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Ugly selfies and spiritual authenticity

Kory Plockmeyer

Selfies seem to get a lot of negative attention. After being named Oxford Dictionary’s 2013 word of the year, there was a general outcry of how selfies reflect narcissism and bland exhibitionism. Last fall I discussed the truncated view of sexuality that often accompanies our anxious hand-wringing regarding selfies. Now The New York Times has alerted me to yet another trend: ugly selfies.

A growing movement of so-called ugly selfies pushes back against the seemingly casual selfie that was, in fact, a perfectly posed composition that took hours of adjustment and countless takes to perfect. The ugly selfie phenomenon embraces, sometimes even magnifies, one’s imperfections and puts them on display.

The article posits that the popularity of the ugly selfie rises out of “perfection fatigue.” Pamela Grossman, director of visual trends at Getty Images, suggests, “Everyone knows what Photoshop is now. Everyone’s seen the wizard behind the curtain in advertising, in Hollywood. We know how the machine works. And so we’re gravitating toward people, images and experiences that we deem to be authentic, unvarnished and real.”

In many ways, this would tie the popularity of ugly selfies with the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, for instance, or the company Betabrand using real Ph.D. students in lieu of traditional models for their advertising.

Authenticity as a church community means admitting that we don’t always have it all together.

As silly and goofy as the ugly selfie trend may be, I think that we as Christians should applaud a form of self-expression that embraces the “authentic, unvarnished and real.” Too many of us, male and female, know the self-loathing and body image issues that accompany the teenage years. We are bombarded with impossible standards of beauty and social pressure to conform. Ugly selfies embrace self-expression in a way that celebrates our bodies, complete with those parts we would rather do without.

Ugly selfies also reflect a deeper truth about the church. The church is a body of forgiven sinners, called to be holy. While we can certainly take the call to authenticity too far, I think that the church can celebrate authenticity without wallowing in brokenness. We feel pressured to put on our best selves for church, to put on a smiling face and to cover up what’s really going on in our hearts and in our lives. Authenticity as a church community, however, means admitting that we don’t always have it all together, that we need help. This is why communal confession can be such an important part of worship – we admit together, as a body, that we need help. Otherwise, our experience with church can be like the carefully crafted, seemingly casual selfie that took hours to perfect. While it may look like we have it all together, we really don’t.

Perhaps this is the true value of the so-called ugly selfie. The ugly selfie is not so much ugly as it is honest and real. Like the church - which is at its most beautiful when we admit our dependency on one another and on Christ - so too these selfies may in fact be the mark of true beauty.

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