“We pass for what we are. Character teaches above our wills. Men imagine that they communicate their virtue or vice only by overt actions, and do not see that virtue or vice emit a breath every moment.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self Reliance” (1841)
“Katy Major! Look at you!” My skin crawls. I know all too well what she is about to say: “You’ve changed!”
Jessica, a girl from my graduating class, is in my face gasping, her outer disapproval barely concealing her inner delight. We are both at a birthday party for a mutual friend and former classmate, Michael. In honor of the party’s theme—drag—I am dolled up to rival Ru Paul’s finest (if gangly lesbians served as any competition): black lacy lingerie, heavy makeup, high heels … I notice, in a delayed sort of way, that a cigarette hangs from my hand.
She is genuinely scandalized, and I have to suppress an eye roll. At my liberal arts college outside of Columbus, my classmates wouldn’t bat an eyelash if I walked into a drag-themed party wearing nothing but a feather boa. But although Michael’s party itself is in Akron, tried-and-true tough and ready for anything, the party’s attendees from our high school are small-town Medina stock: conservative and gossipy—or, as I less charitably consider them, uptight.
They all say variations of what Jessica said: You’ve changed . I’m unsettled in spite of myself. After about the third or fourth time someone tells me I’ve “changed”, I find myself wondering if they’re referring to something beyond my appearance. Have they caught wind that I’m gay? A feminist (still a maligned breed where I grew up)? A heavy drinker? Mentally ill? Or maybe, somehow, they’ve heard about the brushes with the law, the pregnancy scares … I start to ruminate on sources of potential scandal, wondering what it is precisely that has set off this reaction.
Regardless, Jessica’s shock is absurd. After all, who hasn’t changed since high school? I’ll tell you one thing: in the halls of our posh, upper-class high school, I never once saw her slinging a bottle of wine the way she is even as she stands before me, smug written all over her flushed face—no surprise, since she was eighteen and we were, you know, at school. In the same way, it’s unsurprising that Jessica hasn’t seen me in lingerie; wearing nothing but underwear to school is the stuff of nightmares.
It’s interesting—sometimes I trick myself into thinking that my graduating class knows me best, because we’ve all spent at least six years in the same classrooms. For some, the full ten years between when I moved into the district and graduated. But, much as I’d like to believe that, especially amid all the unfamiliarity of my still-new college, it just isn’t true. The vast majority of those people didn’t really see me—or anybody beyond their closest friends—except in the form of some hackneyed stereotype: Slut. Jock. White trash. It didn’t occur to anyone back then, how we all move within and beyond those categories, both in high school and outside of it. Maybe this is why facets of who we are, newly risen to the surface from far below, have a tendency to shock, suddenly apparent post-graduation because, for the first time in six years, we’ve escaped the claustrophobic identification system that birthed satires like Freaks & Geeks and Mean Girls. It is then we begin the most radical years of self-formation.
Who we are is a complex matter. The selves of chance and the selves we choose merge haphazardly, unevenly, shaping a fully-fledged adult around the age of twenty-five—far past high school—when the brain reaches full development. Appearances give little away in terms of the story of who we are and how we have become … but, in the limited scope of the selfie, we exhibit who we might like to be in the subtleties of the image we create. This is the twenty-first century and, if we can’t be exactly who we’d like to be—that age-old tragedy—we can at least play pretend in the tiny frames of mobile phones and laptops.
Before I went to college, the term “selfie” scarcely existed. Instagram was just barely kicking off in popularity, in no way the social media behemoth it would become. This is not to say that, as teenagers, we failed to document our every expression and mood, as today’s teenagers notoriously do. Back then, we pointed digital cameras into mirrors to capture ourselves, ever trying to hide the extended arm bearing the camera and the flash’s telltale rosette—an untidy blur if the mirror happened to be dirty. Around the time I graduated high school, however, the iPhone was gaining traction. Before long, everyone had one. The ubiquity of the front-facing camera made the selfie a near-daily ritual.
This one was taken five years ago—nearly a fifth of my lifetime ago. What stands out to me as I examine this picture is my youth, perhaps transparent to no one but me. My hair is undyed, plain brown, ruddy in the yellow lighting of—you guessed it—the bathroom. (Old habits die hard.) My cheeks are still round. My smile creases my entire face, a contrast to the thin, close-lipped smile I wear on my current driver’s license. My skin, I can’t help but notice, is smooth and pink, not marred by today’s scarring, the remains of years of stress acne and cigarette smoke damage. So much has yet to happen to the girl-woman in the picture, still teetering before the chasm of adult life.
Still, much had already occurred. God’s will, or the plain luck of genetics, had already done its work. I was born fortunate to caring middle-class parents in a safe Ohioan idyll. The face in the picture above bespeaks privilege, no doubt about it—that round and rosy face is the product of never wanting for food, for shelter, for chapter books to devour or Christmas presents to tear open. My father’s Mediterranean features are splayed across my face—leptorrhine nose, broad brow ridge, oval face, wide eyes—while my coloring is a near-perfect match to my mother’s: fair skin, blue eyes, dishwater hair. In a word, I’m average—a forgettable exemplar of the so-called melting pot that Americans proudly lay claim to.
This picture is rather casual in comparison to later selfies; eventually, technology caught up with my generation’s desire to make a self rather than simply reflect one, cropping tools and filters abounding. Instead, in this photo, the posturing is in the details: my smile is a bit too big and my hair is suspiciously neat. Yet, my skin shines with perspiration and I didn’t bother with framing the shot strategically or filtering the final product. Only I can discern, mostly by way of memory, the enormous discomfort of my life at that time, as the new and the old clashed dramatically.
My brother died in 2010, seventeen months before I snapped the selfie above to oh-so-casually send on to a crush via SnapChat, a brand-new phenomenon at the time. His death occurred just before the mobile phone’s transition from the pull-out keyboard to the touchscreen. I, too, was on the cusp of something: adulthood. A little over eight months after he died, I would graduate from high school, never more unsure of who I was—past, present, and future. Every classmate that walked across the stage at E. J. Thomas was engaged in the delicate process of self-formation, no doubt, but—perhaps like every teenager—I couldn’t help but feel terribly alone. In the year following Colin’s death, I drank my first beer, drifted away from old friends and made new ones, chose a college to attend, reluctantly attended prom. My parents divorced. I moved out.
These are all facts—just facts. Who is to say what re-makes a previous self and what cements what was already there? Later, I had a drinking problem, “alcohol dependence” drily noted on my chart when I was hospitalized a month or two before graduating college. It would be absurd to link those two words, penned four and a half years later, to that first half-full Solo cup I slugged back at Ohio State … wouldn’t it? And would it be equally as absurd to see my poor mental health as purely the result of trauma, rather than a destiny of chemical imbalances? Cause and effect, past and present—the distinction between who we have become and who we always have been is difficult to pinpoint.
I obsess over the possibility that who I have become might not necessarily be who I was “meant to be”—a slippery concept cobbled from superstition and faith and doubt and a certain resigned fatalism. I imagine myself, still fresh-faced and young, stumbling upon the proverbial fork in the road and glibly skipping down the wrong path, littered with hangovers and lost sleep and despair—just parallel to the path riddled with landmarks like graduating Summa Cum Laude and publishing a book by twenty-five and marrying young. I try to piece together an alternative self when I’m lying awake at night, imagining who I was “before”—before when? Before Colin died? Before I came out? Before I started drinking?—and trying to place her in my current circumstances, wondering how she’d react. Invariably, the answer is “better.” I imagine her sailing through her college classes, mind so clear from an uncluttered path to adulthood that she knows exactly what she wants and pursues it with a certainty that needs no outside reassurance. The real me stumbled through college, accidentally discovering passions and falling into bad habits and joining causes and abandoning the old for the new, all in an alarmingly haphazard fashion.
In my therapist’s office, I ask—though I know she doesn’t know any more than I do—whether I would be mentally ill if. If Colin hadn’t died. If my parents hadn’t divorced. If my coming-out at nineteen hadn’t been such a disaster.
In her usual calm, neutral tone, she says: “Well. You were born with anxiety, no doubt about that—just like you were born with blue eyes and blonde hair.”
I start to cry—and fail to confess that I’m a bottle blonde—even though her answer contradicts the one I feared I would receive: that the circumstances of my life have altered fate for the worse. Nothing is what I want it to be. “So, you mean I’ve always been fucked up?” I wail.
She shakes her head patiently. “Do you think that people born with diabetes are fucked up?”
“No,” I mutter, but I’m still picturing a smile as bright as the one I wore seven years ago, nine years ago, twelve years ago, plastered across an older face.
“A picture says a thousand words,” we say, intoning the old cliché as if it still holds any real meaning. On the contrary: a picture says little. While essayists are typically experts at wringing photographs for meaning, I find myself at a loss when I eye a selfie. Candids are easier—there’s Mom, harried, at my fifth birthday party, jerked out of comfortable introversion by the obligation to celebrate or Dad, interrupted from the computer’s hypnotic draw a second before a bleary-eyed snap is taken. Even group photos, staged as they are, rarely lack a lapse in order—a crying baby, a blinking uncle, a pair of “bunny ears” gone unnoticed. Selfies, however, are something quite different—an everyday artifice used to create someone new, not the past and present selves which so often disappoint, but an aspirational future self, an ideal. Genetics, luck, fate—they’re all muted by the artful use of strategic angles, filters, and multiple takes for good measure. It takes a keen eye to bypass technology’s disguise and see through to what lies beneath.
When you are young, it seems this simple: pick a job, a spouse, a number of children to bear—these are straightforward constructs that limit or expand your life. Who you are is another matter entirely. When you are a child, you presume that you will be the same forever. That you will always eat a cheese sandwich and watch Blue’s Clues at lunch. That you will always be best friends with the little girl next door—and, if you’re like me, that even if you and that little girl do happen to grow up, you will build conjoining mansions to live in. That you will always have a crystal-clear sense of right or wrong. It never occurs to you that the act of becoming will at times overwhelm you, the dizzying possibilities nearly buckling you under their psychic weight, that the choices you make will leave you wondering what is fundamental and what is evidence of becoming: mistakes, influential social trends, damage sustained through that trick of metamorphosis. Urgent and troubling questions will keep you up at night: What has life made of me? Have I ruined myself in the becoming? Who am I supposed to be?
Consider one of the world’s most famous women … the first “social media mogul,” boasting tens of millions of Instagram and Twitter followers, a mobile game she created and stars in, and a pack of emojis for the iPhone bearing exclusively her face and body. Her daily life televised for more than ten years. She’s the author of a book composed entirely of selfies. She’s a fashion model, a business owner, but mostly, a “celebutante”: famous for being famous. Her image is everywhere.
On May 24, 2006, Kim Kardashian left a Brentwood cinema after seeing a matinee showing of The Da Vinci Code with post-Newlyweds Nick Lachey of 98 Degrees. Midafternoon. Brentwood. Yet Kim’s toes had barely brushed the pavement before the two were swarmed by paparazzi, eager to photograph the latest substitute for America’s sweetheart, Jessica Simpson. There they were, in a quiet LA suburb—in droves.
Strange. What would possess LA paparazzi, typically busy chasing down stars downtown, to schlep their way to a suburban movie theater? Lachey, particularly now that he has all but faded into obscurity—a tombstone marked “98 Degrees” sprouting up in the graveyard of nineties boy bands and more than a decade having elapsed since the finale of Newlyweds—is fond of pointing out the role he played in Kim’s rise to fame. “No one followed us [to the movie],” he told Details magazine in 2013. “Somehow, mysteriously, when we left, there were thirty photographers waiting outside.” He laughed good-naturedly before getting to the heart of the matter: “There are certain ways to play the game, and some people play it well.”
The reaction Kim Kardashian typically evokes is a grudging mixture of exasperation and admiration, resentment and awe. Although many Americans are, perhaps rightfully, quick to point the finger at Kardashian and her ilk for rendering fame meaningless—no longer an indication of exemplary talent or even obscene wealth—no one can quite bring himself to go so far as to deny the astonishing cleverness with which she played the celebrity machine.
Similarly, around the time that Kim was reaching the upper echelons of tabloid ubiquity, a sex tape was “leaked” and later sold as Kim Kardashian: Superstar, a scandal which generated plenty of scorn, but even more media attention. In a coincidence that parallels Kim’s star-crossed encounter with the paparazzi in Brentwood, a little over six months later, Keeping Up With the Kardashians premiered. 1.3 million tuned in. Today, the show has been on the air for fourteen seasons and more than ten years.
The game that Lachey enigmatically refers to is a game that we all play to some extent. Whether we like to admit it or not, self-formation is often forced, at least at first. Remember when you were a teenager and determinedly wore a political t-shirt bearing an eco-friendly message every single day, dead-set on proving yourself a hardcore activist? Or, when you signed your name “Marilyn Monroe” sometimes, in hopes that willing yourself glamorous could make you someone equivalent? Or, when you gave your entire presentation for your elementary French class entirely in French, just to prove that you could?
Maybe you don’t, reader, but I do: because this is my story of self-formation.
Pushing the traits that we most treasure in ourselves to their dramatic extremes is a part of teenage life, a precursor to the young adult years when our most definitive features settle back into their natural state and the adolescent pressure to individuate fades. Today, I volunteer at the local parks to do my part for the environment, though the “Save the World” t-shirts are long since abandoned. I’m not glamorous by any means, but wear Marilyn’s signature red on my lips for special occasions. I don’t need to prove my intelligence, because by this point, I know who I am: maybe not a genius savant with a sky-high IQ, but someone with skill and dedication who laps up knowledge eagerly and occasionally retains it. I’ve settled into myself and, let’s be honest—so has Kim. She scarcely needs to call the paparazzi now—if this is, indeed, what happened in the spring of ’06—for they doggedly follow her wherever she goes. Kim’s experience is magnified by her celebrity, her game played with higher stakes—a potent risk of public humiliation and the shining opportunity to matter in the public eye—yet still she only demonstrates—on a giant, media-swollen scale—what we all practice.
In 2015, Kim published Selfish, an autobiography entirely consisting of photographs of her—not professional shots, but “selfies” previously posted on Instagram, each skillfully rendered glamour shot swollen to a dozen times the size of an iPhone screen on wide, glossy pages. On the surface, it seems as though such a project is doomed to flop: if Kim’s reputation suffers, it is because the public perceives her—and the desire for fame that drives her—as shallow and self-absorbed. A book entirely comprised of selfies seems perfect fodder for such criticisms. Surprisingly, however, critics by and large found Selfish poignantly revealing, despite the crafted artifice of the selfie and the layers of expensive clothing, lingerie, or makeup draped on the subject, intensifying the smoldering gaze with which she so often meets the camera.
The photograph—like the film—is a slanted replica of a person or her life. An artifact that we view as a reflection of reality, but in truth, veers closer to fantasy. The form is fundamentally different from the experience of witnessing someone in motion—not only because the moment frozen in a photograph whizzes by before we can process its meaning, but because even candid shots are staged, arranged in the mind’s eye of the photographer. The selfie, then, is something more altogether: to the subject, it is a skewed funhouse mirror. While, the spectator can’t discern where reality ends and fantasy starts. Psychoanalysts theorize that when a child first looks into a mirror, paradoxically, he perceives the other for the first time. He sees his reflection as a separate object and is presented with the illusion of self as other—and so two others appear to be confined in the looking-glass before him. He identifies with the reflection—a separate object—a not-him—a creation of his own. He’s witnessed his first potential selfie.
Kim Kardashian West’s selfies are crafted reflections of her, canny as her public self-formation. Artfully wrought, each one depicts another angle of Kim’s success. Here she is in 2006, still dark-skinned and visibly Armenian, using the now-archaic mirror and digital camera to capture the shot. Here she is in 2009, cavorting with Kourtney Kardashian, both still twentysomething and baby-free in Mexico. And here, she is in 2014, showing off her resplendent post-baby body in a lavish full bathroom that could only belong to the wife of Kanye West. Her pictures move from apparent carefreeness to the smoldering stare of a successful businesswoman and international sex symbol.
One recent selfie, near the end of Selfish, depicts Kim, hair ocean-tousled, in full makeup—though her eyeliner is artfully smudged, as if to suggest that this is a casual pose—wearing nothing but a towel, barely visible at the bottom edge of the photo. No longer a smiley twentysomething, glib and cutesy, Kim is all sex symbol, all the time, her face carefully arranged into an expression of haughty indifference, her shining visage as glossy and surreal as the sleek coffee table book itself. Since her first pregnancy, her curves are more pronounced than ever, her breasts bulbous and veiny, and it’s hard to tell what the focus is intended to be: the dark eyes which gaze unwavering at the camera lens, or the eye-popping presence of her breasts below. The sweetheart of her family reality TV show, the drool-worthy and busty babe of the likes of Maxim and Playboy … spectators can’t decide and, based on this selfie, maybe Kim can’t, either.
Selfish depicts Kim’s journey from celeb wannabe, cheesing and sticking her tongue out, releasing shot after endearing shot of her hugging Kourtney and Khloé or lounging around LA nightclubs and coastal beaches, to legitimized celebrity, wanted by Vanity Fair and Us Weekly alike. Her older selfies depicted a young woman intent on being fun, carefree, sweet—everything America could want for its next rising starlet, but as the book approaches its end, we find that Kim has attained iconic status.
Perhaps back in 2009, or even as recently as 2011, Kim would have been slammed by the likes of the New York Times and The Telegraph for Selfish, but not in 2015, when her atmospheric fame and status demand a certain measure of respect. The Telegraph concedes that Selfish is “oddly moving” and The Times marvels at the visual progression from celebrity sidekick to superstar: “This is the post-Calabasas Kim, the Kanye West Kim, the Kim who must be deferred to by the world’s greatest photographers and designers.” Whatever Kim may have been, natural-born narcissist or just another rich nobody, today, she is the selfie we see and what was once a pose is now an unconscious gesture.
I am no Kim Kardashian West: at my age, Kim was already appearing regularly in the New York Daily News, peddling designer wares as “kimsaprincess” on eBay, and skillfully turning aspirations of fame into press coverage. What it would be like to live the life of a celebutante, every detail of origin and transformation scrupulously documented for public consumption? Would such attention be liberating—or invite the suffocating pressure I feel when old friends scrutinize me, Jessica’s “You’ve changed” amplified to the voice of a million so-called fans?
Our world is a place where photographs —once considered straightforward depictions of reality—are not captured but crafted, a place where the famous have abandoned the game of chance for one of strategy. Discerning the essential self from the obfuscating effects of trauma—airbrushing tools, Instagram filters, contouring—is a bewildering process and so, in an effort to understand—to wield control over the seemingly uncontrollable act of becoming—I write. It’s not glamorous, but it’s my best chance at self-recognition. Who was I, and what was there to love in her? Would she be proud of who I have become? Words teach me what I suspect Kim Kardashian learns at twice the rate—how story becomes mythology and how those mythologies shape not just a self, but also a world that intimately surrounds her.
Ultimately, it is up to us to craft the story, in a most Kardashian-esque way, whether it ends up a cautionary tale of hitting the bottle too hard or a fairy tale about becoming the author you’ve dreamed of being since girlhood. Writing changes the world—in the smallest of ways—and, in doing so, the person who writes bypasses the empty life we all so fear. Whether or not you believe that life’s destined path is brimming with your essential self or with fate’s obscure plans, what is meant to happen must: whether by God’s design or your own careful construction of each resplendent, artful selfie.
Katy Major is a writer and critic from Medina, Ohio. Previously, her award-winning work has been published in Otterbein University’s Humanities journal, Aegis, and Quiz & Quill Magazine. Most recently, her work was featured in ‘Adelaide Magazine’s summer issue. Katy is currently at work on her first essay collection, Self(ie) Made: American Essays. You can find her on Twitter at @wildthingwriter or visit her website on all things horror at WildernessHorrorBlog.wordpress.com.