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What is Your Body Worth: Post-Sartrean Self-Objectification and the Gaze of the Other.
Why are we obsessed with photographs? More pertinently, why are we obsessed with photographs of ourselves?
Once upon a time, photographs were a way of crystalising a moment—perhaps as art, or for the newspapers, or to be as forensic evidence, or simply as cherished memories. Essentially, they are used to capture the past, but increasingly, photographs have gained an additional function, and now they act as mirrors, evermore in the present due to the ability to upload to social media in real time. The latter is the “selfie” phenomenon.
Much has already been written about the link between the use of excessive selfies and narcissism. Suffice it to say, the “selfie” did not give rise to narcissistic tendencies, for those tendencies have always been intrinsic to our human makeup; rather, it normalised narcissistic behaviour in an increasingly entitled, self-obsessed society.
We all have narcissistic traits. Linked to the healthy development of the ego in forming our identities, it’s part of our innate human psychology and helps us to assimilate our reality and negotiate our place in the world. But there is a difference between healthy narcissism and unhealthy narcissism.
On the healthy side, narcissism manifests as self-love, confidence, and the celebration of our achievements where credit is due. For example, if you had trained hard for a marathon and won that marathon, then the odd celebratory selfie would constitute healthy narcissism.
In contrast, on the unhealthy side, narcissism manifests as self-obsession, a need for constant attention and validation from others, a lack of empathy, and the lauding of our achievements where credit is not due. Unhealthy narcissism is essentially an overinflated sense of self, our importance, and a pathological obsession with our self-image. It is the latter that interests me here.
Why are we, as a society, becoming increasingly narcissistic in the unhealthy sense of the term?
Narcissism is a modern epidemic and points to a paradigm shift in society that occurred in the industrial and postindustrial epoch. The past few decades have witnessed a societal shift from a commitment to the collective to a focus on the self.
The self-help movement has largely contributed to this shift, for it redefined self-esteem as the key to success in life. Moreover, educators and parents began telling their children how special and unique they are in order to make them feel more confident—parents and teachers effectively conferred self-esteem upon their children, rather than allowing them to achieve it through hard work and real achievements.
The rise of individualism—with its focus on the self and inner feelings—and a concomitant decline in social norms that accompanied the modernisation of society also meant that the community and the family no longer provided the support and esteem-building for individuals as they once did. Subsequently, as the social fabric deteriorated, it became much harder to satisfy the basic need for meaningful connection, as the question shifted from what is best for other people and the family to what is best for me.
We need only browse through social media to witness a desperation for connection from people who showcase their lives for all to see. But it is not genuine connection: it is the need for attention and acceptance of others.
Indeed, the rise in technology and the development of hugely popular social networking platforms have altered the way we spend our free time and communicate, and it has provided a mechanism by which we can obsess about ourselves at the expense of the community. This has serious implications for our mental well-being: internet addiction is a new area of study in mental health, and cross-sectional research shows that addiction to Facebook is strongly linked to narcissistic behaviour and low self-esteem.
Instagram is by far the worst culprit for spreading the virus of narcissism, for its interactive premise is built upon the notion of a live or instant (insta) image (gram): a photograph as a mirror, not a memory. Typically, on Instagram, there is an increasing tendency to flaunt our bodies and, in many instances, in alluring and provocative ways.
How low will we go for attention?
It is no wonder that we live in a shallow-minded world when we attach so much value to our bodies. Indeed, the body is beautiful and should be celebrated. But at what cost? Where is the terminus between dignified celebration and excessive exposure? (Not just in terms of the graphicness of the images we flaunt, but in terms of over-posting images of the self in a fake and futile way to attract attention from others and engender a misguided sense of self-worth.)
Sartre was a French philosopher and seminal proponent of the existentialist movement, and his concept of “the Other” occupies a central place in his oeuvre. He theorised that our conscious mind, through our interaction with other people, must accommodate itself with other minds, which are fighting to exist. Our experience is the interplay of conscious minds, therefore solipsism—as propounded by some narcissism-inducing self-help modalities, such as the Law of Attraction—is a fool’s fantasy.
But the essence of our minds—our thoughts—is intangible and unknowable: we express our conscious mind through language, gestures, and images, but our essence can never be truly known by other people, collectively known as the Other. We, therefore, interact with the Other through the body, or the physical manifestation of our being in the material world.
Whilst we perceive ourselves intrinsically as a conscious being with a body, we can only perceive others extrinsically as a physical form because we can never truly penetrate into the recesses of the Other’s consciousness. Through our perception of their body, we formulate judgments about the Other, as if the body were analogous to their inward state.
In other words, we objectify—and attendant upon the notion of the objectification of the Other is what Sartre termed “shame,” or the crushing realization that we are little more to others than the physical manifestation of our body in their sight.
The gaze of the Other holds power over us to judge and to freeze us into a being that we are not. Their gaze exposes us, makes us weak and fragile, and turns us into a subject—or at least, a subject that we falsely identify with.
For example, the Other, through their gaze (perception and judgment) may see me as a writer (a subject). In turn, I internalise that perception until I also identify as a writer, falsely associating that identity with my essence. As Sartre puts it in Being and Nothingness,
“If there is an Other, whatever or whoever he may be, whatever may be his relations with me, and without his acting upon me in any way except by the pure upsurge of his being—then I have an outside, I have an essence.”
Our very being, our “essence,” is contingent upon the objectification of our body by the Other—but the objectification by the other does not reveal our true essence.
And so how are we to live authentically in a world of objectification? For Sartre, the only defense left at our disposal is to transform others, to turn them into an object for our own consciousness and with our own characterizations. We must rid ourselves of others, to escape, and to reclaim our true essence and our freedom from the gaze of the Other.
Our conscious minds invent this subterfuge to continue to exist as a subject in what constitutes yet another effort to resist the attempted subordination of the self by the gaze of the Other—consequently, this creates a moral paradox: we combat our objectification by the Other by ourselves objectifying the Other.
The phenomenon of the selfie, or putting our bodies on display, is a form of self-objectification—we invite the Other to perceive, judge, and validate our being. The seeking of attention and validation through an excessive preoccupation with our self-image is a hallmark of narcissism and, moreover, leads to inauthenticity—we objectify ourselves, and in turn, value what the Other sees in us through a purely physical lens.
A preoccupation with our bodies—as a means to seek validation from others—is linked to low self-esteem. Truly confident people are quietly confident and do not feel the need to broadcast their achievements to the world. Similarly, people who genuinely feel beautiful on the inside do not need to swamp their social media pages with images of themselves in order to attract attention. Therefore, an excessive use of the “selfie” does not indicate a confident person, but rather reveals a deep insecurity—we should be wary of confusing an obsession with our self-image with self-love and confidence.
And it goes one step further.
Often, selfies are doctored through the use of filters and other image-altering techniques. Not only does this smack of inauthenticity per se, but a filter thrice removes our essence from our body. Firstly, our essence is objectified by the Other; secondly, that essence is captured in the form of a photograph at a remove from reality; and thirdly, that photograph is doctored, thereby removing it a step further from reality, so that our body is not just an object, but an unreal object.
According to Sartre, our conscious minds fight for survival through the objectification of the Other, which results in a detachment from our essence and presents existential challenges for living authentically. But in preoccupying ourselves with an image—twice or thrice removed from reality—then we are creating an even larger gap between our essence and our objectified self…we are creating an inauthentic self.
So to return to my original question: What is your body worth? Is self-objectification worth the approval and validation we seek from others? Is an obsession with the self-image worth the inherent danger of developing narcissistic traits? Is an overreliance on the body for a sense of self-worth really worth sacrificing our authenticity?
In summary, a confident person with high self-esteem does not seek to self-objectify their body through an excessive use of the selfie. Therefore, we should be mindful that those who appear to be confident in their endless display of self-images might be, on the contrary, deeply insecure and lacking in self-worth and, in some cases, could be borderline (if not complete) narcissists.
Do not confuse your self-objectified body with your essence. The latter has real value—the former does not.