photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures

The power of images, specifically, photos, is not to be underestimated. With apps like Grindr and Facebook, many of us interact less-and-less with people face-to-face. We don’t hear their voice, see how they move or observe them with their friends.

Instead, we see images of them. Small images. On our phones. Welcome to the new image culture. I’d like to use Grindr and Facebook as examples of this culture and to think about how this new image culture may be changing us psychologically.

Grindr’s main purpose is to facilitate hookups: you browse thumbnail images, mark the ones you like as favorites or send them messages. Grindr’s message is immediately clear from the moment that you sign up: it’s all about the image: be hot or be ignored. By showing only our best images, we want to appear desirable.

We think that desirability will protect us from loneliness, but it doesn’t. Eventually, we all learn that popularlity on app culture doesn’t really stop our loneliness. It just hides it.

For a while, anyway.

Images of body parts are available for view and are often ranked and rated cruelly. “It’s sick”, a young client tells me, “I get hurt by participating in Grindr. Sometimes guys on-line make fun of me, but I can’t stop doing it.”

The opposite of desire is invisibility. It’s clear who is invisible: “No fats, no fems, no old guys”. Grindr – by reducing us to a bunch of images – dehumanizes us. It reduces complex human beings of depth and complexity to a bunch of images on your phone.

As real life interactions become fewer, on-line images grow in importance. You’d better have some hot photos of you on Grindr and some amazing shots of you (and your fabulous life) on Facebook. Show yourself at your best!

Since an image-based culture puts a premium on how we look, men and woman of all ages increasingly have low self-esteem about their body image. This starts in elementary school: in a survey of 693 students across the United Kingdom, 78% of elementary-age girls and 51% of boys had low confidence in their body image.

Pressure to achieve the perfect body meant girls were likely to go on a diet and boys were prone to start excessive exercise regimes, One teacher in England said: “I work with four to five-year-olds and some say things like, ‘I can’t eat cheese, it will make me fat!'”

Young people are under tremendous pressure to have or maintain often unrealistic body images portrayed in the media. If they grow up to use Grindr, what kind of images are they going to want to show of themselves?

Better not eat that cheese.

And what about Facebook, that popular source of social networking?

The Facebook life is the perfect life: you only show the pix that portray your life as wonderful and enviable. No one believes anyone’s Facebook life is for real, so why are we trying to convince others (and ourselves) that we’re doing great, hanging out with the coolest people and traveling to the best places on vacation? Who are we trying to fool?

Given all these challenges, where do we go from here? How can we navigate the new image culture? I have some suggestions:

If you don’t want to be objectified into a series of images, don’t allow it. Dare to be real and put up images that show who you really are, not just your idealized self.

Have real friends, not just Facebook friends.

Have real life lovers and spend time getting to know them, not just 20-minute Grindr hookups where – tomorrow – you’re embarrassed to see this guy in public and pretend you don’t know him.

There’s nothing wrong with having fun on-line; just don’t settle for a bunch of images when there are a lot of great real-life men and women out there in San Diego, waiting for someone to take a chance and be authentically themselves.

You CAN master the new image culture: don’t settle for superficial. Be braver than that: go for the real thing. Meet, talk with and make love to real men and women: look them in the eyes, smell them, really SEE them…and don’t be surprised that you’re less lonely and anxious than you used to be.

Try it: it works.