Bringing sexy back: Reclaiming the body aesthetic via self-shooting

Katrin Tiidenberg
1 Institute of International and Social Studies, Tallinn University, Tallinn, Estonia


This paper is based on visual narrative analysis of cyber-ethnographic material from a 2.5 year field-research with ‘not safe for work’ [NSFW] bloggers and self-shooters on I use Koskela’s concept of ‘empowering exhibitionism’, Waskul’s ‘erotic looking glass’, and Foucault’s ‘technologies of the self’ to analyze self-shooting (taking photos of one-self). Constricting societal norms of sexuality, body shape and body practices influence how my participants (N=20, 10 female, 9 male, 1 transgender, ages 21 - 51, average age 34) live their embodied and sexual lives. Through self-shooting and by negotiating the community specific issues of control, power and the gaze, they are able to construct a new, empowered, embodied identity for themselves.

I look at self-shooting and selfie-blogging as a practice of reclaiming control over one’s embodied self AND over the body-aesthetic, thus appropriating what is and is not ‘sexy’. The NSFW self-shooting community offers a safe space otherwise so hard to find within the body/sexuality-normative mainstream culture. This makes self-shooting a collective therapeutic activity. In their self-images participants construct themselves as ‘beautiful’, ‘sexy’, ‘devious’, ‘more than just a mother and an employee’ and as someone who ‘likes their body instead of trying to not hate it’. The technologies of the self activated through diaristic blogging and selfie sharing, along with the empowerment from interactions with peers take bloggers on a path of sexual awakening and reintroduce them to their own bodies.

Keywords: selfies; sexuality; body; self-identity; visual narrative analysis

doi: 10.5817/CP2014-1-3


We live in a storied world (Riessmann, 2008) and many of the stories are told in images or with the help of images. Stories of bodies and sexuality in particular, often rely on images. Consumer culture too, uses images as prescriptions of what our bodies should look like in order to be considered sexy or beautiful (Featherstone, 2010). We can view this as an expression of the regime of shame (Koskela, 2004) through which power, in the Foucaultian sense of internalization of control (1977, p. 202-203), operates. Regime of shame is based on the idea that there are things and practices that cannot be shown. Building on both Foucault and Freud, Giddens has said, that "sexuality’, in the modern sense, was invented when sexual behavior ‘went behind the scenes’” (1991, p. 164). Daneback (2006) elaborates: "feelings of guilt and anxiety are closely related to sexuality” (p. 10) and as a result, "sexual behaviors are often surrounded by silence and executed in privacy” (p. 10).

Bodies and images of them are thus readily sanctioned by the regime of shame. It censors the type of sex and bodies we should show and see, allowing only "clean”, homogenized imagery. This body-normativity influences how we all experience being embodied, gendered, sexual human beings. This article explores how self-shooting (taking selfies) and blogging in a NSFW (not safe for work) community on influences participants experiences of their embodied selves and the body-aesthetic in a wider sense. It presents narratives of sexual and embodied empowerment, and how that can lead to appropriation of the definition of ‘sexy’. Selfies are ubiquitous in our digitally saturated environments and this article adds to the yet limited, although growing scholarly voices that conceptualize self-shooting as a significant late-modern self-, and community construction practice. Based on the Foucaultian idea that sexual narratives contribute significantly to ‘how societies establish the ‘truth’ of the subject, and the norms for the relations that subjects should have with themselves and others’ (Danaher, Schirato, & Webb, 2000, p. 134), this study also offers an empirical look at one increasingly popular sexual story-telling practice in a digitally saturated world.

Theoretical Context

(Sexual) Self-Expression Online

The use of internet for (online) sexual activities and sexual self-expression has been intensively researched since the beginning of 2000s and that scholarship reflects the great variety of experience. It includes work on searching for sexual partners, use of internet as a method of solicitation and advertisement of sex-work; cybersex; issues of addiction, gender variances; discourses of consumerism, therapy, the expression of self-identity and creation of communities within sexuality; sexualized fan-fiction and fan-art; use of internet for queer or sexually subcultural identity-construction, sexting, fidelity, etc. (see Albright, 2008; Attwood, 2010; Binik, 2001; Brand et al., 2011; Burr, 2003; Castle & Lee, 2008; Chaline, 2010; Cooper, Månsson, Daneback, Tikkanen, & Ross, 2003; Daneback, Cooper, & Mansson, 2005; Daneback, Månsson, & Ross, 2007; Daneback, 2006; Döring, 2009; Griffiths, 2001; Ferree, 2003; Hasinoff, 2012; Keft-Kennedy, 2005; Lehman, 2007; Leiblum, 2001; Ross, Rosser, McCurdy, & Feldman, 2007; Sevickova & Daneback, 2011; Tsaros, 2013; Weiss & Samenow, 2010; Weisskirch & Delevi, 2011; Whitty, 2008;). In other words, internet has transfigured sex and sexuality, creating new or illuminating other aspects of it so that they ‘stand out from their equivalent social sexual interactions’ (Ross, 2005, p. 342).

Blogging can offer self-expression and social interaction; help one work on their self-identity (McCullagh, 2008), be a form of self-therapy (Tan, 2008), and way to have a relation to one’s sensible, unique self (Siles, 2010). Sexual blogs specifically offer a safe space for discussing desire (Muise, 2011). They reduce shame and give back control over sexual information (Wood, 2008). Sexual blogs can work as technologies of arousal (Schwarz, 2010) by activating certain sexual scripts (Simon & Gagnon, 2002), or as an erotic looking glass (Waskul, 2002), which makes being watched exciting, because it renders the body an object of desire. In previous work (Tiidenberg, 2013) on NFSW bloggers of tumblr., I found a widening repertoire of desires and an increase in the general open-mindedness among the practitioners. This was due to (a) constant exposure to sexual scripts different from one’s own, and (b) pleasurable interactions / sense of community that meant the new information was easily internalized.

Constructing the Embodied Self in Selfies

Traditionally photographs were seen as showing us the reality (cf. Bogdan & Biklen, 2003); according to Rose (2001), some historians of photography have argued, that the use of photographs in a specific regime of truth (Foucault, 1977), resulted in photos being seen as evidence of "what was really there”. The regime of truth is no longer prevalent among visual scholars and scholars of photography – photos are seen as "a negotiated version of reality” (Pink, 2005, p. 20), tools for identity formation and communication, currency for social interaction (van Dijck, 2008, p. 62) and carriers of various forms of capital (Schwarz, 2010). Based on my ethnographic observation, however, I would question its complete dissolution among the lay practitioners, especially in the case of candid shots. I would place NSFW self-shooting on the treacherous terrain between the regime of shame of sexual bodies and the assumed regime of truth of lay photography. Suitably, it was our cultures’ tension between the need to tell the truth while hiding sexuality, which lead Foucault to shift his attention from technologies of domination to how individuals have been made to understand themselves (Foucault, 1978) and in his later work to the technologies of the self (1988).

The gesture of pointing the camera at oneself is increasingly common, and the presence of such pictures online is growing. According to Lasen and Gomez-Cruz: "self-portraits seem to be taking part in embodiment processes and in the shaping and knowing of the self” (2009, p. 206). Taking an active role in one’s sexual storytelling through both, images and text, can serve as empowering exhibitionism that allows us to "reclaim a copyright to our lives” by rejecting the "regime of order and the regime of shame” (Koskela, 2004, p. 206-207) or an act of "self-storying as activism” (Crawley & Broad, 2004, p. 68 as cited in Sheff, 2005).

Destabilized Sexual-Self

Critical self-awareness and self-care are at the core of Foucault’s (1988) understanding of technologies of the self. By questioning what seems natural, a critically self-aware individual sees the possibilities of transgression and the potential for new subjective experiences (Markula, 2003). Concurrently, increased self-reflexivity can lead to rejecting the regime of shame just as practices that make one question the regime of shame may lead to increased self-awareness. Late-modern sexuality is malleable and important to one’s self-project (Giddens, 1992). This means that sexuality can become an emancipatory discourse, allow one to transgress the neat binaries and boundaries through "a little space into which we can escape” (p. 123). Internet also offers us new forms of visual and sexual cultures (Ross, 2005); spaces for new kinds of sexualities, where they become "destabilized, decentered and de-essentialized” (Plummer, 2007, p. 20). In a sense then, we can carve out stigma suspension spaces online, where the "ordinary norms of everyday life easily may be suspended” (Waskul, 2002, p. 205) and where we can experiment with sexual behavior by "engaging in it without actually doing it” (Ross, 2005, p. 344). This liminality comes with a high potential for self-reflexivity and self-care as well as for rejecting the regime of shame.


This article is based on the data1 (individual interviews in 2011, four focus-groups in 2012, blog outtakes, selfies, and fieldnotes) of 20 participants2. In order to take advantage of the abundance of different types of data, I needed a remix method (Markham, 2013). Remix starts with the premise of Kinchelhoe’s (2005) bricolage to then shift to a level of practical sense making (Markham, 2013, p. 65). It highlights activities such as using serendipity, playing with perspectives, borrowing, generating partial renderings to get more out of mixing conventional tools. Based on my experience (Tiidenberg, forthcoming) visual narrative analysis (Riessmann, 2008; Rose, 2001) represents the methodical multiplicity of remix very well.

Visual narrative analysis [VNA] (Riessman, 2008) advocates reading images interpretatively. An investigator looks for meaning in the content, the context of production and in audiencing of images. The latter is a term proposed by John Fiske (1994) and reused by Gillian Rose (2001) in her book ‘Visual Methodologies’. It refers to the process where images’ meanings are renegotiated, or rejected, by particular audiences. In addition to Riessman’s (2008) and Rose’s (2001) guidelines on conducting VNA, I gained additional insight by focusing on initial and subsequent audience responses; the compositional, technical and social modalities of the stories (Rose, 2001); and the metasigns in the image content (Hodge & Kress, 1988). I also created a NSFW selfie-specific check list (Tiidenberg, forthcoming) for analyzing image content and compositionality based on Dyer’s checklist for analyzing bodies in advertising (1982).

I conducted my VNA in three layers. The first step was thematic narrative analysis (Riessmann, 2008). I looked for narrative strands of body image, sexuality and empowerment in the textual data (individual interviews3, focus groups4, blog outtakes, image captions, image tag words) for all participants. My second step was an exploratory reading of the selfies, informed by the thematic narratives. After that I selected Peter and Rachel for the detailed VNA, where I worked back and forth between textual data and the selected selfies of theirs. Taking a case based approach is common in VNA and can be considered the payoff for being able to work with a wide variety of data. I chose Rachel and Peter, because their experiences best exemplified the narrative elements I found in the initial layers of analysis; their stories differed from each other from the point of view of the sexual body; while also exemplifying experiences I found characteristic of what my other participants had gone through.

Because of the sensitivity of the topic, ethical choices and protecting my informants has been a priority throughout the research process5. While I did acquire informed consent from all of my participants, I have gone back to them over the course of my fieldwork to make sure they are aware of and OK with me also analyzing and using their images in addition to their text, etc. I used ethical fabrication (Markham, 2011) in two ways in this article. I altered the wordings of blog outtakes to minimize their reverse-searchability, and I altered the images I included by running them through a sketching application, hiding watermarks, and placing a modesty block on one of Peter’s images.

NSFW selfies on tumblr. are found images (cf. Banks, 2007; Roberts, 2011), where "the practices of making, displaying, and sharing self-portraits reveal a complex game of gaze, where people are at the same time the subject who takes pictures and the object pictured,” (Lasén & Gómez-Cruz, 2009, p. 212). The images are usually fragments of bodies or headless bodies. Participants publish selfies among other images; thoughts on sex, politics, life, food and other topics typical of diarisic blogs.

Results and Discussion

I will now present some amalgamated storylines on body and sexuality related norms, aesthetics, gaze and control in the community. These make up what self-shooters colloquially refer to as the "body-positive environment”. It influences whether, how often and what kinds of images self-shooters post, thus becoming a part of the stories of production. It also indicates the suitable and unsuitable reactions, thus creating a safe space through the stories of audiencing.

Body-Positivity, Gaze and Control

The control participants have over what they see on their dashboards is limited, as it is other people creating the flow of content and the only way to censor it is by unfollowing previously followed blogs.

You’re not gonna be able to screen your images, there’s gonna be penis and there’s gonna be vagina and sometimes there’s gonna be more than one penis touching each other, so you can’t really get away from it. Or there will be really weird looking vaginas. I’ve learned a lot about what vaginas can look like.

(Anna, 37, USA, interview 2011)

This has an expanding effect on one’s visual literacy, tolerance, even preferences in terms of body types, body parts, and sexual acts. The tensions between the mainstream social norms of what a body should look like and the community-specific norms, which allow more diversity, become evident when bloggers assess their own and others’ selfies. While the behind the scenes sexuality (Giddens, 1991) mandates silence and privacy (Daneback, 2006), this community not only brings it out into the open, but also rejects the homogenized standards allowed by the regime of shame (Koskela, 2004) of the consumer culture (Featherstone, 2010). Most of my participants spoke of the community’s "body-positive” atmosphere and its stark contrast with other social networking sites and mainstream media. Obviously, this is not a utopian culture of people with no personal preferences for specific body sizes and body types, but there is a general vibe of support. This truly becomes a little space of escape (Giddens, 1992) and safety (Muise, 2011), thus leading people to not feeling afraid to share their tastes and their bodies.

What’s really nice about the adult community on tumblr. is the body positivity that is around on some blogs. I think that the kinds of people that frequent that community are very mature in that they realize that there are imperfections in a body and that’s ok and that’s what makes a body beautiful. So it’s a platform where I could build confidence about my own body. I was semi-positive that if I posted a picture of myself I wasn’t going to get torn down or like … cause if you look at … like on Youtube, some girl posts a video of herself singing, and reactions are all:‘you look like shit’.

(Jenna, 21, USA, interview 2011)

More people are encouraged to share their images based on the feedback they witness other people’s selfies and bodies receiving – a loop between the story of audiencing and the story of production of an image is created. Being aware of the body-positivity may also lead to consciously furthering it by becoming almost a spokesperson for a specific visual / body element shunned in the mainstream. This destabilizes (Plummer, 2007) the cultural scripts of what is sexy, as people claim control over not only their own sexual story telling (Plummer, 1995), but also the narratives of the aesthetics of sexiness in a wider sense.

I mean there was a time, where I was consciously putting up pictures to make a statement, a reaction to comments like: "shave it down there bitch.” I just think that in my very small way I can say that well, on my site, in my little corner of the world, it’s the norm, so … just my part to renormalize it ...

(Frank, 46, interview 2011, talking about pubic hair)

The blog can become a part of one’s sexual repertoire or a tool in one’s erotic toolbox. For example Georgina’s (41, USA) husband, when finally allowed access to his wife’s blog, started calling it "an encyclopedia of his wife’s desires”. Having this designated safe space (Muise, 2011; Wood, 2008) is the only place for some of my participants to feel like a sexual, gendered, embodied person, rather than, for example just a mother, a PTA member or an employee. Blogging selfies emphasizes the sexual and the bodily, thus (re)instating it as an area of life worthy of energy.

It turns me on to take pictures, and it would even if they were all going to be deleted, though I do love collecting them. And I'm sure a big part of the turn on here is the same as in the rest of my sex life, power and control, along with wild "slutty" women. Taking the pictures, and even more posting them, is certainly a form of power. Showing her off is fun in that it feels like a demonstration of control […] And, though this might seem contradictory, it also is fun and exciting, 'cause I also know she likes her pictures posted, and that seems a little bit "slutty", and I love women who do things they aren't "supposed" to more than anything else in the world.

(Simon, 35, USA, focus group 2012)

Where both partners share or access the blog, it is often used to have conversations about things they might want to try. Taking selfies is an autoerotic, exhibitionist practice that is satisfying on it is own for some, while taking pictures of one’s partner is a part of the sexual relationship for others.

Peter’s Story: "Real men have washboard abs. Real men like curves.

Peter’s story illustrates the connection between consciously building the body-positive atmosphere and it is effects on how one experiences one’s own body. I explore the links between the story of audiencing and the story of production and how those meet in the story of the image itself. I am starting with an excerpt from a one-on-one interview (2011) where he’s talking about his self-shooting and focuses on the technical and the compositional modalities of the story of production. He emphasizes image quality over his body. There is tension between enjoying the self-shooting for the feedback on his body versus just for the feedback on his photography.

I mean people like both the pictures that you’re taking, but like YOU. You know, they think that you’re physically attractive, then that’s certainly enjoyable … um … I don’t think it’s necessarily why I do it … uh … cause there are two parts, one I’m trying to take good pictures, whatever they are, whatever the subject … uh … and so I want the quality of the photography to be good and then I also want myself to look good in them … you know when people say that the pictures are good, like the lighting is good or the colors are good, that actually, that means more to me than if someone says that ‘oh you’ve got a great cock’. I mean not to say that isn’t flattering, and not to say that I don’t enjoy that, but it’s more the product, the photography, that’s more important to me than myself being represented.

Focusing on the technological and compositional aspects of production can be read as a justification of such, supposedly trivial, pursuits as self-shooting. By the first interview, Peter, who hadn’t taken a selfie prior to starting his tumblr., had a popular blog and posted selfies regularly. Figure 1 offers a glimpse at the types of images he was comfortable sharing at the time. These images usually come with a flirtatious, interactive caption that guides the reading as sexual, even if the image itself (left, Figure 1.) is not overtly so. Often the captions lend from stereotypical sexual scripts, pairing suit pictures with references to office affairs and eager secretaries familiar from the pornographic clichés. Heterosexual, one-on-one sexual preferences are implied.

Figure 1: The left image came with a caption: "I think it’s time you took some dictation” and
the right: "Clearly, I need a secretary to assist me”.

In terms of compositionality, the images focus on the crotch area, are headless, which is typical for NSFW tumblr., and his body is in a masculine stance. There are no obvious props or metasigns on the image, although in the context of Peter’s other selfies and other images that circulate in the community, the suit – tie combination works as a metasign of male sexual dominance and a certain ‘daddy fetish’. You can also see that his hands are in a frame in both pictures.

Before tumblr. I never even thought about my hands, I mean I thought my hands are fairly average and maybe on the smaller side for my frame, in the first few pictures I posted my hands were - you could see them fairly prominently and I got a lot of feedback where people said they liked my hands and they liked hands in general. I had no idea about this particular attraction.

Both the suits and the hands become a metasignificant prop for Peter. We see how audience responses renegotiated the sexual meaning of the image, adding more layers of sexual scripts to the ones that the producer was initially aware of. This starts influencing the story of production by educating Peter of the preferences of the opposite sex, and giving him a new gaze. Peter is now a man who has more than just one ‘sexy’ body part and a man of sexy habits – he wears suits daily. This audience feedback becomes an erotic looking glass (Waskul, 2002) for Peter’s body and deems it desirable. The viewer’s typical reading of Peter’s suit pictures as sexually dominant informs the interactions Peter has on tumblr., and no doubt enhances Peter’s interest in the dominant / submissive sexual practices. Peter told me that his blogging experience has guided his sexual preferences; brought new practices (e.g. sexual spanking) to his attention and in some cases also his bedroom.

But Peter’s gaze widened not only in terms of his own body, but also those of others. About a year and a half after starting his blog, Peter reblogged a slogan poster, that read "REAL MEN LIKE CURVES. DOGS LIKE BONES”, the text was crossed out. Underneath a second poster read "REAL MEN LIKE YOU BECAUSE OF YOUR HEART, NOT YOUR BODY”. Peter captioned this with "Agreed. I used to say that curves have an elegance that bones deny, and stuff like that. Fuck that. Women of all shapes and sizes are beautiful and sexy. It only matters that you have a full heart and are healthy.”

He also came back to this in our interview.

So part of it is just giving it back to other people, paying it forward if you will, part of it is just you know, I know how hard it is for people, and I think it’s maybe harder for women, just from what I’ve seen and read and from communication with people, I think women tend to be a bit more self-conscious about their self pictures […] when I see someone posting themself and from the comment they put on their picture I can see that they’re a bit hesitant or they’re not feeling totally confident about it, I’ll reblog it with something positive, cause I want them to feel better about themselves.

We see references to the support he has gotten, to self-transformation and self-awareness in terms of his gaze, and reflexivity on what body-positivity even means.

Figure 2: These images were posted as a part of Hotel series and within a game of Full Frontal Friday,
some of the self shooters play. The images were originally in color.

In the light of this, Peter’s selfies in Figure 2, demonstrate that Peter has started seeing his own body differently and gained enough confidence to share a version of it he doesn’t like. It’s curious to notice, that even though Peter is once again in formal clothes (suit pants, dress shirt), his pose, the open white shirt and the invitation of mussed bedsheets in the background, create a feminine and somewhat vulnerable look. In our interview (excerpt below), Peter spoke of insecurities about his stomach, despite having earlier linked body insecurities mainly to women. Tangentially then, self-shooting and body blogging have added a sense of empathy for women, particularly women practicing their gendered, sexual bodies in the consumerist setting of being eternally flawed (Featherstone, 2010, p. 195).

I was very hesitant to post pictures showing my whole torso, in particular my stomach, just because I don’t have a flat stomach, I don’t have a fat stomach either, but I don’t have flat stomach. I’m not out of shape but I’m also not ... you wouldn’t see me on the cover of GQ I don’t have washboard abs or anything like that, and so if anything, it would be my stomach I’d be a little insecure about, and I think I posted something about it, that I was hesitant about it and I got a lot of encouraging feedback , where some women actually prefer guys with a little bit of a paunch, a little bit of substance around the middle, so I was ‘ok, I guess people don’t really mind’ and somebody, at least one person pointed out to me, look at all these women you’re posting and praising who certainly don’t have perfect, you know ‘perfect’ bodies, they certainly have flaws just like anybody else, and some women that you post are, you know have stomachs too and they are comfortable doing it.

Katrin: Would you say you feel better about your stomach now?

I don’t think I’ll ever feel better about it, you know, everybody has a body part that they’re not happy with, and um … that is my body part that I’ll never be happy with no matter what I do … I think through posting pictures of myself and just kind of laying myself bare, I’ve certainly become more confident in my body and … less … uh … self conscious.

Community interactions have thus renegotiated the meaning of less than perfect abs via contextualizing it within the body-positive culture of Peter’s blog and the NSFW self-shooters community. This adds to Peter’s critical self-awareness, which allows him to see potential for new subjective experiences, thus serving as a technology of the self (Foucault, 1984). And of course by boldly sharing what he used to be ashamed of, he is rejecting the regime of shame and thus I am reading these images as an act of empowering exhibitionism (Koskela, 2004).

Rachel’s Story: "I am still a sexually-desirable woman and I pity body-fascists”

Rachel’s story demonstrates her discovery of self-shooting as an auto-erotic practice which then, via the story of audiencing, soothes her life-long body-image issues, and makes her recognize that her "sexual shelf-life” is far from over. This in turn, empowers her to reclaim an active part in her sexual and embodied storytelling (Plummer, 1995) and leads to "self-storying as activism” (Crawley & Broad, 2004).

When Rachel started her blog, she did so at the encouragement of her husband, who also has one. However, for Rachel it was important to have a "separate sexual identity and not be subsumed within his”. From the very beginning she approached her blog as her own space, where she could store her own kind of porn and explore her own desires. It also became a place where she could show her husband, what she was into, without having to talk directly about it. It became a tool within their relationship.

It has been a form of indirect communication about things that I’ve found difficult to speak directly to him about. Because it is extremely awkward to tell your husband you’ve been with for twenty years: ‘you’re doing it wrong!’ This way you can kind of hint or you can back off and say ‘it’s just a picture’ if it’s something that is too much. You can choose what you attach yourself to and what you don’t.

In her interview Rachel told me that she has had body dysmorphic tendencies her whole life, never liked what she saw in the mirror or on photos that others had taken of her. Self-shooting gave her a way to care for herself and increase her self-awareness (Foucault, 1984), and she delighted in the exploration. She often posts images from the same shoot, taken merely 30 seconds apart and shares her surprise at how a different angle can make her body look as much as a dress size bigger or smaller. That new gaze taught her to feel sexy in her body, but it also altered her material body-practices in terms of how she held herself, how she dressed and accessorized, whether she used make-up and how long she let her hair grow.

I had affirmations through tumblr. that I can still be sexually attractive … if I showed you pictures of how I looked five years ago versus pictures of how I look now in daily life … I think, you know, some people have seen those pictures and just gone like ‘wow, you look like this huge nerd’. I was really frumpy, I had given up. And so it’s … it’s odd that while I’ve grown older, I can now say I’m not giving up just yet. I can be vital and attractive and sexual (interview, 2011).

In addition, the act of taking selfies sexually exited her, she has linked this to having internalized the male masturbatory gaze (Mulvey, 1989) from viewing soft core porn throughout her life. Her own images thus became an auto-erotic looking glass for her, where her own excitement of watching herself deemed the body desirable. The blogging experience triggered a new sexual script, qualifying as a technology of arousal (Schwarz, 2010). Her selfies, the joy in taking them, interactive captions and the humorous style of her blog quickly earned her a large following and many people vying for her attention. She has a number of online lovers with her husband´s consent.

I tend to prefer the longer email transaction, my sexual or affective communication with guys has been in the form of the exchange of photographs, exchange of video and the writing of sometimes extraordinary fantasy scenarios. There’s something so beautiful about something that someone has brought to life in their imagination […]. It’s almost like they’re writing fanfic for you, I really appreciate it, it’s almost as a gift. […]then you can print them out and keep them in a box next to your bed with your vibrator. (Interview, 2011)

Rachel has used her blog as a "one-stop-shop for everything she can’t express elsewhere”, she is aware of the empowering and therapeutic effect it has had. In her case, unlike with Peter, this lead to not merely promoting body-positivity in what she posts on her blog, but in becoming an activist for various body and sexuality related issues that occasionally surface in the community or in the wider NSFW tumblr space. She has spoken out for pubic hair, against Australian Classification Board’s legislation, which demands that all images of vaginas undergo a ‘digital labiaplasty’ i.e. have to be airbrushed so that they are ‘healed to a single crease’; she often posts about sex-positive feminism. As she has thousands of followers, her voice carries significant weight and her thoughts are often magnified via hundreds of comments, reblogs, people joining in discussions etc. Following is a rather stark example where Rachel has used her own body and her own images as a form of activism. She received an anonymous message, which called her ‘a slightly overweight mommy’, thus referencing body-normativity and age in suggesting she should stay off of the ‘naked Internet’. Rachel published the note with a response that clarified that she’s neither a mom nor overweight and asked, why the author assumed they had the right to define beauty. A couple of hours later she published the images in Figure 3.

Figure 3: These images were posted as a set, with a caption that read: Hey grayface-who-thinks-I-should-keep-my-"slightly-overweight”-body-off-the-internet-because-it is-not-beautiful, one of my defining personality traits is that, when someone bosses me around, I itch to do the opposite. I had had no plans to take any more selfies until you showed up spreading body-fascism, but you gave me the impetus to rediscover my body again. Thank you, love, Rachel. She tagged it with a lot of tag words, among others "fuck body fascists” and "anonymous coward”.

Rachel often posts her images in sets and uses the style of a striptease, or gradual undressing we see on Figure 3, however in the context of her other selfies the costuming she has chosen is significant. Apart from when she is catering to an online lover’s tastes, she doesn’t really favor the classical black corsetry look. She often plays with props and settings, but usually in a humorous tone, with metasignage from pop-, or nerd culture (Princess Leia outfits, space guns, masks). She has admitted to a love of textures, stripy socks and her lingerie is often colorful. In the context of the self-shooting community and the wider NSFW image-space on tumblr, black, especially when paired with corsets, is often a metasign from a BDSM repertoire, particularly of a woman on top. Rachel’s stance on the image on the right; how she is holding the laces of her corset like a whip, certainly lends itself to a reading of (re)claiming dominance. When Rachel published the initial question – answer segment, she got a huge amount of supportive feedback. The caption on Figure 3 is a mash-up of a direct interaction with the initial anonymous person, and self-reflexion of what self-shooting and community support has done for her. These images quickly went viral, being liked and reblogged both by other self-shooters as well as wider audiences, who latched on to either the image, or the message of not being intimidated into body-insecurity by trolls. Humbled and intrigued by the vast feedback, Rachel posted an essay-sized contemplation on body-normativity a day later. She lamented the anonymous questioner’s "rigid, narrow, media defined standards of beauty”.

All this has only made me more defiant. It has strengthened my conviction that what Tumblr self-shooters do - in our variety, in our different skin colors, shapes and sizes, our choices of self-presentation – is important, not just for ourselves but for others. It is important that we continue to stand firm against this rigid thinking about standards of bodies and beauty. It is only through seeing other women and men on Tumblr showing their bodies, and saying ‘I do not look like a model, but I still like my body‘ that I learned to stop comparing myself to impossible photoshopped standards, and to accept myself. I have learned to appreciate so many different kinds of beauty that I was blind to before. I cannot think that this is anything but a good thing. (Rachel’s blog, 2012)

I am finishing the results section of this article with this segment of her blog posts, which so emphatically reiterates some points I’ve made here. Self shooting is not a vapid form of narcissism, but can be a very real and powerful way of reclaiming what sexy is and how it’s done.


This article is about a practice so often attributed to aimless teenagers or seedy, aging, male politicians with impulse control issues – taking and sharing sexy selfies - and how it can profoundly alter one’s relationship with one’s own body and increase one’s sexual life-satisfaction. I looked at taking and posting selfies as a therapeutic practice of accepting one’s body and a way to create a safe place for exploring one’s embodied identity as a sexual being. Curiously the still somewhat viable regime of truth (Foucault, 1977) of lay photography helps self shooters internalize the new way of looking at their bodies and believe it looks as good as it does on the screen. Based on narrative analysis of interviews and blog outtakes by all participants and the visual narrative analysis of Peter’s and Rachel’s case, I was able to explore how by reclaiming control over the embodied and sexual storytelling (Plummer, 1995), my participants have reclaimed the body-aesthetic from the regime of shame (Koskela, 2004) of the body-normative consumer society, thus redefining, what sexy or beautiful is.

I have used the conceptual apparatus of the story of the image, the story of production and the story of audiencing to explore self-shooters stories told in and about images, in and about bodies. Visual narrative analysis, while a time consuming method, is indispensable for research projects that need to use a variety of different data, some of which is visual. I have argued that taking and sharing selfies works as a technology of the self in Foucaultian terms and through that empowers. Having control over the process of photographing and editing images, paired with the supportive and lustful feedback online, turn selfies and one’s blog into an erotic looking glass (Waskul, 2002). It also increases one’s critical self-awareness (Foucault, 1984) in terms of how one views and uses one’s body, but also in terms of one’s sexuality, and through both of these, one’s larger project of self-identity. The blog, blogging, selfies and sharing then become a technology of arousal (Schwartz, 2010), creating and activating new sexual scripts (Simon & Gagnon, 2002) for their owners. The body-positive environment of the community fed by the influx of amateurs’ selfies strengthens that technology of arousal and erotic looking glass function, and provides an opportunity for self care (Foucault, 1984) and occasionally self-storying as activism (Crawley & Broad, 2004). All this combined provides strength for participants to reject the regime of shame surrounding sexual bodies and makes self-shooting and body-blogging a practice of empowering exhibitionism (Koskela, 2004).

While the rather narrow scope of this article limits the generalizability, I believe it to be a good indicator of how people use selfies as self-construction techniques in the digitally saturated context, and the role selfies can play in getting one’s sexy back, thus having an impact on people’s life satisfaction. While participating in a NSFW online community is not for everyone, the findings of this article raise important questions of safe spaces that people seem to need for being sexual and the particular suitability of the image-rich internet for it.


1. Sampling criteria included authors of English language NSFW blogs that had been active for at least 6 months in September 2011, which updated at least 3 times per week, where captions were added to pictures, videos and audios and / or which also post text posts, whose Ask boxes were activated, who are legal adults and who give their informed consent to participate in the study. Snowballing (Creswell, 1998) was used – five bloggers whom the author knew to have a blog that met the criteria and who were popular in the community were approached and asked for further contacts.

2. 10 female, 9 male, 1 transgender, ages 21 – 51, from USA, Canada, UK, Australia and New Zealand. Most participants had a university degree, with some college students, one PhD and a couple of graduate degrees. Twelve are married (including non-monogamous marriages); seven in a relationship, one divorced and four single. Thirteen consider themselves heterosexual, the rest stated they are bi-curious or bi-sexual, one queer.

3. carried out as Skype interviews or synchronic online text interviews in November and December 2011. Prior to interviews all participants had been informed of the research process and had given informed consent. A week before the synchronous interviews all participants were sent 5 e-mail questions (all answered these). Each interview started with personal information questions and ended with the chance for participants to ask questions. There were 17 thematic prompts in the interviews ranging from describing their tumblr experience and blogging habits to their interactions on and off tumblr, to participants assessment of their personalities, their offline interactions, their reasoning behind why they participate on tumblr., their desire and ability to discuss sexuality in their life, etc.

4. carried out as Skype or gmail-chat synchronic text based group interviews, in one case followed up by an group email discussion over the course of three weeks, conducted in November and December 2012. The focus groups focused thematically on self-shooting practices and what participants though the commonality was in the community’s experiences.

5. During this process I repeatedly consulted the AOIR 2012 Ethics Guidelines as well as fellow members of the AOIR Ethics Committee during the IR14 conference in October 2013 in Denver, USA


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Correspondence to:
Katrin Tiidenberg
Institute of International and Social Studies
Tallinn University
Uus-Sadama 5

Email: katrin.tiidenberg(at)