Attention Rebels

Dawn Woolley

#Rebel Selves installation, Left Bank Leeds, 10th January – 9th February 2024.

#Rebel Selves was supported by Leeds Arts University, The Arts Council of England, The Elephant Trust and Left Bank Leeds. We would like to thank the participants in our workshops and on Instagram for their creativity, engagement and generosity. 


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.

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

Harcourt, B. E. (2015) Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press
Woolley, D. (2023) Consuming the body: Capitalism, social media and commodification, Bloomsbury: London
    Hyper Visible BodiesThe popularity of social networking sites and selfies means that we have never been more visible to the attention of others. If you own a smartphone or computer with an internet connection and use social networking sites, aspects of your life are always visible to others. However, this is not always a joyous experience of self-expression. Visibleness can be a positive or negative experience depending on your social status and body type. People who are white, able-bodied, middle-class, heterosexual, and thin are likely to be visible for praise but invisible to negative attention. Marginalized people are more likely to be visible for criticism and overlooked in terms of their needs, desires, and values. Bodies that do not conform to gender and beauty norms can experience oppressive and disempowering extremes: they are hypervisible and hyperinvisible. In The Hyper(in)visible Fat Woman, Jeannine A. Gailey writes: “Marginalized bodies are not just seen or acknowledged; they are dissected and overtly made into a spectacle. Similarly, marginalized bodies are not simply invisible—that is, easily moving through social situations without too much attention or unwarranted inspection—but also erased and entirely dismissed” (Gailey, 2014, 12). This can have a disciplining effect, if people try to conform to social ideals in order to escape negative attention. 

    In Consuming the Body: Capitalism, social media and commodification, I argue that the unequal trap of hyper(in)visibility is intensified by social networking sites and smartphones (Woolley, 2023). People, and particularly women, have always experienced commercial attention but the development of social media platforms has created commercial gazes seeking to make money from the data users’ actions and interactions online. I argue that selfies are used to advertise products such as fashion and make-up, and to advertise the self in the attention economy. A demonstration of how selfie cultures intensify the message that consumers must conform to social ideals can be found in an advert for L’Oréal Paris ‘Infallible Sculpt’ make-up. In the advert, Barbara 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. 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 internalize the gaze of the warden and behave in the desired way. Michel Foucault describes the gaze of the panopticon as the “normalizing 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, 25). 

    As demonstrated in the L’Oréal advert, mobile devices with cameras and social networking sites produce a panopticon in which users can be photographed and viewed in a photograph at any time, hence the need to be selfie-ready from any angle, twenty-four hours a day. However, each user is both a guard and a prisoner. In his examination of digital surveillance, Bernard Harcourt describes our online lives as crystal palaces constructed using mirrors and windows that allow us to see reflections of ourselves and images of others (Harcourt, 2015). Harcourt discusses research showing that online visibility has a “damping effect” on willingness to share opinions and express ourselves, particularly if we feel we are in a minority. 
    Showing body differences and non-binary gender in selfies can also be silenced in this way. Research on selfies finds that negative feedback in comments and the currency of likes reinforce and police dominant beauty ideals and binary gender stereotypes. For example, Nicola Döring and colleagues analyzed the content 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 showed 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. 
    #Rebel Selves In #Rebel Selves I experiment with visual methods of abstraction and ambiguity to create online and physical spaces in which selfie-takers can control the type of attention they receive and negotiate a balance between visibility and invisibility. #Rebel Selves comprises still- and moving-image self-portraits, a smartphone app, a participatory installation, contemporary dance performances and in-person and online workshops to co-create a queer visual and gestural language for selfies. The #Rebel Selves installation is something between a stage set for an absurdist play, a hall of mirrors, and an exploded three-dimensional photograph. Masks and garments scatter the space, inviting visitors to play different characters. The project critiques the negative impacts of ideals that are common in selfies and self-portraiture, including binary gender norms.

    #Rebel Selves installation, Left Bank Leeds, 10th January – 9th February 2024.

    Iterations of the installation have been exhibited at Diskurs Berlin Gallery (8th June – 14th July 2023) and Left Bank Leeds (10th January – 9th February 2024) and will tour venues in London in 2024. In 2023–2024 I worked with Charlotte Roe, an artist and app designer, to create the #Rebel Selves smartphone app. The app brings together the digital tools that glitch, blur, montage, and overlay photos that users can apply to their selfies. 

    While designing the installation and app functions I drew on Donna Haraway’s imagined way of being in the world that is “full of indeterminate genders and genres, full of kinds-in-the-making, full of significant otherness” (Haraway, 2016, 11-2). I created visual mirroring relays of gestures and poses derived from bodybuilding competitions, selfie-taking ‘how-to’ guides, stock images of female and male models, and model sets for Second Life and Sims avatars, creating kaleidoscopic, more-than-human tentacular self-portraits. Haraway writes that current thinking (in academic and scientific circles, and more widely) focuses on individualism and human endeavors, which cause social and environmental problems and prevent meaningful actions to reduce them. Noting that tentacle comes from the Latin tentaculum, meaning “feeler,” and tentare, meaning “to feel” and “to try,” she argues that we should entangle ourselves in multispecies stories that involve all sorts of tentacular things if we are going to find solutions and better ways to exist. In #Rebel Selves I use this term to try to imagine selfie-taking methods that decenter the individual and the marginalizing identity characteristics, such as gender binaries, that individualism enables. The installation simultaneously presents and confounds binary gender ideals through a confusing mix of limbs. The repetition of gestures and poses expose the construction of gender norms when masculine bodybuilder poses repeat the gestures of selfie-takers and avatars. 

    #Rebel Selves furniture, a chair with cut-out arms and legs attached, Left Bank Leeds, 10th January – 9th February 2024.

    The #Rebel Selves installation offers a space in which selfie-takers can negotiate the traps of visibility and invisibility. The costumes and props can be used to draw attention to the self in a flamboyant display of camp glamor when worn in front of contrastingly wallpapered theater flats. Selfie-takers can flaunt the self in a manner that challenges viewers’ expectations. Gailey uses the term “flaunting” to describe behaviors that purposely draw attention to a stigmatized characteristic, such as fat, in order to raise awareness about oppression and marginalization (Gailey, 2014, 143).

    #Rebel Selves self-portrait, studio, 2023.

    However, the installation can also enable concealment and obscurity, when costumes and masks match the wallpapered backgrounds, camouflaging the selfie taker within the scene. In these instances, the installation does not place the selfie-taker in the center of a disciplining gaze of cameras as in the L’Oréal advert. Instead, it plays with and subverts the gaze, visually entangling the individual in the installation—a glitchy apparition that is difficult to pin down. When I create self-portraits in the installation, I play with both affordances—flaunting and camouflaging—but my preferred photographs always conceal me in the space. I find my ideal level of visibility when I become indistinguishable from the background, present but no longer the focus of attention.