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Selfies are mostly about looks -- and sometimes Japan

Scientists comb through a few million Instagram posts tagged #selfie. They find lots of preening, even more spam and less real food than you expect.

With selfies, science says it really is all about how you look.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The first large-scale study of selfies confirms what you may have suspected: They're mostly about appearances. 

Specifically, Instagram users most often post selfies to show off how fashionable, attractive, wealthy, bearded or tattooed they are.

That's just a sampling of the findings from a computer analysis of over 2.5 million images tagged #selfie on Instagram during a three-month period in mid-2015.

Researchers from Georgia Tech University used computer vision to determine how many posts tagged #selfie were actually attached to a photo of one or more human faces. Interestingly, this step filtered out nearly half of the posts that appeared to be spam carrying blank or solicitous images.

Once you throw out all the spam selfies (spamfies? spelfies?), almost 52 percent of the remainder of real shots were about appearances, with tags like #beauty, #king, #queen, #flawless or #piercings.

The study was presented last month at an international conference on the web and social media in Montreal.

It narrowed hundreds of tags down to just 15 categories and "appearances" was by far the most popular topic for selfies. In fact, looks were twice as popular a reason to pose for your phone's front-side camera as the rest of the fourteen categories combined.

So-called "social" pics taken with friends, family or pets were second most common at 14 percent of selfies, followed by shots focused on ethnicity or nationality (13 percent), travel (7 percent) and health and fitness (5 percent).

"Just like on other social media channels, people project an identity that promotes their wealth, health and physical attractiveness," lead author Julia Deeb-Swihart said in a statement. "It's a way to prove what is true in your life, or at least what you want people to believe is true."

A recent, unrelated survey found we have something of a love-hate relationship with our selfie-obsessed culture, while another suggested we at least think we use selfies for more than just projecting an idealized image of ourselves.  

Some of the statistical surprises in the Georgia Tech study include foodie photos ranking pretty low (less than one half of 1 percent) and the seemingly niche category of "Japanophile" selfies making the top 15, even with only (.03 percent of all selfies).

Apparently we like our foodie fetish shots to stand alone and we're just a little more likely to post a #career selfie than a #harajukugirl selfie. Who knew?

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