Taylor Swift takes a selfie with fans. (Photo: Instagram)
When my former student Cara phoned, begging me to recommend her for a P.R. job at a Connecticut college, I Googled her. She popped up in a thong bikini smaller than the one on Sports Illustrated’s last swimsuit cover. Previous pictures the 24-year-old had shared showed her side boob, bootie crack, and other body parts parodied on E! Fashion News.
“You have other assets to show off,” I suggested.
“I’m proud of my looks.”
“You can be proud — and clothed,” I said.
I applauded Facebook’s decision to ban genitalia pictures and restrict nipple shots from its 1.39 billion users, and quoted a Jobvite survey showing 55% of job recruiters reconsidered candidates based on inappropriate social media profiles. Still, the computer-age kids in my college classes were shortsighted when it came to covering up online. I explained to Cara how some older bosses might prefer more publically modest employees.
“Maybe older people are jealous they don’t have hot bodies to show off,” she countered.
“Maybe this is why you’re unemployed?” I didn’t ask.
Buried beneath Cara’s beach bingo beer parties was a shot of her in a pastel dress. I offered the reference immediately — in return for her replacing her skin shots with a hirable photo. They disappeared before my eyes. She landed the job, but called me a prude.
Discussing this generational chasm, Steve, a 21-year-old IT programmer in my class said, “I wouldn’t work for an old puritan boss. I’d think: You’ll be dead soon and we’ll take over the world.” I was amused he assumed he’d never age or grow staid, and that eventually everybody on the planet would be selfie-stripping.
At least he argued. Kenan, my 30-year-old coauthor of a book on surviving the Bosnian war, posted a shirtless timeline photo of his chest tattoo. I reminded him that congressman Aaron Schock’s career derailed after he posting a bathing suit photo, picked up on TMZ. “If you want to be a political spokesperson be classy, not cheesy,” I instant messaged. Kenan de-friended me.
A Manhattan liberal, I used to be an edgy downtown partier. Until I realized I couldn’t be an urban feminist with my conservative father helping with my rent. I got sober, serious, and more successful. Teaching by night, I became a journalism professor approached daily for assistance getting internships, full-time gigs, clips, agents and editors. If I spied too much of my young “friends” and “followers” in my social media feeds, I’d warn the job-seekers asking for advice that sharing half-naked pictures were a half-baked idea — unless they aspired to model-hood, pornography, rapper-dom, or Kardashianism. Colleagues over 35 in other fields wouldn’t even interview someone who had publicly flashed their birthday suit.
Some students shared racy pics and videos using SnapChat, which allegedly self-destruct, memory-less. Yet even those images might hurt and haunt: They could be screen-grabbed and reposted by ex-lovers on revenge porn websites. With racy Smartphone photos, GPS coordinates allowed strangers to track you.
Debbie, a talented new author I was mentoring, celebrated her divorce by posting a shadowy photo of herself in a brassiere, captioned: “The bra I wore at my wedding.” I declared: “tacky.” She retorted: “empowering,” But her upcoming memoir chronicled being raped. “I’m worried that photo could hurt your credibility.” She insisted I was slut-shaming and judging her, squashing self-expression.
The author, Susan Shapiro. (Photo: Susan Shapiro)
Was I? I realized I was lucky I was a forty-year-old married author and teacher during the Internet’s rise. All my humiliating mating blunders, excruciating breakups, and addiction problems happened off-line. Documentation of my wilder days was hidden in photo albums in my closet. With close human pals and a real mate, I mostly used networking websites for work. Students helped me on sites where I could press one button to invite thousands to book events. When flashed by someone I barely knew, I de-friended, un-followed or blocked. But what about pupils and protégés I cared about?
I’d been hurt when my Midwest father likened my revealing first person writing to “running naked in the streets.” Had I turned into my judgmental Dad? As an artistic working woman who’d struggled for decades, I hoped to inspire, the way older mentors had guided me.
“Listen, it’s a beautiful photo,” I told Debbie, backtracking about her bra picture.
“It’s the first time I feel sexy again since the assault,” she confided. “Shouldn’t I feel good about my body?”
But I explained that once online, an image wasn’t yours anymore — you couldn’t control it or its context. I lamented how a newspaperman reused an unflattering picture of me I hated that someone else posted to illustrate a story, without my permission. It took ten emails and calls to erase. Still, Google my name with that paper and it remained. Some tech firms charge thousands to remove digital footprints.
I talked Debbie into saving her photo for a future tasteful woman’s magazine spread. Since many only published in print, it would have less chance of going viral or being trashed by trolls. It would be safer and more contained than sharing herself in one instantly gratifying post. I’d rather be protective and careful than cool.
So when I caught a risqué self-captured candid of Royal, a 29-year-old journalist who’d just interviewed me for an author profile, I messaged him privately. “You’re a great guy I enjoyed working with. But do I really need to see you in the shower?” The next day he tagged me in a picture of him wearing a suit. “Now that’s hot,” I commented.
He sent the link to the piece on me. I was surprised it came with a provocative publicity photograph of me on my roof, showing off cleavage in a tight black dress and high heels.
“That was thirteen years and thirteen pounds ago,” I joked, sending him a new JPEG.
“When people Google you, do you want all the online pics they see to be old and boring?” he asked.
“Okay, keep my glam shot,” I relented.
Immediately on Facebook, comments called the former me “stunning,” “hot,” and “fabulous.” I suddenly understood how easy it was to succumb to the attention-getting impulse. Turned out, millennials didn’t have the monopoly on narcissism. I even “Liked” myself.