To de-tag or not to de-tag

Though not the most pressing issue when it comes to the daily practice of Islam, the steady stream of embarrassing photos on Facebook created an unexpected conflict in my mind. A question arose: to de-tag, or not to de-tag? The problem boils down to the fact that I’ve honed the act of public embarrassment into a fine art. One famous photo of what was supposed to be a group of friends frolicking in the snow instead features me rapping with unbridled enthusiasm.
I had stumbled, thrown my arms out, gawped, and ended up looking like a wannabe Jay-Z. This is my reaction to a surprising range of events in life. Other shots have captured everything from my “startled duck” expression, to the unfortunate appearance of a double chin in profile shots, to the cloud of frizz which appears in place of otherwise obedient hair when rain comes into contact with my head. But as I scroll, wince and write the occasional pointedly self-deprecating comment, I studiously ignore the de-tag button which could make all the bad pictures disappear.

Everyday interaction involves tailoring our behavior to our audience; based on who we are speaking to, we carefully construct an image of ourselves with each anecdote we tell and piece of clothing we select. It is a process which often involves more concealment than revelation. Taken literally, it is the very point of hijab in any form. In dressing to conceal our bodies, we seek to understate our sexuality and construct an image which draws instead on who we are as people. The decision to wear long sleeves or don a headscarf is a deliberate choice made with an audience in mind. Society is, after all, the mirror in which we see ourselves.

Facebook’s careful hierarchy of access and privacy offers the opportunity to mimic this everyday play of secrecy and disclosure. But distilled into a single profile, a set of photos, videos and status updates, our social techniques (or lack thereof) must give way to simpler and more brutal choices about what makes the cut, and who gets to see it. For example, should a Muslim woman who wears hijab post photos of herself on her Facebook page sans the scarf for her close female friends to see? Or would this be immodest, perhaps even hypocritical, since it trusts those friends not to leave their screens on in the presence of husbands, brothers, or other men?

As my mouse hovers over the de-tag button, I wonder whether it might not be more hypocritical to vet less than flattering photos of myself than for a girl to trust images of herself without her head scarf to her Facebook friends. I considered de-tagging last year when a particularly bad photo appeared on my newsfeed one evening. The perspective was skewed, so it looked as if I had a tiny head and giant shoulders. I called my sister.

“But you do have a tiny head and giant shoulders,” she reassured me. “It’s endearing. We used to call you pea-head, don’t you remember?”

I remembered. Once I leave the dimly lit mirror in my bedroom every morning, it’s difficult to constantly scrutinize my appearance. If the only fault of embarrassing photos is that they confront me with the reality of how I look to other people, getting twitchy with the de-tag button feels uncomfortable.

My understanding of hijab has cultivated a sneaking suspicion that caring deeply about the way I look involves ignoring other, more important, measures of self-worth. After all, the Quran warns its readers not to “walk haughtily on the earth.” My urge to cringe at every other picture that appears on my newsfeed begins to seem slightly arrogant and shallow. Beyond undertaking the normal routine, (modest clothing, showering, brushing, some discreet hair removal for the sake of remaining inoffensive to others as much as myself), what right have I to high expectations of my appearance? Why should I carefully chip away at my online image until it fits my prescribed parameters for looking good? Seen in this light, choosing to reveal the less flattering snapshots of one’s appearance becomes as much a modest action as dressing to conceal.

“I am intelligent and funny,” I told my sister defensively. “My tiny head and Jay-z arms are not important.”

“Your conversational style is certainly interesting,” she conceded. “And your social ineptitude often makes people laugh nervously. But at least no one looking at those photos will think you’re vain.”

She had, unwittingly, hit the nail on the head. My awareness of the greater value placed by Islam on character aside, to de-tag would ultimately be to admit something worse than frizzy hair, a foolish expression or a tragic outfit–it would show the Facebook community how deeply I cared about having my physical shortcomings frozen on permanent display. The victory of Islamic ideals is in the end only half the story – too proud to be vain, I watch the bad photos roll in, I wince and I do not de-tag.

(Photo Credit: Terry Chay)

Nabeelah is a British blogger based in London. She studied Modern History and Facebook Procrastination at the University of Oxford.

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