The convergence of smartphone technology with the rise of social media has at once reflected and directed the deep strains of self-indulgence present in society. The narcissism of selfies is often criticized, yet the tradition of posting depictions of ourselves (even naked) for others to admire is not without some history.
Going way back to the culture of the ancient Greeks, in which depictions of naked athletes romping across elegant clay bowls was a common theme, human culture has celebrated itself. The sexual undertones were sometimes subtle, but always there. Naked athletes are a great excuse to look at people…naked.
Sports Illustrated has made a massive enterprise of its annual swimsuit issue. Ostensibly it was because the girls were somehow “athletic,” and indeed some were. But mostly they were naked. And it was in a sports magazine. So that was okay. Both men and women seem to love the sight of a comely woman. And occasionally, a comely man.
Such was the apparent motivation in part for Michaelangelo’s David, whose svelte yet delicious body is an inspiration to both men and women alike.
As documented in this fascinating blog, the work it took for Michaelangelo to create that sculpture and others like it would have stopped lesser souls in their tracks. And in fact, so talented was Michaelangelo that a competitive rivalry sprung up between himself and Leonardo da Vinci, who were contemporaries. We think of these great artists as having existed outside of time and possibly apart from each other. But they were just as real and subject to harsh rivalry (and difficulty) as the rest of us.
Yet their work endures. And so it paints a potentially harsh comparison between a world in which people are largely engaged in creating beauty not from stone or clay, but from pixels and posts. The Internet is one massive digital sculpture, you might say.
One can find women posting naked selfies on Reddit where they gain 100,000 views a day. And on Instagram, many of the most popular feeds are little more than pretty or fit people flexing their muscles, doing yoga and taking pictures of themselves in really nice places. Because they can.
Admit it. Athletes are some of the most narcissistic members of society. Our habitual obsession with our bodies is sometimes beautiful, but other times ugly. I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to looking at nice images of women and men. In many case, I simply admire their work ethic. I’m jealous. They don’t get bodies like that by accident.
It has also been interesting to watch the emergence of the human buttock into acceptable society. Think about it: glimpse of ass used to be a scandalous thing. Well, no more. Tits and ass and six packs and sperm channels are everywhere. Above the fold, as they say. And below the belt as well. Narcissism rules.
Triathletes more than any other endurance sports shed their clothes with panache, and evolve from one creature to another in transition. Reports from the changing areas at Ironman competitions is that men tend to behave like naked hogs in there. It’s balls out and ass crack to the wind.
Women, by contrast, tend to have to deal with anything in life that comes their way. If it means being naked for a few minutes, so be it. With all the poking and prodding it takes to be a regular , everyday woman, along with bleeding and birth and makeup and hair and nails and sweat and the secret life of orgasms, there is little in this world that doesn’t already either slow a woman down or make her go about things a little too fast.
So it’s no wonder there are girls out there that have decided WTF…a few half-naked pictures to boost my self-esteem or get some feedback can’t really hurt. It sort of goes with the thinking that a certain segment of men are likely going to be pigs anyways. Why not take that power and use it? Selfies are, in some respects, a way of fighting back. Taking control. Saying “fuck you.” Or fuck me. Please. If that’s what thrills you.
You can slap a thousand bumper stickers on the issue of narcissism, but in the end it’s all about human need and loneliness. The main problem with narcissism is that it also attracts the freaks out there in the world who think of women only as objects. They don’t care to think about the list of obstacles to womanhood that were just listed, or what it actually takes behind the scenes to deal with that shit. Then that attitude spills into the workplace, and into politics. It all has to be fought and countered eventually.
Because as the pornography industry so clearly illustrates, when it’s only about the tits and ass or size of a man’s penis, ultimately it’s quite easy to lose interest. The image becomes disposable. The person behind it, expendable.
The contrast is what George Harrison and the Beatles once brought for in the song, “It’s all too much.”
When I look into your eyes, your love is there for me
And the more I go inside, the more there is to see
Yet sometimes the internal spaces of our minds go forth in the sun. Many years ago, I remember hanging with a group of semi-friends. We were drinking beers around a Volkswagon in the glare of the hot sun. Everyone was wet with sweat and a bit drunk. The lone woman in the group wore blue jean shorts, and nothing underneath. As she rollicked around amongst her guy friends, who happened to include her steady boyfriend, the fact of her openly relaxed state was exceedingly obvious. Yet none of her guy friends was lascivious. She got to be what she wanted to be. Sexy and free. And why should that not be?
In fact, if anything, she was protected by her male friends in this role. Sure, they all got to glimpse her cooter. But in time, what does that really, genuinely matter? Everyone was having a good time. That’s what mattered.
So we can compare the world’s obsession with selfies to Michaelangelo’s David and learn a few things about ourselves. Because of all the statues ever created, that work in marble captures the honesty of a naked male figure and its compelling grace. But notice something fascinating in the pose. It looks very much like a narcissistic selfie someone might post or share.
One can even imagine the marbled figure of David holding up his smartphone in front of the mirror to take the image. His figure is relaxed, and his manhood revealed. Not in turgid glory, as so many men are wont to do. But in humble grace. Desire is a choice here, not an issue of force.
And that’s where narcissism falls away like the sheet from the body of a figure model. The conclusion we can draw is that we are all at some point destined to be naked. Yet few of us want to be alone.
Floating down the stream of time, of life to life with me
Makes no difference where you are or where you’d like to be