Professor investigates the power of selfies to challenge gender identity online

Gender (Dis)play. (Marissa Aldieri/The Daily Campus)

Over one million selfies are posted online every day, while the average millennial is projected to primp and pose for approximately 25,700 selfies in their lifetime.

While duck faces and selfie sticks are often derided as the epitome of modern narcissism, selfies also allow for women and gender nonconforming people to take control of how they are perceived in the world, Kristin Comeforo, an assistant professor of communications at the University of Hartford, said.

“A selfie is a picture I take of myself, so I’m controlling everything rather than someone posing me. So a selfie is my idea of who I am and represents myself as I want to be,” Comeforo said Wednesday afternoon at the Rainbow Center’s Out to Lunch lecture series.

The majority of selfies give into traditional gender norms because they tend to get the most likes, she said.

“We equate this kind of gender conformity with likeability in society,” Comeforo said.

“People don’t feel comfortable not knowing what you are. When they can’t assess between male and female, it’s very unsettling, so they’re going to try to assess for you and it can be very aggressive.”

We equate this kind of gender conformity with likeability in society.
— Kristin Comeforo

Comeforo said one of her first encounters with this problem occurred when she decided to take off her tie before entering a public restroom at a highway rest stop.

“I almost kind of broke my own heart when I did that because I was very conscious about going into the women’s room with that on,” Comeforo said.

Many members of the LGBT community use selfies to relieve the pressure to conform and to promote awareness of diverse gender expressions, she said. The Huffington Post, for example, encouraged over 250 “butches” to come together around the hashtag #whatbutchlookslike.

“When we look at the lesbian community of butch women, the more masculine presenting women, tend to be more invisible. When you think about what lesbians on television look like, they tend to be more feminine,” Comeforo said.

One of the reasons that transgender women like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner are so celebrated by the mainstream media, Comeforo explained, is that they exhibit the kind of hyper femininity that is expected of trans-women. This devotion to the gender hegemony - which paints men as dominant and women as submissive - cements the patriarchy by erasing people’s lived experience, such as those of trans-women who are not traditionally feminine, Comeforo said.

Gendered media is particularly prevalent in advertising (Comeforo’s original line of work) and is reflected in the photos people choose to take of themselves, such as selfies that crop out women’s faces in favor of showcasing their bodies.

“We fragment women - women become body parts - so if you look at an ad you might just literally see cleavage. You don’t see a head, you don’t see a face, you see cleavage and a perfume bottle,” Comeforo said. “It’s very dehumanizing and once you start to see women in those ways it becomes very dangerous to us.”

Fleurette King, director of the Rainbow Center, said students are starting to question the importance of sticking to a narrow definition of gender.

“Just in my observations with students, I think they’re taking gender and just chopping it up and tossing the pieces into the sky, which I love,” King said. “I’ve had students who, visually their appearance will be what we would qualify as ‘high fem’ and they have a more ‘butch’ internal identity. I think we are all actually a little masculine and a little feminine, there’s some beautiful and amazing things in that.”


Kimberly Armstrong is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at kimberly.armstrong@uconn.edu.