It’s the middle of August and Facebook has announced that another one of your eight-hundred-and-something friends has changed their profile picture. A breathtaking panorama of Koh Tao consumes your news feed and at its centre stands a perfectly tanned and perfectly toned somebody that you vaguely recall from secondary school. You scroll down the page and this time you find evidence of a former flatmate’s adventures in Tanzania, captured in a three-minute-old profile picture. Surrounded by smiling children, they look every part the well-accomplished and wholesome individual sought after by potential employers. You close the tab and dejectedly return to working your way through every episode of Breaking Bad; the only achievement of your summer thus far (not counting your victory in an eBay bidding war for disco pants).
Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking these things just happen. The mental effort some people devote to selecting a profile picture would leave Annie Leibovitz in awe. As evidence, the following is a list of questions that I have asked myself or friends have asked me (divided into helpful categories):
- Personal appearance – Will people notice one eye’s more closed than the other? Is my outfit too slutty? Is the lighting okay? Do I need “Valencia” or “Lo-Fi” to work their magic?
- Appearance of others – Have I cropped out too many people? Have I cropped out enough people? Are we good enough friends for them to be in my profile picture? Will people think there’s something going on between us?
- Timing – When was the last time I changed my profile picture? Has everyone been changing their profile pictures? What time of day best maximises “likeage” potential?
- Perception – Does this picture make me look fun? What would an employer think? What will family think?
My nearest and dearest gal pals know that changing my profile picture is a harrowing process I prefer to avoid. While many of you won’t relate to any of the above questions, I’m equally mindful that several others share my pain… and rightly so. Although the term is so overused that it now verges on cliché, our society has well and truly become “image obsessed”. The successes of photography-based apps (Snapchat, Instagram) and the recent surge in “selfies” reflect the constant pressure today’s individuals are under to maintain their online appearance.
Now humour me and consider a Facebook without profile pictures; it would be liberating. In an instant, Facebook would lose its inherent narcissism. While Facebook stalking may still occur, people wouldn’t be judged on their appearances but instead on their substance. Surely a better perception of a person can be drawn from what they have to say than from how they look? Yet everyday, judgements are passed on a solely aesthetic basis. RateMash – a viral website which allows university students to rate their fellow peers against each other using their Facebook profile pictures – has thrived off this infatuation we have with looks. By giving attention to such heinous websites, we’re fuelling the shallow and egocentric mentality that plagues adolescence and preventing ourselves from maturing into open-minded human beings.
The problem I have with profile pictures is not that I believe they’re self-indulgent; I think that we all need to love ourselves more and with a whole host of people waiting to pass judgement, finding a picture of yourself that you like enough to share with the world is actually quite a courageous feat. The problem I have is that they do not accurately reflect an individual but they’re given enough weight to deceive people into thinking they do. One of the first lessons we learn as children is not to “judge a book by its cover” but everyday, friends/family/employers are very quick to do so. We make assumptions about a person by allowing a picture to speak a thousand words when in reality, it may hold no truth whatsoever. Does showing off a fantastic pair of legs make you vain or slutty? No. Does a cute picture of a boy and a girl imply they must be dating? No. Does a stunning selfie make you self-obsessed? No.
In the grand scheme of things, the stress of choosing a profile picture amounts to nothing. The consideration we give it does however illustrate our insecurities, which arise from being part of a culture that is too eager to criticise. We do not struggle to compare ourselves to other people but are often disheartened by the result. We find fault in ourselves and we find fault in others. If everyone was a little less quick to judge, then perhaps changing your profile picture wouldn’t be such a predicament at all.