THE WORD ‘SELFIE’ WAS BORN in 2002, but it had to wait 10 years before gaining prominence. In 2013, it was anointed the Word of the Year by the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘Nelfie’ is yet to make it to the annals of classical glossaries, but Urban Dictionary —that online crowdsourced and cheeky interpreter of the lingo of the day— informs us that a nelfie is ‘a nude selfie. A photograph taken by yourself and posted on social media, of yourself, naked. Considered by some folk to be the lowest denominator of vanity in the Social Media Age.’
But what is the lowest denominator to some is simply de rigueur to others. Kim Kardashian, adored and reviled in equal measure, is a stalwart in this world of self-exposure. After all, in 2016, she promised, “Naked selfies until I die.” Many heaved a sigh of relief; of course, most didn’t care. But what we need to acknowledge is that nelfies aren’t merely Kardashianesque. Article after article tells us that teens are sexting, Millennials are receiving and sending naked photos from and to their partners, and well, even full-grown Congressmen (remember Anthony Weiner?) have been caught doing it.
Minors, and many adults too, often do not realise the personal, and possibly even legal, ramifications of sharing sexually explicit content online. The leak of nude photos of top Hollywood stars such as Jennifer Lawrence, Selena Gomez and Ariana Grande a few years ago showed how photos from cellphones or email accounts can be stolen and violated. These celebrities found that pictorial billet- doux that they’d taken of themselves, and with their partners, had suddenly become grub for voyeurs.
But what I find of interest, when it comes to nelfies, is how common they are, even if it is a world ridden with possible perils. And here, one is not talking about the unsolicited dick pic that infringes upon phones, like hair in a soup. I am referring to the consensual neflies (‘consensual’ being the key word) that everyone from Jennifer Lawrence to your best friend takes and shares with partners, the ones ferreted away in a ‘secret folder’, in the hope that that’s where they will be kept safe, even when we all know nothing is foolproof online. People take them and share them because they fulfill the most simple and fundamental act of seeing oneself and being seen. To share it with a partner is both an avowal of faith and a trespass. It is naughty, even forbidden, you know that when you take it, and when you send it. Sharing a nelfie with a partner is an act of provocation and tenderness, it creates the vibe of campfire nights, anything can happen, the illicit is among us, and within us. A nude self-portrait can be as much about vanity as it can about insecurity. If it is about self- approval, it is also about seeking affirmation. But above all else, it is about self-definition. It is a medium that looks both in and out.
Neflies capture the contradiction of the online world; that of intimacy and distance. The etymology of ‘intimate’ winds back to late Latin intimatus, past participle of Latin intimare ‘impress, make familiar’, from intimus ‘inmost’. The mere syllabic difference between the Latin ‘impress’ and ‘inmost’ tells us to make an impression is to get personal.
Nelfies—whether they are taken by a Kim Kardashian (122 million followers) or a Kendall Jenner (100 million followers) or an Emily Ratajkowski (20.9 million Instagram followers)—are, unsurprisingly, often taken in the mirror. Their absorption, nay fixation, with the personal image harks back to Greek mythology, and the hunter Narcissus who was known for his beauty. Dismissive of the love of others he spurns them, poor Echo melts away after his rejection. He falls in love with his own reflection, while he drinks water from a pool. Of course, the Greek myth has a sad ending, as Narcissus realises that the reflection cannot love him back, and he burns away, yearning to be embraced by his own image. While the moral of the story (a good one at that) is supposed to be that one should not be self-obsessed, what interests me is that the focus on the self is old as myth itself. While it is so easy to be dismissive of today’s selfie frenzy, the Kardashians are simply following Narcissus’ example. But unlike Narcissus, they can take their pool of water with them, and recreate themselves with every new post.
Paula Modersohn-Becker’s gaze is of a woman comfortable in her skin, throwing a challenge to detractors who might think otherwise. It is also the gaze of a woman who dares to have it all: be an artist and a mother
Of course, Kardashian’s photos can often be embarrassing. Scrolling through her Instagram account in office, I hastily minimise the window as soon as I hear footsteps. There is a profusion of breast and butts, glitter and gold. I wonder how and why someone would put themselves out there like this? With her nude and semi-nude self portraits, she has made both art and commerce of her body. She is an ad for herself, but then can we really judge her, as social media has made hustlers of all of us?
The nude self-portrait is not a recent creation. Of course, the smartphone has made them nearly omnipresent, but German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker was the first known woman to paint a nude self-portrait. Paula (1876-1907) was a German painter, whose life story ticks so many of the ‘woman artist’ boxes. She is relatively unknown, even though she was a contemporary of Picasso and Matisse, and was highly unconventional, even by today’s standards. Here was a woman artist in Europe, powwowing with the likes of Rainer Maria Rilke, she frequented the art soirees of Paris, chose to have an affair, returned to her husband, and decided to have a child at 30, before it got too late. She died at 31 from postpartum complications. Art historian Diane Radycki’s 2013 monograph Paula Modersohn-Becker: The First Modern Woman Artist brought her back into the limelight. With little information available about her, Radycki conjured Modersohn-Becker from the painter’s contemporaneous letters and journals, and art-historical analysis and sleuthing. Radycki’s research ‘[r]eveals the personal cost when one woman genius wants it all—a big career and motherhood—in an era before women had the vote’. In an interview to The New Yorker in 2013 Radycki details Modersohn-Becker’s unusual and fascinating life. ‘She looked so much like the good girl—except, not really,’ says Radycki, ‘She leaves her husband. She leaves her stepdaughter.’
It is Radycki who unearths that this German artist was the first woman to ever paint nude self-portraits, back in the early 20th century, when there wasn’t even terminology for it. ‘Before Modersohn-Becker, there was no one. Women did not approach themselves that way. And then, it takes a while after her for that to become part of the modernist vocabulary, a new thinking about the participation of women in art, and their ideas about subject matter and, finally, their ideas about the body. We think it all happened in the seventies. It happens with her. And there’s no way to understand what she’s doing, given the language of art history at the time. The two dealers who present her, when they exhibit that first nude self-portrait, it was without a title. There was no way to say ‘Nude Self-Portrait’.’
HER PAINTINGS SUCH as Reclining Mother and Child (1906) and Self- Portrait on Sixth Wedding Anniversary in the same year remind me of contemporary nelfies, but are far edgier, because they are not beautification projects. Rather, they expose the turmoil of the mind through depictions of the body. In Self- Portrait on Sixth Wedding Anniversary, she stares into the frame with a quiet confidence, her arms swaddling her pregnant stomach. A necklace of beads is the only adornment on her torso. It is her gaze that reminds one of Kardashian stark naked and heavily pregnant, shooting herself with her phone in the mirror. It is the gaze of a woman comfortable in her skin, throwing a challenge to detractors who dare think otherwise. It is the certainty of a woman who acknowledges the tension, aware that viewers will look, and keep looking, even if the voices in their head tut- tut. It is also the gaze of a woman who dares to have it all: be an artist and a mother.
The nude self-portrait of models is often seen as detrimental to the feminist cause, as it leads to body-shaming and unreal standards of perfection. I mean, who in real life looks like Kim? Nobody. But today there is more awareness about body positivity and how all body types can be things of beauty. The nelfie is worth our attention because the fourth wave of feminism is premised on the use of social media and information technology. The fourth wave of feminism (described in an article in Prospect Magazine in September 2017) follows on ‘from previous waves that began with the struggle for the right to vote in the late 19th century, moved through the liberation movements of the 1960s and on to the debates surrounding pop culture and gender theory in the 1980s’. Today the frontlines have moved from legal equality to a ‘kind of discrimination that is harder to quantify—and harder to fight’, such as the battle for equal pay or against everyday sexual harassment. In All the Rebel Women: The Rise of the Fourth Wave of Feminism (2013), Kira Cochrane writes that what connects activists of this wave is how many are organising their efforts online. The technological possibilities amplify and strengthen women’s voices and their causes.
Egon Schiele’s nude self-portraits are a rare rebuke to power, snubbing typical ideas of ‘beauty’. By distorting his own body, he forces us to reckon with the darkness that lurks in coves within all of us
WHILE THIS fourth wave started in the US and UK around 2013, we clearly see its rise and sweep in India today. New modes of protest have been used effectively in India over the last few years, whether it was the Pinjra Tod in 2015 against discriminatory curfews in college residences, or the recent MeToo movement which brought the ‘daily drip-drip’ of sexual harassment into the headlines and onto magazine covers and into the courts. Every feminist movement has a central vein running through—and that is to correct an imbalance of power. What started as a right to vote moved on to sexual rights and legal rights, and today it is focused on social and employment rights.
The question, as professor and author Mary Beard asks, in Women and Power: a Manifesto (2018) is ‘what would it take to resituate women on the inside of power?’ Beard notes that here we need to distinguish between an individual perspective and a more communal one; at an individual level there is a ‘capacity to turn the symbols that usually disempower women to their advantage’. Beard gives the example of Margaret Thatcher who ‘seems to have done that with her handbags, so that eventually the most stereotypically female accessory became a verb of political power: as in ‘to handbag’. For Beard, individual tricks—be it Thatcher’s handbag—are not going to change embedded cultural structures. She proposes the radical idea of thinking about power differently. She writes, ‘It means thinking collaboratively, about the power of followers not just of leaders. It means, above all, thinking about power as an attribute or even a verb (‘to power’), not as a possession.’
Social media is a platform where followers get a voice, they get to make a difference. Social media enables the tweaking of traditional power structures. Sharing a nude-self portrait with a million Insta followers is an act of titillation, subversion and power. The nude self-portrait of celebrities is the most intimate bridge between a star and her followers. It obliterates the paparazzi, who seek the behind-the-bushes skinny- dipping shots. Instead, it says, ‘Here I am, on my terms.’ The nelfie eliminates the man behind the camera, it transforms the model into photographer, muse and viewer. This is a one-woman show, this can be agency.
The camera, the gaze, is one of those weapons that have been traditionally used to disempower women, disallowing them self-definition. The nelfie takes that same weapon and uses it to its own advantage. But the gaze of Instagram influencers on themselves is rather one- dimensional; it is photo after photo of wealth, affluence and a sterile cookie- cutter-type beauty. The images are aesthetic, but hardly interesting
Egon Schiele’s nude self-portraits, on the other hand, are a rare rebuke to power, snubbing typical ideas of ‘beauty’. The Austrian artist died aged 28, in 1918, but left behind a body of work that glowed with raw sexuality. In his time, his works were considered ‘degenerate’. On his centenary, his work is being reevaluated. In Rethinking Schiele (Published in The Paris Review, December 2018), Cody Delistraty writes, ‘Art is a way of contending with life, even, or especially, in its shadiest corners. If we cannot face ourselves in art, then we cannot face ourselves at all—and that is a prospect far more dangerous than any drawing.’
By distorting his own body, Schiele forces us to reckon with the darkness that lurks in coves within all of us. His nude self portraits disturb us not because of the Kim-like over-exposure, but because the body seems to be stretched to the point of breaking. It has none of the ideal beauty of Greek statues or Victoria’s Secret models, but it reminds us of the power of the nude-self portrait, a celebration of imperfections.