© Artists & UTimes

Rebel Selves Exhibition

Dawn Woolley

Rebel Selves critiques idealised binary gender and beauty norms in selfies and portraiture. A series of banners, wearable sculptures and printed garments create a performative installation space in which visitors can take queer selfies that rebel against these norms. During the exhibition opening Woolley will perform in the installation. The performance references an advert for L’Oreal Infallible Sculpt makeup (https://youtu.be/pxX_zzRFeh0) featuring Barbara Palvin who says ‘I may not be infallible, but I’m always selfie ready’. Palvin is wearing a belt of selfie-sticks with camera phones and a male voice-over tells the viewer that they can be selfie-ready from any angle for up to twenty-four hours. The camera phone belt visually demonstrates the need for continuous readiness under the multiple gazes of the devices. Palvin appears to be trapped by her visibility, a prisoner in a panopticon.

The panopticon is a type of prison designed in the late eighteenth century by Jeremy Bentham, a philosopher and social theorist. The prison has a central viewing position from which the prison guard can see all of the prisoners in their cells but the prisoners cannot see the prison guard. The prisoners do not know if they are being watched so they modify their behaviour and internalise the gaze of the warden. Michel Foucault describes the disciplinary gaze of the panopticon as ‘the normalising gaze, a surveillance that makes it possible to qualify, to classify and to punish. It establishes over individuals a visibility through which one differentiates and judges them’ (Foucault, 1977, p. 25).

As demonstrated in the L’Oreal advert, the ubiquity of mobile devices with cameras means that people can be photographed at any time, hence the need to be selfie-ready from any angle, 24 hours a day. Social networking sites can be viewed as a giant panopticon in which each user is an overseer and also internalises the gaze of their followers. Research into selfie taking and sharing practices finds that negative feedback in comments and the currency of likes reinforce and police dominant feminine or masculine beauty ideals and binary gender stereotypes. For example, Nicola Döring, and colleagues conducted content analysis of 500 selfies on Instagram to find out if they conform to the gender stereotypes identified by Erving Goffman in his 1976 study of photographs in magazines (Döring et al., 2015). The study revealed that the gender stereotypes found in adverts are repeated in selfies and that some appear in selfies more frequently than in the magazine adverts, suggesting that an intensification of gender stereotypes has taken place.

Although selfies allow an individual to produce an image of their choosing, they also increase self-surveillance and foreground the value of appearance. Evidence of this is suggested by articles published in The Wall Street Journal reporting leaked information from Facebook relating to the impact of Instagram on mental wellbeing (Wells et al., 2021 Online). The findings confirm conclusions already reached by researchers: selfies intensify self-scrutiny and peer comparisons which can contribute to low self-esteem and poor body image. Selfies can also reinforce social hierarchies and inequalities because being visible is experienced as empowering or disciplining depending on the individual’s social status and the type of body they possess. Those who are white, able-bodied, middle-class, heterosexual, and thin are likely to be visible for praise but less visible to negative scrutiny. Marginalised people are likely to be visible for criticism and overlooked in terms of their needs, desires, and values (Woolley, 2023). Online aggression is also common, and LGBTQI+ people are 2 to 4 times more likely to be attacked online that heterosexual people (Felmlee, 2020 17).

However, communities of care form around selfie-taking and sharing practices, particularly in LGBTQI+ communities. Research has found that selfie-takers are empowered to present themselves in a manner that challenges stereotypes, affirms the complexity of gender-fluidity, and provides visibility for people who are under-represented in mainstream media (Duguay, 2016). Vivienne undertook research with trans and gender-fluid Tumbler users, who report that positive comments from other users are self-affirming and enable body acceptance. The participants benefit from seeing diverse bodies online, and view trans and gender-fluid selfies as empowering expressions of defiance against beauty industries that promote binary beauty ideals and capitalise on consumer’s insecurities (Vivienne, 2017). Research shows that selfies can contribute to a more inclusive visual culture online, produce communities of care, and disrupt existing power hierarchies that determine who is worthy of being seen. However, selfies in which marginalised individuals are identifiable are vulnerable to online hostility from other users.

In Woolley’s installation she plays with visual methods of abstraction and ambiguity to create a joyful rebellious space. The Rebel Selfies made in the space do not escape the need for self-presentation and self-exposure, and they carry the risks attached to being visible in the public sphere. However, they also present opportunities to play with identity and enable marginalised individuals to take part in caring communities while minimising risks associated with being visible online. Using glitch, montage, pixalation and blur in selfies, individuals can be visible and confrontational, masked and obscured, while preventing categorisation and comparison in relation to white, ableist, heteronormative neoliberal ideals (Woolley, 2023). Legacy Russell, a curator, writes that queer bodies are glitchy because they ‘are encrypted’ and ‘not meant to be easily read’ (2020 147). The glitch dissolves the body and renders ‘our factual fragments […] scrambled, [and] unreadable’ (Russell, 2020 68). Image degradation, such as blur and pixelation, may also produce images that disrupt the dominant modes of looking. Artist Hito Steyerl writes:Focus is identified as a class position, a position of ease and privilege, while being out of focus lowers one’s value as an image. The contemporary hierarchy of images, however, is not only based on sharpness, but also and primarily on resolution […] a high resolution image looks more brilliant and impressive, more mimetic and magic, more scary and seductive than a poor one. It is more rich, so to speak (Steyerl, 2012 33).

Low resolution, blurred images are outside the system of value that preferences sharpness and high resolution, and so ‘their status as illicit or degraded grants them exemption from its criteria’ (Steyerl, 2012 38).

In the installation, Woolley offers a space for producing queer selfies that rebel against the idealised self-contained individual who has a coherent, knowable (and therefore marketisable) identity. These Rebel Selfies present the individual as a glitchy, composite person formed from fragments of body and environment, self and other, creating a more-than-human tentacular entanglement, to use Donna Haraway’s terms (2016).

Nodding towards to the panoptical aspect of selfie cultures, Woolley’s performance plays with and performs for the disciplining gaze of domestic surveillance cameras, presenting a series of gestures and poses that become increasingly exaggerated and absurd as she tries to embody perfect feminine and masculine forms. Tentacular legs and arms entangle her body in an array of poses and gestures deriving from body building, selfie-taking advice, stock images of female and male models, hysterical drawings of hysterics poses, and model sets for Second Life and Sims avatars. Woolley poses in the installation, simultaneously presenting binary gender ideals and confounding them through a confusing multiplicity of forms.

During the exhibition artworks will be shared online using #RebelSelfies / #RebelSelves hashtags. Visitors are encouraged to use the hashtags when sharing the selfies they take in the installation.

Rebel Selves, a smartphone app is currently being developed to offer a digital online counterpart to the real world installation.



Döring, N., Reif A., and Poeschl, S. (2016) “How gender-stereotypical are selfies? A content analysis and comparison with magazine adverts”, Computers in Human Behaviour 55, pp. 955–962.

Duguay, S. (2016) “Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer visibility through selfies: comparing platform mediators across Ruby Rose’s Instagram and Vine presence”, Social Media + Society April–June, pp. 1–12.

Felmlee, D, Rodis P. I., and Zhang, A. (2020) “Sexist slurs: reinforcing feminine stereotypes online”, Sex Roles: A Journal of Research 83/1–2, pp. 16–28.

Foucault, M., (1977) Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan, New York: Pantheon.

Gailey, J. A. (2014) The Hyper(in)visible Fat Woman: Weight and Gender Discourse in Contemporary Society, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Haraway, D. (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Malatino, H. (2020) Trans Care, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Russell, L. (2020) Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, London and New York: Verso.

Steyerl, H. (2012) The Wretched of the Screen, Berlin: Sternberg Press.

Vivienne, S. (2017) ‘“I will not hate myself because you cannot accept me’: problematizing empowerment and gender-diverse selfies”, The International Journal of Media and Culture 15/2, pp. 126–140.

Wells, G., HorwitzJ.,andSeetharaman, D. (2021) “Facebook knows Instagram is toxic for teen girls, company documents show”, The Wall Street Journal, 14 September, Available at https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-knows-instagram-is-toxic-for-teen-girls-company-documents-show-11631620739 (accessed 20 September 2021).

Woolley, D. (2023) Consuming the body: Capitalism, social media and commodification, Bloomsbury: London.

° Leeds Arts University kindly supports Dawn Woolley’s installation.