Introducing the “Tell Me Why” series where we overanalyse all our weird, everyday behaviours you didn’t even know were weird till you got here.
Oh god, someone’s taking a photo again.
Having to smile when the world is a deep, dark place full of disease and death is bad enough but what am I to do with my dumb hands hanging off the sides of my body? There’s no time to think before the flash goes off, so I improv. Spontaneously, my index and middle fingers pop up into a V, the palm facing outward, the rest of the hand clenched.
But why? Once associated with Asians cultures, for whom the sign was as culturally embedded as saying “cheese” is to English speakers, V-fingers have slowly and steadily swept worldwide. A quick search online reveals that Asians, and especially the Japanese, have long favoured this gesture. But today, it’s popped up everywhere, and South Korean K-pop stars seem to love it as much as Beyoncé and Blue Ivy.
But is there more to this than just giving your hands something to do in photos? What does it actually signify? And why do we all do it, regardless or race, creed or status? I tried to find out to add some meaning to my otherwise empty gestures.
The many origin stories
“I think the Japanese mass media played a large role in propagating this practice,” says Jason G. Karlin, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo and an expert on Japanese media culture. He details an incident that happened in the early 1970s when amateur photography was becoming popular in Japan. The Japanese camera company Konica produced a TV commercial in 1972 that featured a pop singer named Jun Inoue, who was known for making the V-sign while on stage. Inoue flashed it in this commercial as well, which allegedly took the gesture mainstream.
“In Japan, I have seen the Inoue Jun theory advanced most often as an explanation for the origin of this practice,” says Karlin. “I think the practice is a testament to the power of the media, especially television, in postwar Japan for propagating new tastes and practices.”
But Inoue wasn’t the only person flashing V-fingers at the time. Another popular and more colourful theory ropes in another celebrity, the American figure skater, Janet Lynn.
During the 1972 Winter Olympics held in Japan, the then 18-year-old Lynn was expected to take gold on the ice, having previously won the U.S. championships five times in a row. “But — horror of horrors! — during a spin around two minutes into her graceful, impressive performance, she fell over on her, er, bottom,” reads a piece in The Japan Times. “But, to the surprise of the Japanese watching, who may have expected her to be heart-broken or dutifully ashamed, she just smiled, got up and soldiered on.”
The story goes on to say that the Japanese, who’re culturally known for not taking failure well, were blown away by Lynn’s attitude. Lynn won over fans even though she lost the gold, and in the magazine interviews that followed, signed off with the words “Peace and love” (a nod to the late hippie era).
The Japan Times piece talks about the rumour that Lynn’s habitual and charming flashing of the V-sign thus kicked off the trend, but the writer admits being unable to find a single photo of Lynn actually posing with her fingers outstretched. “Have any readers seen such photos?” they asked readers.
Yet another theory states that Lynn didn’t kickstart the trend as much as consolidate one that was already brewing.
“In the 1968 baseball comic Kyojin no Hoshi (Star of the Giants), a protagonist struggling with father issues, and the pressure of competition, gets his dad’s tacit approval when the elder throws him a ‘V’ before a big game,” reads an article published in TIME magazine. “The volleyball manga Sain wa V! (V Is the Sign) was created shortly after and was adapted into a television series with an infectious earworm of a theme that features the chant “V-I-C-T-O-R-Y!””
But young people sticking out their fingers today might not be an ode to a person or a comic as much as have it serve a purpose: to make your face appear smaller and sweeter in photos. Or as the Japanese put it, more kawaii.
“In Western culture, we’ve come to think of kawaii as a synonym for cute,” a Wired piece on the power of kawaii explains. “In Japan, where the kawaii aesthetic has been its own pop culture phenomenon for decades, the word is a bit more complex.”
In the 80s, when digital cameras were just starting to hit the shelves and magazines for women and girls were getting popular, the kawaii aesthetic took off. The V-sign for the boomers when they were younger was what the pout or the RBF has been to the millennials.
A video on how to get your V-sign kawaii-approved says that “the trick is to tilt the fingers towards the face and tilt the face forward.” It gives a couple other hacks too. “You can also try touching your face with any of your fingers or spreading them on the side of any of the eyes. Add a wink and a duckface at the same time, and success is guaranteed,” it promises. (Send me photos on firstname.lastname@example.org if you liked the outcome of these instructions.)
However, while Japan has been largely positioned as the birthplace of this ubiquitous sign, some experts believe that the origins actually lie in the West.
“Most believe that this gesture came to Japan during the Post-WWII Allied Occupation (1945-1952),” says Akira Mizuta Lippit, the Vice Dean of Faculty and professor in the Division of Cinema and Media Studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. “The Allies took great pains to appear a benign occupation and promoted the rhetoric and symbolism of peace after the end of the Pacific War. American popular culture—rockabilly music, denim jeans (Levi’s), Coca-Cola, and in general all things American—were highly visible and popular during this period. I’ve always assumed that the Japanese ‘peace sign’ was an expression of American popular culture adopted during the Post-War occupation that vigorously ‘westernized’ Japan.”
I asked him about another story I found online on how the sign originated at the Battle of Agincourt, France in 1415. This legend alleges that the English soldiers used the sign to mock the French who’d originally planned to capture them and cut off their middle fingers to keep them from drawing their longbows in future battles. Though this finds a mention at several places online, it often appears as a debunked theory. Certainly Lippit had never heard of it.
Moving on from Japan and the USA, the symbol also finds a place in British history. Winston Churchill is famous for having flashed it a few times. While many reports say this was about defiance, they also note that Churchill would sometimes cheekily flash it with his palm facing inwards. This is similar to showing the middle finger for the Brits, and even a cause for much mirth in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
“It was so weird for me to discover this when I moved from India to London,” Simran, a 28-year-old IT project manager, tells me. “I used to make the peace sign subconsciously but when I first did it here, a friend laughed and said how this was the ‘up yours’ gesture here. I’ve only seen it used in a crude manner here and it’s not very common but yup, that’s the connotation.”
A friend from Australia confirms the same but another first-rate Aussie also tells me he’s mainly spotted the sign when his fellow countrymen do it to mock Japanese tourists.
A Gen Z colleague of mine also points out that the V sign for her evokes cunnilingus, or is generally used by her and her ilk to reference a vagina or sex. The V positioned just below the mouth and with the tongue sticking out plays the same part, it seems. Oh, youth. They’re so extra.
The sign with issues
Some years ago, research by a team at Japan's National Institute of Informatics (NII) revealed that selfies with the peace sign could pose a security threat, as scammers can recreate your fingerprints from them.
“Posting a peace sign selfie with today's powerful smartphone cameras can make you vulnerable to the collection of your fingerprints, face, even irises or pupil reflections,” confirms Rachel German, who teaches information security and privacy at the University of Texas at Austin. “Hackers copied the fingerprint of the German Defense Minister from photos nine feet away and showed it off at a conference in Hamburg years ago, but even more concerning is what happened in the U.K. A phone was searched after an arrest and police found a photograph from WhatsApp showing a hand holding drugs. Even though there was only a small section of the fingerprint visible, law enforcement was able to find and arrest the man in the photo.” However, Green believes that more than your fingerprints, it’s the facial recognition tech that’s a bigger privacy threat.
Another biometrics expert also believes that though cheating off your fingerprints from photos is possible as such, it’s far from easy.
“Smartphone cameras have advanced to where they are high resolution, and so if the fingertips are in view and take up a good part of the image and are not occluded and the lighting is good, then, yes, you can probably process the image with the right software and get a fingerprint that you could match against a fingerprint database,” says Kevin W. Bowyer, Schubmehl-Prein Family Professor at the University of Notre Dame and the editor-in-chief of IEEE Transactions on Biometrics, Behavior and Identity Science.
But if fingertips are not visible, are too small or the image too blurry, you can’t get anything. Bowyer too believes this is an emerging privacy threat, but there’s not really much you can still do with people’s fingerprints. You can’t open their front door or steal their money using their well-lit selfies. “The propagation of nutty conspiracies like QAnon is certainly more of a threat to our national wellbeing,” he says, putting our fears to rest just for a little while.
The sign that lived
Body language and why we do what we do often don’t have clear, definitive answers. The same seems to be the case with the peace sign, with hardly any reasoning online on why it endures. Is it because it’s so easy and automatic that even a child can do it? Is it because it’s open to interpretation? Or like with me, is it popular only because it gives you something to do with your hands without being rinsed on Instagram for it?
“When we can see the palm of a person’s hand, we instinctively know they aren’t hiding anything,” explains Tara Well, professor of psychology at Barnard College, Columbia University. “Many believe that the handshake evolved from showing that you weren’t holding a weapon when strangers first met.” The peace sign, similarly, is also an open hand gesture.
“Imagine this same symbol, but the palm faces the sender—this is considered an aggressive gesture in many contexts. V depicts upward movement, victory, winning, confidence, and dominance. So, the peace sign says, ‘I’m friendly and confident. Trust me. I’m a winner!’ ”
I ask my teenage neighbour who has 18k followers on Instagram—just 17k more than me. “I love the V sign because when I’m holding up my phone with one hand to take a selfie, it’s very weird to leave the other hand hanging,” she explains. “If I’m feeling cheeky, I’ll stick my tongue out; if I’m feeling cute, I’ll just tilt my head and fingers. Also, it shows off my hand jewellery.”
Her explanation makes sense, but my suspicion is that we all secretly just want to be this hamster.
With inputs from Jaishree Kumar.
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