John Ashbery's famous (for a poet) long poem "Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror" was published way back in 1974, so it's most certainly not a poem about selfies. Unless it is. (It might be.)
"Aping naturalness may be the first step/ Toward achieving an inner calm," he wrote, "But it is the first step only, and often/ Remains a frozen gesture of welcome etched/ On the air materializing behind it,/ A convention."
Reflecting upon Francesco Parmigianino's 1524 painting (and the difficulty of representing oneself, let alone one's self), Ashbery likely did not foretell the rise of the selfie — although a "frozen gesture of welcome/ etched on the air" comes close — but that proposed convention of aped naturalism sure does sound familiar, as does "the right hand/ Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer/ And swerving easily away, as though to protect/ What it advertises."
I have this one Facebook friend who, from time to time, posts sleeping selfies — that is, shots of himself, asleep. A moment of consideration about how such a shot might be accomplished is all that's required to puncture his illusion, and the plainness of the chicanery — plus his perceived narcissistic need to go public with naptime — chafed several mutual friends into unfollowing him.
But I couldn't hate the sleeping-selfie. I both liked and liked it. In fact, there was something kind of renegade about it. His selfie was a salvo of sorts, a defiant declaration of liberation from authenticity: No longer, said the selfie (as it slept), will I be beholden to truth or mistaken for documentary. There was something jarringly honest about its proud fraud, a reminder that every selfie is just as staged.
This is a notion many of us have already accepted up to a point. Experienced selfie-snappers have absorbed now-standard best practices. One Buzzfeed listicle of "rules" reminds us to "Know — and work — your angles," "Feel your look!" and "Own your environment." And the literal rise of the selfie stick (last seen wandering Alaska with President Obama) has made glaringly clear that there's nothing candid about our cameras.
So perhaps it makes (im)perfect sense that the selfie enhancement industry is the next logical step in the separation of the selfie from the self.
There are now hundreds of apps available to allow extensive editing of one's selfies. With a tap and a swipe, they can smooth your skin, brighten your smile, nix your wrinkles, level your crooked ears, zap your skin tags, dechap your lips, blot your oily nose, and downgrade your fivehead into a more human-size forehead. There's Visage (a "professional beauty lab") and Modiface (a "virtual makeover technology leader"), BeautyPlus (a "magical beauty camera") and FaceTune (which offers "magazine style results"), Google's Snapseed and Adobe's forthcoming Project Rigel app.
It's an odd experience, editing your face. Like a molten mirror you can tug and tint to your preferences, it's a level of control many of us have spent our lives not knowing we wanted. Having had that degree of control after a $4 download of FaceTune, I would like it to be taken away now, thanks.
FaceTune makes it disturbingly easy to reveal your untouched selfies for what they truly are: photo documentation of your slow but evident plod toward a dehydrated corpse state. After dragging in a wan but smiley selfie, I tapped through tools to whiten my teeth a few shades, buff out my crows feet under a taut plasticine sheen, fill in a stubborn bald patch in my stubble, repair my bloodshot eyes (scratched epithelia, long story) with a synthetic twinkle, and round out my walnut-shaped face into a slightly more cherubic CBH (Charlie Brown Head).
I also made myself slightly more peach, a lot less shiny, a little more smiley, and way less human. My husband recoiled in horror when my new, better self made its debut on his desktop. "Tell me again why you're doing this?"
Toggling back and forth between the original and the retouch (as FaceTune allows you to do), I wondered much the same thing. This new me in the glass of my iPhone was a reflection of something, but it wasn't me. If anything, it felt like gazing upon a strata of the self that's normally buried under blurry unarticulated desires (the kind that keep cosmetic surgeons busy) — it was the face of some faux other I'd rather be. It may have been more perfect, but it wasn't pretty.
But was it any less real than the original? After all, it was I who tilted the camera just so, who framed the shot with the doorframes intentionally angular in the background, who took three takes to get my smile right. Online, authenticity is always authored. Or as Ashbery put it in "Clepsydra" (another poem that is definitively not about selfies): "Each moment/ of utterance is the true one; likewise none is true."