'Selfies' exhibit sheds positive light on flaws of Monument Mountain High School girls'


GREAT BARRINGTON -- Eleventh-grader Audrey Esperat first took a "selfie," or photo of herself, more than four years ago. Her latest selfie was flawed, she believes, but she made the photo public anyway.

The feedback came swiftly: "Beautiful hair;" "Lovely spirit;" "Love your hat;" "You look dashing" were among the many comments.

The 16-year-old was one of a group of about 18 Monument Mountain Regional High School students who turned the camera on themselves to show their flaws for a Sundance Institute project, which is affiliated with the prestigious Sundance Film Festival hosted in Utah. They took "selfies" of their flaws, which were then enlarged and featured on Friday in an art gallery in Great Barrington.

The one-day gallery exhibit, which was filmed as part of a documentary, drew a large crowd of viewers, who wrote compliments on Post-It notes and stuck them next to the photos.

"It's a good and healthy message," Esperat said. "It's definitely the power and good of a selfie."

The project is being spearhead by Academy Award-winning director Cynthia Wade, a south Egremont resident who has received grant funding through the Sundance Institute and the skin-care company Dove.

Wade most recently was nominated for an Oscar this year for her documentary, "Mondays at Racine," and she won an Oscar in 2008 for the documentary "Freeheld." In between projects, she applied for a grant that aims to expand the narrowly tailored concept of "beauty."

These self-conscious females turned the table on the selfie: rather than preen to achieve a form of idealized beauty, they took self-portraits of characteristics they perceive as flaws. They showed off what they perceived to be legs that were too skinny, unattractive eyebrows, and bodies that could be improved.

They'd see from the crowd that their self-consciousness with nothing more than paranoia and these "flawed" photos could stand on their own as beautiful.

Social media's widespread adoption has undercut traditional media's ability to control what is beautiful, Wade said. With some conscious effort, she said, selfies can move past being "silly and self-indulgent" to promote an under-appreciated form of beauty.

If you Google "beautiful women," supermodels will appear, Wade explains, but search the same term on Instagram and Facebook and it will highlight a different form of beauty.

"We don't have to accept traditional media's definition of beauty," Wade said. "We can move this new generation into a place where beauty is defined in a more broad and inclusive way. You don't have to be a certain type of beautiful."

The practice of creating selfies has become so popular that the prestigious Oxford Dictionaries has included it in the dictionary and elevated it to the Word of the Year for 2013.

The project included two workshops this week, including extensive discussion around self-esteem and perception. Wade pulled in more than a dozen people, including professional photographers, producers, and a capable camera crew to document the project.

The documentary is expected to be completed by January and presented at the Sundance Film Festival.

The girls also were brought together with their mothers to talk about their personal fears about bodily flaws. They also had to teach their moms how to make a "selfie," which then would be posted in the gallery side-by-side with their daughters' selfies.

Audrey's mother, Andrea Esperat, said she occasionally jokes with her daughter about how she'll take pictures of herself in the morning as she drives her to school. Audrey doesn't post the photos on social media often; she uses the camera similar to a mirror.

"I don't fully understand [the selfie], and because I am a psychologist I worry about the negative effect on girls," Andrea Esperat said. "But I can see through this project that it could be used for a positive purpose.

For Wade, she said there is no perfect selfie. Each one can stand on its own.

"Beauty is defined more broadly and in an inclusive way" in social media, Wade said.

To reach John Sakata:
or (413) 496-6240.
On Twitter: @jsakata


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