiltily admit that in this atmosphere, I feel free, finally, to show off a little. I’ve been working out, I’ve worn contact lenses since 1985. Arizona has turned my complexion a permanent bronze. Every once in a while — maybe once every couple of months — knowing I won’t be ground to dust by the competition, I’ll capture myself on webcam and post away. (Low-angle is my best angle.)
As Catholics should be, my Facebook friends are very nice and tolerant. But I’m always careful to concoct a cover story. In a picture I posted back in July, I was dressed for Mass in a shirt and tie, and I framed it as a lesson in proper Communion couture. In the one accompanying this article — well, the real central figure is Rusty the Cat. Perfect and gentle on my lap, fearless and irreproachable outside it, he is definitely one of nature’s aristocrats. Here, like a blackamoor in a Reynolds, I am his accessory, his most humble and obedient servant.