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Multiple-choice question: What are selfies for?

  1. Selfies promote community awareness.
  2. Selfies celebrate who we are.
  3. Selfies are for ignorant Instagrammers fishing for compliments.

All three answers came from undergraduates in a recent survey by Student Health 101. While they are not mutually exclusive—selfies can serve any or all of these purposes—it seems at times that the selfie phenomenon has divided us into devotees vs. haters.


Selfies have given millennials a reputation for self-absorption. To revisionists, however, selfies are a valuable means of self-expression. “Selfies are the newest form of public performance,” says Dr. Daisy Pignetti of the Selfie Researchers Network and Associate Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. “I think it’s clear that people want to show their true selves in photos. The selfie can be a way for them to reclaim that.” The selfie as a form of identity and a means of self-empowerment was a major theme in your responses to our survey. “I talk a lot about self-love and the importance of tackling depression. Sometimes something as simple as ‘today, I decided to smile’ encourages people and reminds them that we’re human. We have bad days, and sometimes we need to push through them. What’s relatable is easy to understand,” says Sia R.*, an undergraduate at St. Clair College in Ontario.

This use of the selfie may be especially valuable for people of colour, disabled people, and other marginalized communities.


Selfies are increasingly used to influence public perceptions of stigmatized illnesses. In the #SemiColonProject416, participants “draw a semicolon on your wrist and post a photo of it, symbolizing that suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts/tendencies didn’t have to be the end of your story (life),” says Amanda W., a student at Sussex County Community College, New Jersey.


From there, it’s a short jump to promoting civic engagement and political issues. “I have Tweeted and Facebooked selfies that show me doing environmentally conscious things. I show that I have fun while I walk my talk,” says Kelsey C., an undergraduate at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta.

“One of the current trends is taking selfies for transparency, especially for political reasons,” says Dr. Pignetti. Those causes and issues can be on any scale, from local to global. “I took a selfie and posted it to promote awareness for prostate cancer in Canada for their fund-raising event,” says Abdul B., a graduate student at Southern Alberta Institute of Technology.

Selfies are also being used to build awareness around emotional health conditions. “I joined a selfie campaign by the Canadian Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviour Support Network to talk about my experience with Trichotillomania [compulsive hair pulling]. Destigmatizing mental health is important, and once I was comfortable with my condition, I didn’t feel like it was about me anymore,” says an undergraduate at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

Social connections are at least as important as material resources following shattering events, according to Daniel Aldritch, author of Building Resilience: Social Capital in Disaster Recovery (University of Chicago Press, 2012). Selfie activism could potentially strengthen communities. In Tunisia in 2014, people took pictures of themselves with piles of trash using #SelfiePoubella (trash selfie) to highlight the problem of street garbage, reportedly resulting in a government street cleanup. Researchers are exploring the use of selfies in political protests. “I posted a selfie in all-black attire to promote the 43 students who were kidnapped in Mexico,” says Eric R., an undergraduate at Governors State University, Illinois.

“I feel the internet in general has offered people, young and old, more unique ways to get their voices heard,” says Dr. Pignetti. “Yes, people can post stupid things or bully others, but the positive impacts of the internet, I feel, far outweigh the negative.”

The activist selfie promotes community awareness and civic engagement.

Students’ stories

“I take selfies with cats at the shelter I volunteer with to promote my shelter and their need for volunteers and loving homes for cats.”
—Jamie J., undergraduate, Lakehead University, Ontario

“When same-sex marriage was legalized in the US, I drew a rainbow heart on my cheek and took a selfie, and posted it to Instagram with caption ‘#lovewon’ with a rainbow made of heart emojis.”
—Kirsten X.*, undergraduate, University of Windsor, Ontario

“Social media has made the use of selfies for awareness a very real means for human rights activist communities. I have posted hashtagged selfies for awareness in support of justice in Syria and Venezuela.”
—Onyx B., undergraduate, Colorado College

(*Name changed for privacy.)

On Twitter and Instagram, check out #NaturalSelfie, #NoMakeupMonday, #TakeAnHonestSelfie, and #WokeUpLikeThis. What you’ll (mostly) see are pictures of people who aren’t afraid to post a less-than-perfect selfie.

The mainstream airbrushed-to-perfection media scene can erode our self-esteem and contribute to disordered eating behaviours, according to a 2008 analysis of 77 studies in Psychological Bulletin. Celebrities like Demi Lovato and Lena Dunham have pioneered the #NaturalSelfie resistance movement. It might lead you to higher selfie-satisfaction.

Students’ stories

“I hardly ever take selfies, but one that I did take was when women were taking pictures of themselves without any makeup on to show that we are all beautiful even without the masks. I feel so strongly that the media is crushing the identity of women and making [us] feel more inadequate than ever before.”
—Paige B., undergraduate, University of Wyoming

“I have posted a selfie of myself without makeup for the natural beauty movement.”
—Paula W., undergraduate, University of Regina, Saskatchewan  

“I used a selfie during the beautiful woman campaign on Instagram. It empowers women to share pictures of themselves without makeup on.”
—Marissa H., online graduate student, Georgian College, Ontario


At, users share pics and videos of themselves running 5Ks, eating fruits and veggies, and so on. “We started Healthy Selfies to have people share their photos and stories with others out there who can relate, be inspired, and stay motivated,” says Alexis Batausa, Health and Wellness Promoter for the Mingo County Diabetes Coalition, West Virginia. Check out #HealthySelfie on Twitter and Instagram.


Look no further for pictures of post-workout people. Scary chiseled abs? Hold tight to your self-esteem and move on by. Selfies of sweat-drenched T-shirts and matted hair can be used positively, to track your progress toward healthy, realistic fitness goals, and to encourage yourself and others.

Student’s story

“Recently I have taken a selfie in front of my garden, or with freshly picked garden vegetables to promote healthy eating.”
—April S., undergraduate, University of Regina, Saskatchewan


SH101 just invented this hashtag (you’re welcome). Here’s the idea:

Students’ stories

“I used a selfie to promote an event for petting dogs for exam stress relief.”
—Daniel L., second-year undergraduate, University of Waterloo, Ontario

“I’ve used a selfie to share that I am doing better. When coming out of my depression, I felt the need to refresh my social media photos, so I took a selfie, and in it I smiled a genuine smile, which I hadn’t done in a long time. I was showing that I was getting better, and that others could get better too.”
—Sarah W., second-year undergraduate, Marlboro College, Vermont

“I am a person in long-term recovery from addiction. I belong to a couple of organizations dedicated to fun in recovery and spreading awareness [via selfies] that recovery works.”
—Seth W.*, third-year graduate student, Boise State University, Idaho

(*Name changed for privacy.)


There are downsides, of course. Selfies may themselves represent peer pressure and conformity, as well as the increasingly public nature of our lives. And then there’s the regrettable subversion of the #PoliticalSelfie. Unless the demise of social media occurs without warning, we must brace ourselves for endless #KissingBabies and #SelfiesInTheParliament.

*Name changed for privacy

How many selfies do college and university students take every week?

0  ——– 46%
1 – 5 —– 40%
6 – 30 —- 11%
30+ ——- 2%

Source: Student Health 101 survey, July 2015

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Article sources

Alexis Batausa, Health and Wellness Promoter, Mingo County Diabetes Coalition, West Virginia.

Daisy Pignetti, PhD, Associate Professor; Program Director, Professional Communication and Emerging Media Online Cachelor’s program, University of Wisconsin-Stout.

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