Couch with cushion on it that saysImage: Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

Beauty is good

I've been looking at the ways in which researchers reach out to people. Images create a powerful and immediate connection. Since the start of 2021 I've looked at the use of selfies in academia and found it has affected me profoundly.

I'd never consciously tried to take a selfie for an official purpose until last year.  I found it an uncomfortable, intrusive experience and ended up binning the pictures I took opting for an image of me to upload taken by a friend.  It felt contrived, unlike the good old 35mm film where you have no choice in the outcome of the image - with a smartphone you can take and re-take images until you are satisfied with the result.

Lucy doing a selfie with her dog on her lap

I've been looking at literature surrounding the use of selfies in academic research and how they can engender engagement.  There is a growing body of research surrounding public engagement and science communication in particular that suggests the use of portraiture either through storytelling or images can promote interaction between academics and the general public.  I was led to a relevant journal article published in PLOS One in a roundabout way.  I got the heads up via Instagram, from Claire Goelst, a conservation biologist who studies lions.  The study conducted by Jarreau et al. (2019) highlighted some interesting findings.  Using self-portraiture as a method scientists were found to be perceived as significantly warmer and more trustworthy.  The authors also found that #scientistswhoselfie can challenge public perceptions surrounding gender and racial stereotypes.

From an autoethnographic perspective I wanted to see how I felt about this.  At the start of this post you will see a selfie of me, the social scientist at work, engaging with what Jarreau et al. (2019) called "real-time self-disclosure".  My office with its slightly convoluted mass of cables and my faithful hound Sionnach the border terrier who likes to flop on my lap when she feels I have sat at the desk too long.  It felt weird taking the selfie. I'm not comfortable with photos at the best of times.  I didn't feel particularly beautiful...... I mean, it's a dark, dark January and I'm sporting the finest pandemic haircut! 

The study by Jarreau et al. (2019) noted that there may be unconscious bias that surrounds the perceptions of scientists who smile in selfies and those who don't in terms of the "beauty is good stereotype".  I found it hard to smile, and in my discomfort I did not wish to take a stream of photos to pick and curate the "best" one, or the one that framed my identity in a way I wished.  It is interesting that O'Donnell (2018) found a propensity amongst Instagram users to curate and consciously select photos.  In a sample of College students who engaged with the study she found that those who regularly posted photos on Instagram were likely to have a high need for visual identity expression, suggesting that identity is planned and monitored - not just expressed.  How does this feel for academics?

Not wishing to be defeated I tried another selfie. This time with my son.  I'd shy away from selfies with children for ethical reasons, but he has just turned 16 - an adult officially - and happy to be co-selfied.  So for the craic we took a selfie which I posted to Twitter that day.  It elicited a quick run of "likes" more than any of my posts of 2021.  Interestingly, O'Donnell (2018) found in her study that people were almost twice as likely to post pictures of themselves with friends or family, than a solo selfie which perhaps reveals that we human beings prefer a selfie in the company of others.  

I certainly found that a selfie with my son was more relaxed and I was able to elicit a happy perhaps after all, beauty is good, when it comes to my selfies.

Lucy and son

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Lucy Beattie

Lucy Beattie

Hi I'm Lucy, a PhD Candidate with the UWS Academy. I'm looking at the role of public engagement in connecting teaching and research in Higher Education

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