Hate seeing yourself in photos? Maybe it's time to take a selfie course
'I was just exhausted from having this relationship with self-hate. That's when I picked up a camera'
Photographer Vivienne McMaster, 39, has come a long way since she hit bottom in her late twenties.
"I saw certain parts of my body, especially in photos, with disgust," McMaster says from her home in Vancouver.
"It definitely stopped me from a lot of things in life, in terms of finding relationships, confidence in general. When we don't feel good about our bodies, it often holds us back from believing we're worthy in a number of ways in our life."
McMaster's self-esteem began to dip in her early teens and tanked as she approached 30 — riddled with body image issues and, eventually, depression.
'Exhausted by self-hate'
"I was just exhausted from having this relationship with self-hate," she said. "That's when I picked up a camera and started doing this work."
Her company, Be Your Own Beloved, encourages people to rebuild their self-esteem and feel less lousy when they see photos of themselves.
She accomplishes this primarily through online and in-person courses teaching "self-love" through selfies — the very art form widely criticized for cultivating low self-esteem, because it is driven by reliance on "likes."
But McMaster says her classes aren't about the opinion of others; instead, it's about taming the inner critic.
"It's really about self-definition and standing in your own power and not needing everybody else to tell you anything to feel good about ourselves," she said.
Her clients begin by taking selfies — an intimidating process in itself for those who have long avoided the camera out of shame.
They then evaluate the photos while monitoring their inner monologue, and try to be more self-accepting.
Her business attracts about 200 students per year — enough for McMaster to make a living from it. She says others have offered similar classes but hers is the only business that has survived.
Hundreds of students worldwide
The majority of her clients are women between the ages of 25 and 60, although men occasionally sign up too. They come from all over the world — mostly Canada and the U.S. but also Brazil, Japan, Germany and Italy.
McMaster emphasizes that what she does isn't therapy. Instead, she describes it as using creative tools to encourage people to build their own visual narrative.
"I like to describe it as seeing themselves with compassion. Because most people hate photos of themselves," she said.
Social media expert Jesse Miller says McMaster's courses could help with many of the issues he sees every day with online bullying and over-reliance on online activity to build self-worth.
"We live in a world of judgment, we live in a world of criticism," Miller said.
Education needed about impact of social media
"Unfortunately we also live in a world where the social media narrative has turned into a constant attention-seeking approach where we're searching for daily affirmation."
Miller works with schools, parents and health authorities to build education about online bullying and social media use.
"I think [a course like this] is a positive approach to talking about a very real issue in terms of how people portray themselves on social media," Miller says.
"People need an understanding of digital literacy and media literacy to tell their story."
Selfies as political movements
As selfies have evolved and become a cultural phenomenon, they increasingly have been examined by academics.
The University of Southern California Los Angeles offers a selfie course exploring how gender, sexuality and race are portrayed using self-portraits on social media.
"Selfies are not just about self-portraiture ... They are also autobiographies and autoethnographies," said Alison Trope, communications professor at USC, on a webpage promoting the course.
"The more interesting ones deliberately challenge conventions or templates of a beautiful face and body, and really try to show something broader about who you are as a person, about how your identity can be about performance or politics or changing norms."
Lianna Pisani has also studied selfies from an academic perspective. She researched political movements driven by women taking selfies while she was completing a masters in communications and culture at Ryerson and York universities.
"It can be extremely positive and I've seen it bring people together globally through different movements," she said.
Students feel better about themselves
Pisani has seen women from around the world use selfies to question and defy standards of beauty, like when Chinese women took to social media to post photos of themselves with hairy armpits.
Regardless of the academic inquiry on the subject, McMaster says people who take her classes see positive results.
"It kind of feels like why I'm on the planet, because I spent so long healing my own body image," she said. "I plan to be doing this work as long as there [are] people who need it."