Of selfies, avatars, prosopagnosia and identity


In the age of selfies we try to control how the world sees us

bootcamp2015-small 2In which I ponder the disparity between the perception of self held by others and the person concerned, and the volatile nature of self image.


“Be who you are.”

What on earth does that mean, be who I am? I see this as one of the toughest tasks in my self-imposed boot camp for the bonus years. It looks easy, because who else would you be if not yourself? But aging, like puberty, challenges and changes our sense of self.

In one sense I still feel just like a five-year-old — don’t you? But I look in the mirror and I do not see a five-year-old or even a fifty-year-old. I see a funny old woman and I have to get used to the sight of her.

So for now, let’s think about that person in the mirror, who is, according to logic and science, a reflection of ourselves.

Selfies for the young

Once upon a time it was possible to avoid looking at photos of ourselves. They were small and slurry and sepia. As children we were lined up a few times a year for the Brownie box camera, and it never occurred to us to protest or care.

But once we hit puberty, we all care about how we look. I tried to look pale and interesting whenever a camera appeared, which luckily wasn’t often. I worried about my awful haircut, I primped and patted, and I was fascinated by the cute models in Seventeen.

I presume most of my contemporaries were equally preoccupied with their changing appearance, but how would I know? An unsuspected case of prosopagnosia (face blindness) doubtless exacerbated my own identity puzzle.

Considering the metamorphosis of puberty, even a young woman with a healthy self-respect is forced to adjust her self image at that time. Thanks to self-facing (not self-effacing) phone cameras, photo apps and social media, young people can shape their image instantly, frequently and publicly.

Rachel Syme sees the selfie as an exercise in assertiveness and pride.

Avatars for the old

But never mind the young: how about older people swept up in life changes that are every bit as scary as the dawn of adulthood? We too wonder how we are supposed to look, especially when merely looking old is such a horrible fate, when President Obama takes the very word “old” as an insult. He bats away a student questioner who asks sincerely for his perspective on “aging toward a very senior life.”

“That’s pretty low!” replied Obama and “C’mon, you hurt my feelings.” All right, it was meant as a joke. But what are our options if looking old is not allowed? Dying young? Endless plastic surgery? Amortality?

If you’re on social media or in business or otherwise in the public eye, you’re obliged to display some photographs of your head and shoulders. As I get older, updating avatars and publicity photos has become somewhat intimidating.

Selfie-haters may righteously distinguish between avatars and selfies. But even if we just grab part of a casual shot for our avatar, we are still consciously manipulating the way we look, deliberately choosing the way we wish to be perceived. Who are we, now, at our age? Are we still carefree adolescents under the skin? And is that what others see? Doubt it!

Image from “The Book of Photography, Practical, Theoretical and Applied” (1905) Paul Hasluck and Arthur Hands. No known copyright restrictions.

26 thoughts on “Of selfies, avatars, prosopagnosia and identity

  1. lifecameos says:

    I have the big “7” coming up soon. I can face it when I think through it to myself. But I was stunned when a helpful younger relative who decided to get a celebration going, emailed out the invitation with the subject line “Glenys is Turning 70.” Seeing it in writing for public viewing took some getting used to. It was well meant, and I decided I would just have to get used to it.

    1. Some numbers are oddly alarming, and they are different numbers for everyone. It is kind of delightful that your young relative took over, and you have risen to the occasion. For me, 75 was not alarming but significant, and I’ve found my seventies to be a sweet spot so far. I hope it’s the same for you.

      1. lifecameos says:

        Thank you. I hope 75 is going well for you.

    2. My 70 is coming up. This is the first one that is stunning me. When I was young 70 was very, very old. Many of my relatives never saw it. I’m trying to keep quiet so I can slowly accept it (although I have no idea what I thought would happen after I turned 69…)

      1. This surprise and puzzlement is what I felt too over 75. I think you are right: our memory-concept of 70-somethings is out of whack with what we see all around us: vibrant healthy active people working and playing like, well, human beings. Let’s embrace that. And we can never imagine being older, never could.

      2. lifecameos says:

        It is amazing when your family’s genes have not allowed many to reach 70. One young man I met told me that the high cholesterol genes in his family meant his father was the first man to reach 70. The family had a huge celebration for that.

      3. It used to be that the men didn’t reach 70 but I have 2 brothers in their mid to late 80s now so maybe that spell has broken with better eating habits and health knowledge.

      4. lifecameos says:

        I really think that is very likely.

  2. Val says:

    I’m apparently 65. I look in the mirror and wonder at what I see (I have partial prosopagnosia… in that often I can’t recognise myself in a mirror, can’t recognise people I know well – I try to memorise what they are wearing, at least the colours of their clothes and shoes or I can lose them in a roomful of people! – but often I am aware of who people are in photos. Isn’t that odd?) There is this older-than-I-feel woman looking back at me. I’m actually 65, but I didn’t have an image for it, for myself, in the past and so I didn’t have anything to grow into.

    Curiously, my dad had a problem with getting old, but my mum didn’t. I looked forward to my fifties but once I was there, couldn’t quite understand – still don’t entirely understand – what was happening to me. And you’re right – the changes are remarkably like the bewilderment of puberty.

    1. Photos are essential for the face-blind tribe! We seize on clues other than faces, like your trick of memorising colours: I do that too and it’s a big help in a crowd. As for failing to recognize yourself in the mirror, you express this confusion very eloquently. Time helps: I’m hoping my appearance will change more slowly for the next ten years so that my perception can catch up with reality.

  3. Robyn Haynes says:

    An interesting post Rachel. Years ago I interviewed people of advanced age who said like you, they felt just the same as they did when they were young.

    The thing they valued about access to the internet was that others with whom they were communicating couldn’t see what they looked like and therefore would not judge or dismiss them because of age.

    Technology in all areas is increasingly blurring the age barriers in this regard don’t you think? Hearing aids, eye surgery, prostheses of all kinds, surgical enhancements. I haven’t yet been tested but I would like to think that I would refuse this path. Except for medical reasons of course.

    It’s not easy accepting the radical changes age imposes on our appearance. But the social prejudices are by far worse.

    1. You are so right. If ageism was not embedded in our society and our own psyche, we just wouldn’t care so much about our changing looks. Or so I like to think.

      1. Robyn Haynes says:

        I agree, Rachel. I haven’t become invisible yet. Some people, especially older women complain of this. 😟

      2. There was a moment when I noticed this happening to me. No more black clothes! No more Mrs Nice Lady!

      3. Robyn Haynes says:

        Speak up girl! Be assertive. I think too many stand back and give the impression they don’t deserve to be considered or served in turn. Age has given me confidence to say what I want and speak out if I don’t get it. One of my mantras is ‘expect the best’ of people, service, consideration and life. I’m getting off my soapbox now.

      4. Glad to hear it. That is a bonus that comes with time.

      5. Robyn Haynes says:

        Got lost in the heat of the moment there😲 I’m sure you don’t need a pep talk on the subject.

      6. You go girl!!

  4. Love your comment about how it “should” be easy to figure out who we are since who else should we be. But it’s not easy and, at least for me, feels like my biggest life challenge. But I’m determined. Glad I found your blog!

    1. Good luck. You are not alone!

  5. Joared says:

    Just finished reading fascinating autobiography of one of my favorite neurologist writers, Oliver Sacks, who I was surprised to learn experienced facial blindness you also mentioned having. Reminded me how I tended to say, “I may forget a name but I never forget a face”. Guess you have to concentrate more on recalling the name — or some other aspect about the person?

    I still have a difficult time recognizing myself in the mirror — not literally — but how I look just doesn’t seem like the inner image I have of myself, I guess. I don’t fret about it and actually strongly support “aging naturally” as am curious to see what happens — just accepting whatever. Young me probably wouldn’t recognize physical old me — especially since my once beautiful red hair has altered in color.

  6. I think a lot of Oliver Sacks’ research was triggered by some neurological oddity that he shared or at least understood personally. But what a sensitive, brilliant, curious man he was! As for face blindness, we use a bank of other clues to a person’s identity. They work sometimes. So I know who that ;person in the mirror is: she is wearing my clothes!

  7. JF says:

    Dear girl, you are too young to talk about age so much. Please concentrate on writing or on my blog

    1. Oh I do love a good ticking off! — Thank you, of course I always do as I am told.

  8. graygeezer says:

    I think that sometimes when we are “surprised” that we may feel the same as we did when we were young, it is because we probably had a skewed perception when we were young of what we expected “older” to feel like. 65 doesn’t feel like we thought it would when we were 30.

    I was rather rudely awakened to my aging some years ago when I was referred to, by someone who didn’t know me, as “the silver-haired guy in the green shirt”. Silver-haired? What are you talking about? I don’t see silver when I look in the mirror. Up to that point, I was essentially unaware that I was, to some people, old. I didn’t feel old even while quite conscious of the fact that I was well into my fifties. Of course, I was acutely aware of how white the hair falling into my lap was on my next trip to the barber.

    Now, retired and approaching 65, I’ve become quite comfortable with my age and whatever changes to my appearance it may bring (except for the ear hair and wild eyebrows…terribly annoying). As the saying goes, to get this old we had to travel many roads and not all were paved. Revel in your success!

    1. To be blissfully unaware of how we appear to others is a very fine thing. I recognise that moment of shock. For me, it was the day that somebody stood up for me on the bus. We need these nudges.

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