Talking Selfies and Censorship with the Swedish Instagram Personality
- Interview: Rebecca Storm
- Photography: Arvida Byström
“I think we could agree on things like female nipples,” muses Arvida Byström about censorship, “Come on, can’t we get over that?” Although she is a photographer, model, and selfie aficionado, in conversation Byström reveals herself to be about more than just visuals. Arguably one of the OG monochromatic pastel Instagrammers, her seemingly lighthearted and surface approach gives deeper socio-political issues a wider audience. In a selfie story for SSENSE, Byström models looks from Hood by Air, Versace, Ashish, and Charlotte Olympia, and speaks with Rebecca Storm about aging, self-censorship, and high heels.
Happy belated birthday!
Thanks! I'm turning 25, so that feels like a huge deal.
You’re fairly personal on social media and often post selfies. Do you ever feel like there’s a pressure to maintain a certain youthfulness?
I feel like I had my “being young” phase for such a long time, and now it's ending. I did plenty of stuff. Not that you need to if you’re young. You can be young and you don't have to create plenty of anything, and that’s cool. I honestly don't feel so bad about aging. I feel like maybe it's nice to grow older, so I don't think about it negatively.
Do you think you'll ever stop taking selfies?
I kind of hope not. I think it's going to be more and more interesting the older I get, because then you have to question your ideas about what's beautiful, because women are usually seen to be most beautiful in their youth. Yeah, I think that's going to be super interesting to grow old and figure that side out and I hope all people taking selfies today will bring it up with them! Maybe in 40 years it'll be seen as super retro or something only old people do.
You've sort of grown up with social media. Do you feel like that's what led to your interest in photography, or were the two separate for you?
I think it's actually gone hand-in-hand, because when I was about 12 or so, I think that’s when cameras became cheaper and more accessible. All of my friends wanted to be photographers. Also you needed to make photos to put online to represent yourself. Back then, I guess it was like early-Myspace time. I feel like that probably affected me a lot as an early teen, seeing the cool kids online with all of their selfies. I was like "Whoa, that's cool."
Do you think that there's a next step for social media? Do you think it's progressive, or do you think that censorship makes it regressive?
I don't think only censorship makes it regressive. There's always censorship in the world, and there's always a certain morale that makes censorship happen—certain words we use or don’t use. There are sets of loose censorship in our daily behavior, but it's interesting when we try to figure out where to draw the line—is that line a little old school and maybe not relevant anymore? We're in a period right now where people want to reevaluate what we’re censoring, especially when it comes to bodies. It becomes a bigger and bigger discussion with gender fluidity, and it feels very weird and regressive to censor certain body types. In general, why do we stigmatize women’s bodies more? I think that censorship is in a place where there is a lot of disagreeing because people are changing.
Is that what you’re hoping to explore with the book you’re curating with Molly Soda?
Yeah, it’s a collection of photos that have been reported and taken down from Instagram because of the community guidelines. Making this book, you realize it is a little bit of a complicated issue, and it's not really clear what's okay and what's not. I think a lot of people could agree on things like female nipples. Come on, can’t we get over that? There are censors beyond Instagram censoring, too, which we touch on a little bit. One of the contributors to our forward discusses the people that actually do the censoring online. It's a lot of outsourced work, they get super shitty pay, and they have to see a lot of shit. They have to see murders and beheadings and stuff like that. All just for us to have a happy online experience.
Can you talk about what is maybe the most irrational example of censoring based on the submissions you received? Where it’s a bit, “What the fuck”?
Yeah, one of the early ones I got was this one photo of a girl in a hijab that someone somehow associated with terrorism. And then that got taken down. I think that's one of the crazy submissions, where it’s like, “Whoa, if this isn’t Islamophobia, then I don’t know what is.” There are a lot of ones that are very gray zone and others where you are left wondering why they chose to read it as too explicit.
Do you have any opinions on plastic or cosmetic surgery?
It’s something that's very stigmatized, but I do find it super interesting in terms of what I want to see as a problematic side—not everybody can afford it. I find it interesting maybe more in a post-human way. That you can actually change your body to be however you want. It's a double-sided thing where it's cool if people can look the way they want to without anybody needing to know. It's fun to make your biological body so secret in that way. It’s also sad because it means looking a very certain, specific way. Something I don’t know enough about, but feels like it can’t be left out, is that obviously there is a world of sex reassignment surgery which probably can be empowering for a lot of women and men.
You recently shot Pamela Anderson. I feel like she was the first celebrity whom I remember being marketed as this iconic sex symbol. How did you wish to portray her?
I think she's definitely very iconic in that way. This was a commercial job, and I'm not the only one deciding how a photo’s going to look in that instance. It's also what she feels comfortable with. I think that lately there are different photos from different shoots where she might feel a little bit more comfortable showing herself aging, and those are super interesting. But also, it must be really hard to be Pamela Anderson and have all these eyes on you.
How do you consider your clothing? Do you like everyday staples or is it more fun to play dress up?
I do a little mix of things that are a tiny bit fancy, but mix it up in a half-casual way, which I think is very much my style. I think the things I chose for this shoot are the kind of things that I would wear every day, except the high heels. High heels are something I want to wear more, but I'm pretty lazy.
I feel like it can be hard to wear high heels if you're tall, or that’s how I feel when I wear them.
I'm tall, too, and I love it. [Laughs] It's one of the reasons I want to wear high heels, to be super tall. But you can get this little alien posture where you start to slowly shrink down to the height of the other people around you. Then you see photos of yourself like that and you're like, "I look like Mr. Burns," hunching with the hands up.
Empathetically slouching to be shorter, that's always what I do!
I do that, too. Shape myself. I personally do like to be tall, though.
- Interview: Rebecca Storm
- Photography: Arvida Byström