Taking a selfie in public should be the ultimate social taboo

I think it really takes about 15-20 selfies that someone takes on their phone before they post the right one – Kim Kardashian

I have a “mirror face”. You have a mirror face. Everybody has a mirror face: a snowflake-special screwing-up of the mouth, squinting of the eyes and tilting of the cheekbones done in front of a reflective surface.

But also intrinsic to the mirror face is that to everyone else, we look like idiots when we do them.

It used to be easier to overlook: the mirror face was a very private thing. It was between you and yourself, and maybe your jerk ex-boyfriend that one time he was brushing his teeth while you were putting on eye makeup and did a ghoulish rendition of how you are pouting (I mean, just for example).

Because of the intimate nature of the mirror face, coming across a stranger doing one – in a public restroom, say, in front of a bank of shiny elevators, or in a hand-held compact to apply foundation on a bumpy subway train – has always been a bit uncomfortable. I take it as an opportunity to stare at my shoes; to give the stranger and the mirror face and, above all, the vanity, some space.

Of late, though, I feel as if I’m spending my whole life gazing as my toecaps. On Android phones alone, research has shown that 93m selfies were taken every day of last year. And everyone knows that iPhone users are even more vain. The making of the mirror face has gone from being a rarely witnessed activity to a constant one: thrust from the private sphere into the public one by the advent of digital media and the front-facing phone camera.

To be clear, this is not a wholehearted condemnation of the selfie as genre: I can empathize with the occasional urge to take one. If you’re on vacation on your own, for example, or need to document an unexpected incident of really ridiculously good-looking hair. I’m not going to pretend I haven’t done it, but I try to take selfies (even writing that down makes me feel disgusting) in my apartment with the blinds drawn, or, if needs must, on a deserted street. Because there is just something so embarrassing about standing by while someone else takes their own portrait.

I’m not saying that it’s tantamount to seeing a stranger masturbate. Not quite. But if you’re not the subject of a selfie, it’s impossible not to feel like a voyeur – an involuntary one – intruding on the intense and private creative relationship between a photographer and, well, the photographer. Being in the vicinity is a little mortification whether the selfie-taker has poked you with their fit-for-purpose stick, reshot the photo 17 times while marginally rotating their chin, or asked you to step aside so that they are placed to capture their own likeness in the most flattering light in front of the most striking part of a Unesco World Heritage site.

Once upon a time, like in the 1990s, when you were out and about in the world and wanted to capture an image of your out and aboutness, you’d ask someone to take a photo of you. Putting trust in someone else to capture your likeness was risky, maybe; perhaps they wouldn’t capture your prominent chin at the most flattering angle. But it also served as a valuable check: if you felt like a fool asking someone to take a photo of you in a particular scenario, then maybe it wasn’t a photo of yourself that you needed, or needed to share. On the other hand, it also meant that moments that were worthy of a photograph were shared at their point of execution.

It’s human to be vain. But it’s also human, I think, to find other people’s vanity a source of excruciating embarrassment. In our moments of most profound narcissism, as we hasten to capture our most flattering moments, let’s try to spare a thought for the innocent bystanders who cringe and blush as we tap our phones. Every one of the 15 to 20 necessary times.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Jean Hannah Edelstein, for theguardian.com on Monday 9th February 2015 16.14 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010