#GPOY Actually Isn't Gratuitous At All

Why young women posting pictures of themselves on Tumblr is about far more than racking up reblogs.

If you’ve spent a lot of time on Tumblr, you’ve noticed #GPOY. If you haven’t, GPOY stands for a “gratuitous picture of yourself." Posting pictures of yourself on the Internet is not new. It is, after all, pretty much the point of Facebook. But because this is 2012, the tag has irony preloaded into it — people might be posting pictures of themselves, but they know it’s self-serving.

Sexualized pictures of young women, sometimes uploaded by themselves, sometimes uploaded by others, have always been a kind of currency for pageviews and attention on the Internet, from the lowest common denominator (4chan, for example) to more mainstream sites like the Huffington Post.

To the extent that one can trace the origins of a meme, GPOY seems to have arisen from the murky depths of Tumblr's earliest days, when the microblogging website was populated primarily by young, anonymous women. The tradition began maybe most notoriously on MySpace, which managed to brand not just the act of taking a photo of oneself, but also a particular angle and pose.

However, Tumblr was the first platform to provide the option of hashtagging a photo, or of course, a set of photos, for no particular reason. #GPOY allowed the Tumblr user to abandon almost all pretense of modesty. These are not photos for your "profile," these are just photos of yourself (or, as the girls themselves sometimes say, "My Face"). As Tumblr is one of the few platforms that started out dominated by women, and offered the ability to post photos and tag them, it was the ideal place for #GPOY to start.

Clicking on the #gpoy tag in tumblr takes you to some pretty interesting places. A lot of pictures, of course. But also quotes, gifs and image macros. GPOY has evolved to mean anything you identify with. It’s telling of the circular culture of vulnerability and approval on Tumblr that you can post an idea that is not actually you and tag it #GPOY to communicate to the rest of the world that you identify so much with that idea, you might as well be that idea — in fact you are so strongly identifying with that idea that it is “gratuitous” for you to have even posted it.

You don’t have to go far to get to the first images of women. Some are funny; some are “selfies,” what an older generation (born in the 1980s) might call “MySpace” pictures, taken with a webcam. Some are of just feet, or just hair, or just a goofy grin.

I messaged about 40 young women on Tumblr and asked them how and why they used #gpoy. They’d all tagged something of their own with #gpoy in the last ten minutes or so; most were still online when I asked. Initially, when I identified myself as a reporter, no one responded. When I changed tactics and simply asked, and later identified myself as a reporter, I got an avalanche of responses (which I got permission to post), ranging from the cursory — here’s what the acronym means, I tag it for my face, it’s kind of ironic, look it up — to the surprisingly thoughtful and enthusiastic responses, punctuated with emoticons and explanations.

I asked India, 21, whether or not she thought girls used #gpoy more than men, and if so, why. She said that #gpoy played up to feminine insecurities. “Girls can just be more vain than guys in general,” she said. “I think girls like to take pretty pictures and get positive feedback about their appearance.”

User yoccu, also 21, told me she used the tag for pictures of herself, but added, “i kind of hope people will tumblr savior it, honestly :P.” (Tumblr Savior is a script that weeds out categories of pictures you don’t like from your Tumblr dashboard. #GPOY could be one of these categories.) I thought that was curious — why would she post pictures of herself, but hope that they’d be hidden under a script? Her response eloquently mingled both the self-promotion and the vulnerability that are in play with #GPOY.

“I feel like there’s a sort of arrogance associated with posting pictures of yourself too often on the internet? I’m a pretty anxious person in general so I might be more prone to this than others, but I do worry that people will judge me in that way so I try to keep the gpoy postings scarce.”

IRL, young women play out their issues with empowerment, vulnerability, attention-seeking, and objectification in much the same way they do online. I don’t think that #GPOY has changed what girls struggle with as they mature in our culture. (Consider this work of art.) The real issue, I believe, is that women and girls are constantly working to find safe spaces for themselves on the Internet.

We can champion the Internet for providing a voice for populist activism, a platform for new business opportunities, even a base for a strong, young, healthy feminism. But that doesn’t hide the fact that at its heart, from the beginning, the most valuable visual currency of the Internet is pictures of hot girls (and cats, but that’s a different article). Crucially, it’s not just pictures of famous hot girls, who make their careers by being hot in public, like Kate Upton and Freida Pinto, but cute young girls all over the world, especially in the first world, taking pictures of themselves with their phones and posting them on the Internet. Where they spread like wildfire.

There's a fine line between objectification and empowerment in these photos. Especially for the teenage girls who are doing it. It’s the ultimate vulnerability in a culture that constantly reinforces the fact that a woman’s only value is her appearance, to put it out in the public domain for comment. The photos that get the most attention are the ones playing by men’s rules — depicting thin, young women, being adorable or submissive.

At the same time, it seems like these women are promoting themselves. Not just putting their pictures out for sexualized consumption, but branding themselves for their fashion blogs, their photography portfolios, their writing. We have all heard, repeatedly, that women do not promote themselves, and Clay Shirky brought this critique to the Internet’s women in this notorious blog post from 2010. “Men are just better at being arrogant, and less concerned about people thinking we’re stupid (often correctly, it should be noted) for trying things we’re not qualified for.”

And yet you'll notice men aren't posting nearly as many suggestive pictures of themselves on the Internet. Because men have the option to opt out of the online beauty pageant. On- and offline, men can market themselves with their work. A hot guy is always a plus, but appearance is not fundamental to a man's brand the way that a woman's so often is. Any action a woman takes to promote herself will be defined by her appearance. (Even with women whose brands isn't built on their appearance, like Hillary Clinton, are subjected to constant assessment of their appearance.) What we see with #GPOY then, is an unsettlingly precocious awareness of gender politics. Clay Shirky might argue that women don't know how to promote themselves, but I argue that women do know how. They've learned to play by the rules the Internet has set out for women, and they promote themselves with fervor. Hence, #GPOY.

The image-based culture of the Internet makes it very easy to look for validation online, and to attempt to get it, despite the risks to one's self-esteem in the process. But girls' identities are so pigeonholed by their appearances that empowerment and objectification are two sides of the same coin. Ultimately the only woman who could tell you whether or not she's being taken advantage of is the subject of the photo in question — girls who are no doubt intelligent, but are also, at times, several years below the age of consent.

#GPOY is a way to own one’s vulnerability, and also to buy into the most ancient currency on the internet — amateur, sexualized pictures of women. It reaches out to others who are similarly looking for a safe space to share their vulnerabilities, and also puts the user on a platform to be judged by the crowd. The tag’s self-mockery straddles shameless self-promotion (which is itself a tag so ubiquitous on the internet it’s ironic) and the other (completely unthinkable) extreme, which is no external validation at all.

So I contend that women are promoting themselves, vigorously, in the modes that are socially acceptable to them, that speak to their own insecurities and dictate their roles of what women are allowed to be on the Internet. The problem is, the old rules of the Internet still stand. The neutral pronoun of the Internet is still “he.”

Sonia Saraiya is an independent writer and editor based in Brooklyn, NY. You should follow her on Twitter.

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