Monday, November 9, 2015

Liberation in the Age of the Selfie


Maryam Sakeenah

I like the word ‘selfie’- It is an honest word characterized by the ‘self’ ringing through it. The selfie is a phenomenon that defines our age.

As I browse through the abyss of self photographed profile pictures on social media, I am struck by the remarkable similarity of their plastic perfection. Yet beneath the painted pouts and smiles is a hollowness that consumes, a dearth of self-assurance and contentment with and within oneself, hence the obsessive need for self appraisal by presenting oneself thus and awaiting the ego-boosting ‘like’. The faces are also incredibly one dimensional in how they signify an inordinate preoccupation with the physical and outward- as if human beings were mere faces; as if a done up face defines who we really are.

The Age of the Selfie and the naïve enthusiasm with which we have embraced the selfie engenders a culture of narcissism in which one’s appearance is one’s defining trait overshadowing all human virtues. The ease of communication makes these images be shared for appraisal. Then come the flattering comments so indiscriminate in their appreciation of what is truly beautiful. The ego bloats up as the words of praise fall like a sedative that one cannot function without, the need for which keeps increasing.

To get that abundantly ‘liked’ selfie, we go to great lengths; we struggle to somehow fit into the terribly limiting mould of contemporary beauty. And often, if the look is not quite like the tabloids, we are oppressed by low self esteem, self-deprecation and unhappiness. All this is utterly avoidable if only we recognize that beauty is a relative concept and cannot be defined; and that we are more than what is on our skins.

The Greeks had known that self obsession with appearances was ruinous when they came up with the myth of Narcissus- the vain god who stared at his own image and met a disastrous end.

My prophet (PBUH), on standing before the mirror, prayed, ‘O Allah! Make my character beautiful just as you have made me beautiful.’ It reflects a contentment with how Allah created us, and more importantly, a vital realization that physical appearance is not our be-all and end-all. The Prophet (PBUH) asked Allah for a more meaningful and enduring beauty that springs from the spirit and manifests itself in our values, thoughts, actions, manners, choices.

The little prayer holds the key to resisting the maddening tide of the Selfie and its connotations: to be at peace with the way God created us, for we come from Him- one unique shade in the spectrum of His masterful creation. This understanding is immensely peace-giving and liberating in how it frees us from the endless tortuous mimicry of tabloid images of cosmetic beauty. The other aspect is the vital understanding that it is our values and our character that defines us, and that true beauty lies within, radiating from the soul that is at peace, while what is on the skin wears off and ought not to define who we are and how we perceive ourselves. True inner beauty and purity is from how capable one can be of altruism and selflessness, how much one can transcend above base selfish instincts and be liberated thereby. This is what endures about the human being: what touches other lives, makes all the difference and is remembered in the end. The 'epitaph' virtues are what endure- like a fragrance that effuses long after.

The Selfie is emblematic of a culture of narcissism, self love and obsession with the material, temporal and physical. A liberation from it is possible by attaching worth to the spiritual which endures, in toning down our narrow, self destructive self-obsession and in refusing to find self-worth in how others perceive how we appear to be.