On December 18th, WEIRD SISTER hosted The Feminist Selfie, an event exploring #365FeministSelfie, Hello Selfie, and other projects and performances that look at selfies through a feminist lens. I read this piece about participating in #365FeministSelfie, a project created by Veronica Arreola in response to the ongoing debate about selfies as empowering media vs. narcissistic cries for help. #365FeministSelfie invited feminists to post a selfie each day for the entire year of 2014, which I did—give or take a few days. In honor of the year, and the project, ending, I’m posting this piece today along with a bunch of my #365FeministSelfies from the year.
On Halloween, I snuck out of work early in full work-appropriate Halloween costume and rushed to Soho to make sure I caught the Stevie Nicks Selfie exhibit, 24 Karat Gold, on the last day before it closed. The show is made up of a series of Polaroid self-portraits that Nicks took beginning in the mid-seventies. Some of the photos are taken in her home, some in hotels around the world. In most of them the camera’s remote is hidden. In one of the photos, “The Key,” which shows Stevie leaning against a concrete structure in a pool, she’s holding the remote above the water for the camera to see. She never intended for anyone to see these pictures. But this year she decided to share them with the world.
I’ve become a sort of accidental proselytizer of selfies. I love them, but I never intended to. I never really liked showing my face. I never really liked showing myself. It seemed vain or self-indulgent or embarrassing to take and post pictures of myself, pouting at or gazing away from the camera just-so. I didn’t like the idea of presenting a pretty, polished female-object version of myself; of posing for some male gaze. But when I learned about the hashtag #FeministSelfie, I was drawn to the idea of selfie-taking as a feminist act—to the potential that selfies held for bringing more diverse experiences of womanhood into the spotlight via social media, and for showing a more dimensional, messy, complicated & real version of women as subjects. When I learned about #365FeministSelfie on January 1st of this year, I posted a selfie online, and I did the same thing again and again every day since then. At first, I found the whole act of taking selfies kind of terrifying. Should I try to look pretty? Or surprised, ironically? Should I surround myself with feminist books and objects and activities at the moment of taking the picture, in order to make it explicitly feminist? Was any old moment in my feminist-identified life feminist enough? Was that the point?
About the 24 Karat Gold self portrait exhibit, Stevie Nicks had this to say: “Some people don’t sleep at night – I am one of those people. These pictures were taken long after everyone had gone to bed – I would begin after midnight and go until 4 or 5 in the morning. I stopped at sunrise – like a vampire… I never really thought anyone would ever see these pictures, they went into shoeboxes, where they remained. I did everything – I was the stylist, the makeup artist, the furniture mover, the lighting director. It was my joy – I was the model…”
As I’ve gotten older and settled reluctantly into being an actual adult with a 9-5 job, I’ve found myself writing poems differently than I used to out of necessity. When I once had all the time in the world to stay up late writing, crafting and recrafting my poems into tightly-woven riddles, I now had a lifestyle that demanded I wake up early, and go to bed early, or be exhausted at work all day. Writing in my notebook late at night was replaced by emails to myself while at my desk at work, notes in my phone while on the train. The many rounds of revision, the coding and veiling of language was a process that was no longer working for me—maybe it was because I had less time now, maybe the everyday busy-ness and code-switchery of being in New York and rushing around the city to perform various versions of myself (feminist poet, corporate copywriter, family member, BFF) was being reflected in the aesthetic of my poetry, maybe some combination of those things, but the creative/revision process that I used to feel so excited by was now often frustrating and exhausting me; even working against me. But still I kept pushing myself to do it.
What was it that I hated so much about leaving the poem be? About trusting that I could write something from my gut and that it could be good without necessarily tearing it apart and putting it back together into a kind of rearranged Frankenstein monster? Whatever it was, it was a similar thing that made me feel self-conscious when I turned the camera on my phone around to photograph myself. Something about showing an imperfect version of myself. My face without makeup, my face when it’s crying, my face when I’m sweating through a workout or struggling with a poem or rushing to get to work or eating or feeling deeply boring.
As I’m writing this, I’m smooshed up against the door in an extremely crowded subway train. I can move my fingers to type, but I can’t move anything else. I squeezed my way onto this train because I let the first too-full train pass, and I’m already late for work. I set my alarm for 7:15 but I didn’t get out of bed until 8. I was planning on washing my hair this morning. I haven’t washed it in over a week. Mostly I like my hair better when it’s dirty but sometimes when it gets really dirty I start to feel sad. I usually only wash it after I exercise but I haven’t exercised this week either.
Looking at Stevie Nicks’ selfies in 24 Karat Gold, I was captivated by how beautifully manicured each one was. They were filled with incredible detail and texture—elaborately lacy bed coverings and crazy red feathered hats and antler chandeliers hung overhead and long, silvery fingernails peeking out from layers of peacock-blue fringe. Maybe it’s because I’ve been taking pictures of myself every day for nearly a year now, but looking at these pictures of Stevie, I read dailiness onto them. Some women doing #365FeministSelfie counted out their selfies as the year went by—one, two, three, four, five out of 365.
I looked at Stevie’s photos, and I thought of when I take my selfies each day—when I’m stressed at my desk at work, or in the office bathroom, staring in the mirror, hiding out, blame it on my wild heart. When I’m at home writing or trying on clothes or feeling like a massive failure / the heart says whatever / or lying on the couch, wrapped in a giant bear hug. Knowing the experience of taking selfies so intimately while I stared at Stevie Nicks in hers, I felt a sort of equalizing happening. This classically beautiful superstar took pictures of herself in the same way that I and all these other women took pictures of ourselves, sweetly or sadly, intimately, and decided to put those pictures out into the world. Like Stevie Nicks filing away her photographs into shoeboxes in some leather and lace-strewn closet, I wasn’t taking these pictures for the pleasure of a patriarchal male gaze, but for my own; a messy and art-y and self-critical and hopeful and contradictory and ultimately feminist one.
As I’m typing this it’s raining like crazy outside and I’m staring at my computer screen at a picture of myself from 2005 like I’m deep in love. In the picture, I’m standing next to the street in Northampton, MA, and I’m wearing a sparkly grey sweatshirt with princess sleeves that I wore nearly every day that year. The file is called “Princess Sleeves.”
In a Creative Nonfiction class at SF State in maybe 2008, the professor, Toni Mirosevich, asked us if there were other activities in our lives for which our process was similar, or somehow complementary to, our writing processes. I’m not sure what I would say now, but then I said “primping”: getting ready to go out, putting on different shades of makeup, trying on different outfits, matching them with different shoes and accessories, mixing things up and rearranging, sometimes with a friend or two who was likewise figuring out her outfit for the night, but more often alone in my room, maybe listening to music, staring into my full-length mirror. Crafting and re-crafting away any imperfections, tightening and fine-tuning my look like it was a poem.
In “Gypsy,” when Stevie Nicks sings the opening lines, “Going back to the Velvet Underground,” she’s talking about a store in San Francisco in the 70s called Velvet Underground where she and Janis Joplin and others used to buy their clothes. She was back at her favorite store you guys. She was putting on the clothes that made her feel most like herself. Maybe she was going home and taking pictures of herself wearing them. She says “back to the floor,” because she used to live alone in a tiny apartment in San Francisco where her bed was on the floor, and there was lace tucked onto the windows. And that place is a part of herself that feels central to her, that she needs to return to.
Around the same time when I took the Princess Sleeves non-selfie, Katie and I were going out nearly every night. We would get ready in my bedroom and we’d dance around the floor at 80s night till “Edge of Seventeen” came on, then we’d squeal and rush off from whomever we were with at the moment to find each other on the dance floor. Katie wore coral lipstick and smoked too much and had chronic laryngitis, which she liked for the sexy quality it gave her voice. We’d sing “Dreams” karaoke with our friend Erica (our fake-band was called The Tumbleweeds.).
The video for “Gypsy” shows Stevie Nicks in many states—running through the streets in black & white, a mystical nymph in the forest, but it continually flashes back to Stevie dancing in front of a full-length mirror in her bedroom. In Le Tigre’s “Eau de Bedroom Dancing,” my early-2000s through eternity jam, Kathleen Hanna croons, “I’m in the sky when I’m on the floor/ this world’s a mess and you’re my only cure… Eau de bedroom dancing. To you I wanna say you’re my thing.”
If bedroom dancing is my thing, it is in the same way that selfies are. That staring in the mirror trying on different outfits/different versions of myself is. Or reading through piles of old journals. An old version of myself lying on a bed on the floor with hot pink sheets on it. It’s in the same way that carefully painting black wings onto my eyelids while singing along to Stevie Nicks is, staring into the mirror, or into my phone’s camera, at myself staring back.