As many of you know from earlier posts, I am the mother of a 15 year old. Although I have certainly been aware of the need for constant email, phone, and camera usage everywhere she and her friends congregate, it came to me this spring that although she embraces this practice enthusiastically, it seems to place an unnatural burden on her I am only too glad I did not have in my teenage years.
Teens today are confronted relentlessly with their own image. Digital photos are taken with cameras and phones and all manner of appliances (I’m 40 – for all I know, toasters take photos now) at all kinds of social events, big and small. I have photos of myself in highschool, but they are generally from birthdays, performances, holidays, or other special moments. Of course, I am delighted to have these photos, but think for a second of the many, many, many days, and countless other moments of my life that were not photographed. That may seem a shame to some, but lately, to me it seems a blessing.
I have photos of my 8th grade graduation, dressed in my white Laura Ashley dress with blue accents, my shiney braces, and very carefully feathered 80’s hair. I do not, however, have photos of the day I showed up for softball tryouts in my gym clothes when somehow all of the other girls had gotten the memo to keep their street clothes on. I do not have photos of the day we took a fieldtip to the Franklin Institute and I had a stuffy nose and a cough and snuffled and dripped all the way to Philadelphia and back. Similarly, my high school performance in West Side Story was amply documented, but not the countless post-rehearsal binges of cheesey fries at the local diner, or the many afternoons spent lazing around my friends’ backyards with frisbees, and books, and bad hair.
Now, even the simplest get together at a friend’s house after school gets documented, and then those photos get scrutinized. And that scrutiny leads to self-judgment, and the self-judgment is rarely kind. As anyone who shops in a grocery store with tabloids arranged at the check-out counter is well aware, even those widely regarded as the most beautiful people in the world can take a terrible, unflattering photo. Nobody can easily withstand that kind of constant visual scrutiny, least of all the self-esteem of an American teenage girl.
Certainly, I spent hours in the bathroom getting my hair ready for school (i.e., gigantic bangs), applying the perfect eye makeup (i.e., bright purple), and adjusting and readjusting my clothes to optimal fabulousness (i.e., belting voluminous shirts over fluffy short skirts), but I also had downtime. It’s not that I wasn’t part of a culture that valued appearances and designer labels, and fabulous hair, but it also gave me well-earned time off. When I went to my best friend’s house for a sleepover, I didn’t worry about how I looked, or think about having my photo taken. I certainly didn’t worry about that photo being shown to my peers, let alone the world via internet.
Now I watch my daughter scrutinize the photos taken while meeting friends for pizza, agonize over an inadvertant shot taken at a weird angle, or burst into tears over a pic from a pool party where she is a distant shape bending over in the background. “Are you sure that’s even you?” I try to ask helpfully, only to be shot an unforgiving look. “Why don’t you just delete it?” is guaranteed to get a glare. Seriously, though, I try to be understanding, supply a different perspective, and sometimes I simply ban the phone, camera, and toaster (better safe than sorry) from usage.
I am not the first to comment on the relentlessly visual nature of today’s youth and pop culture, but it is worth remembering that multiple anthropologists have documented the introduction of photographic images into indigenous cultures. While the notion of camera as “soul catcher” has become part of the popular conception of non-industrialized peoples, what I find even more fascinating is that when shown pictures of themselves many members of non-photo saturated cultures don’t recognize themselves. This is not because they have never seen a mirror; in fact sometimes they don’t recognize friends and relatives in portrait-style still-photos either. The fact is that what makes a person recognizable to those not fully indoctrinated in visual culture is a whole set of sights, smells, sounds, movements, and personal energy. What does this tell us about identity, humanity, and perhaps an awareness of ourselves and the people around us, that we might be in danger of losing?
I am also concerned about the gradual erosion of “backstage” spaces, and with them the downtime they represent. If cameras go everywhere, are we ever off stage? Today’s memorial of Michael Jackson reminds us what toll constant surveillance takes on child stars. We generally assume that it is the price to be paid for the money and power and fun of fame. Are we willingly going to subject ourselves to such surveillance without even the promise of a big payday? On the Polynesian atoll of Nanumea, the cookhouses served as a kind of “free space” for gossiping, joking, and generally escaping the expectations of formality and hierarchy that dominated other aspects of daily life. If those cookhouses are replaced with indoor kitchens equipped with photographic toasters, who knows what will happen.