Is Jamie Oliver right, are selfies really the sugar of social media?

Was the TV chef wrong to ban his teenage daughter from posting selfies? 

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In 2015, academics in Poland declared that selfie-taking and narcissism are linked. In 2016, academics in Texas said that actually, maybe they’re not.

There is no conclusive answer as to whether taking pictures of yourself makes you a narcissist, but the fact scientists frequently examine selfies through this prism shows how maligned the modern self-portrait is. Many people assume that selfies – which are often taken and uploaded by teenage girls – are inherently bad, and now TV chef Jamie Oliver has joined their ranks.

Oliver, a man whose entire career is a massive pouting selfie of “You can’t eat that, kiddo!!!”, has recently announced that he has forbidden his 14-year-old daughter from taking selfies. Speaking on the Lifestyle News Hound podcast, Oliver revealed that his daughter Daisy is “banned” from “doing selfies”, before going on to say that 13 and 14-year-old girls take photos which are “quite porno”, with “sort of luscious kind of pouty lips, sort of pushing boobs out.”

Oliver then described selfies as the “sugar of social media”, arguing that the like button allows people to get a quick, addictive hit. Scientifically speaking, is Jamie correct – or has he got it all turkey twisted?

Both the social media like button and sugar do give us a quick dopamine rush, activating reward centres in our brain. Yet both sugar addiction and internet addiction are hotly debated topics, with some scientists comparing sugar and social media likes to drugs, while others deny that each addiction exists at all. Leaving aside the extremes of addiction, Oliver’s main problem is his assumption that sugar and/or selfies are categorically bad.

Dr Natalie Hendry, a lecturer in Education at Deakin University, researched young people, social media, and mental health as part of her PhD. Frustrated by the fact that many studies approached selfies with the view that they are psychologically harmful, she examined how young women with mental health issues use social media to gain control of their identity.

“The rhetoric of selfie-as-narcissism deployed by popular media is not concerned for young people’s wellbeing,” she wrote. “Rather it is a moral judgement that chooses to label young people’s selfie practices without active engagement with young people themselves.” Hendry concluded that selfies can allow young people to visualise their identity, which is particularly therapeutic for those with mental health problems.

Sociologically and scientifically speaking, there is of course no conclusive way to prove whether selfies are “Bad” or “Good”. While Hendry’s research found selfies to be beneficial to some youngsters with mental health problems, in the past people with Body Dysmorphic Disorder have suffered with selfie-taking. It is probable that the benefits and risks of selfies vary on a case-by-case basis, but anecdotal evidence does show that selfies are positive in a way that is traditionally ignored by headlines and chip-stealing TV personalities. 

“I love selfies because they’re a way of representing myself when I feel the mainstream media fails to represent women like me,” says Bethany Rutter, a 28-year-old social editor and co-creator of the podcast What Page Are You On?

“I’m fat, and women like me are only seen as ‘before’ pictures in women’s magazines, so selfies are a way of documenting the fact I exist and feel good enough about myself to post online,” she explains. “It’s not surprising that someone like Jamie Oliver, who repeatedly displays condescending control-freakery of other people’s behaviour, is against them!”

 

Scrubbed up because apparently I’m going on ITV lunchtime news at 1:30 today Although my outfit is understated my @milktoothldn earrings are definitely not! Lips are Anastasia Beverly Hills in Soft Lilac

A post shared by Bethany (@archedeyebrow) on

Like Rutter, 21-year-old blogger and journalist Amelia Perrin believes selfies are far more beneficial than Oliver allows. In the past, she has been ridiculed by the press for her selfies, but says they helped her to get modelling jobs and the title of Miss South East in the Miss Great Britain competition.

“I’m not saying she [Jamie Oliver’s daughter] needs those things, but from my personal experience selfies have only enhanced my life, as well as leaving me with a huge portfolio of images I can look back in ten years’ time and laugh about,” Perrin says. “I feel like selfies are a fun way to express yourself or even just show off your look… by disallowing her from taking them he’s separating her from her peers – and with a famous family she probably already feels disparate from them – even further, for no reason. It’s hypocritical of him to find it empowering for him to be in the public eye, but won’t let his daughter be in the way she might want to be.”

 

personal growth: got the new iphone 8, somehow waited a full 24 hours before i took a selfie with it  #shotoniphone8

A post shared by beauty • fashion • luxelife (@ameliaperrin) on

Jamie Oliver’s moral crusade has left many angry, particularly as he is a man taking control of a woman’s bodily agency. Yet Dr Dawn Branley, a psychologist who specialises in the risks and benefits of internet and technology use, does warn that “revealing” selfies do have risks for young people.

“There are a few potential risks of sharing selfies online, particularly if those selfies are of a revealing nature. Unfortunately, content that is shared to the web is very easily shared, duplicated and distributed,” she says. “Young girls can often feel pressured to share selfies where the aim is to look attractive and/or sexy. This can lead to users potentially sharing photos that they later regret or result in the receipt of unwanted attention.

“Although selfies are not inherently risky per say, it is important to take into consideration the context and content of the selfie, the age appropriateness of the behaviour, and the potential for unwanted viewers.”

Jamie Oliver’s daughter isn’t banned from eating sugar, which perhaps illustrates the problem with the chef’s approach to selfies. While Branley highlights real risks, Oliver’s viewpoint doesn’t take into consideration the benefits of a selfie. “Mainly she doesn’t, but a couple slip up,” he said of his daughter’s selfie-taking habits. The fact that a selfie is seen as a “slip” or a mistake unnecessarily vilifies an act that many have found empowering.

In a now infamous clip from Noughties reality TV show Jamie’s School Dinners, Oliver shows a handful of children how chicken nuggets are made with bone marrow, skin, and connective tissues.

“Now who would still eat this?” he asks, once he has blended, formed, and bread-crumbed a nugget. Every child raises their hand. Despite Jamie’s comments at the weekend, children will still be raising their hands – ready to take and share a selfie with or without his approval. 

Amelia Tait is features editor at Shortlist.com, she was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer, and tweets at @ameliargh.