Is selfie activism letting women down?

Photos posted with the hashtag #nomakeupselfies. Left collage: posted by Celtic_Woman in support of Irish Cancer ...

Photos posted with the hashtag #nomakeupselfies. Left collage: posted by Celtic_Woman in support of Irish Cancer Society, Right: Michelle Keegan. Photo: Twitter

If you’re a Facebook user, you may have noticed a crop of photographs appearing over the weekend accompanied by the #nomakeupselfie hashtag. The campaign (and the term must be used loosely) began sweeping through the UK last week before hitting the Australian zeitgeist sometime on Friday afternoon.

Inexplicably, it aims to ‘raise awareness for cancer’. Given there’s no identifiable organisation behind the trend, it’s unclear what kind of targeted effect participants imagined a series of photographs of people’s bare faces would have. Like similar viral campaigns before it, its purpose seemed less about the vague idea of ‘raising awareness’ for a disease so widespread that it will affect 1 in 2 men and 1 in 3 women before the age of 85, and more about highlighting the remarkable reach of meaningless social media campaigns.

#NomakeupSelfie supporter, Samantha Jade, whose mother is fighting cancer.

#NomakeupSelfie supporter, Samantha Jade, whose mother is fighting cancer.

I’m generally uncomfortable by the kind of clicktivism that has people thinking a hashtag in and of itself has the ability to change the world. Hashtag activism is very successful in creating moments and moods, and bridging the gaps between people separated by any number of demographic descriptors. These connections may be fleeting or long-lasting, but they’re all meaningful in their own way. A few good examples of this are the ongoing conversations started by Laura Bates’ #EverydaySexism project; Mikki Kendall’s #solidarityisforwhitewomen and Hood Feminism’s #fasttailedgirls discussions; the #itooamharvard and #itooamoxford projects; and Suey Park’s #notyourasiansidekick. Social media campaigns like these are successful in regards to ‘raising awareness’ because they highlight issues that suffer from a real lack of public understanding or acknowledgement rather than a deficit of funds.

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But cancer is a different beast entirely. It doesn’t need ‘awareness’. It needs cold, hard cash and a committed effort from funding bodies (including the public) to facilitate research development that might one day stop people from dying painful, early deaths. I don’t know if scientists will ever develop a cure for cancer, but as one of the millions of people whose lives have been irrevocably changed because of it, I hold out hope.

Having said all this, there are aspects to the backlash against #nomakeupselfie that I find troubling. Some people are far too eager to write the female participants off as being self involved and more enamoured with their own vanity than invested in anything as selfless as cancer research. (This is despite the fact that, thanks to some clever engineering from Cancer Research UK, the #nomakeupselfie movement has surprisingly raised over £2million - so, I guess I was just one of many who were wrong about the kind of effect a campaign like this can have, however unplanned.)

But instead of following Cancer Research UK’s lead and working with the already existing social media traction to do something positive, there has instead been a sneering wave of derision focused on the bare faced women themselves. In an otherwise very good piece, Sali Hughes referred to it as a ‘mass exercise in narcissism’ while another (also very good) piece by Lauren Davidson questioned the ‘smug sense of self-congratulation that seems to accompany some of these selfies.’ Other people took to Twitter to post screenshots of their donations as proof of their actual contribution - failing to acknowledge that these donations were still prompted by the #nomakeupselfie tag, even if just to prove a pompous point about social consciousness.

Why does the legitimate querying of a campaign’s effectiveness have to manifest in once again tearing women down? I relate entirely to Hughes’ revelation that, for women like her and me, makeup isn’t the lifeblood that the beauty industry would have everyone believe. And I strongly oppose the idea that it is an act of bravery to appear without said makeup, as if women are so weak and cosseted that sacrificing our eyeliners and foundation for a day is akin to erecting the barricades of revolution.

I don’t like selfies and I don’t like the objective that asks women to prostrate themselves before an audience in order to prove their strength. Throughout history, women have demonstrated a fortitude and resilience that far outweighs anything demanded of men. We have survived in the face of enormous oppression, subjugation, violence and attempts to dehumanise us entirely. We don’t need to sit bare faced in front of a computer screen to show the world how brave we are.

But while campaigns like this deserve to be critiqued for their short-sightedness and for their adherence to patriarchal norms, this can be done without reinforcing the kind of boring sexism that likes to punish women for daring to engage playfully with the very thing they’ve always been told brings them most value - their looks.

Unfortunately, women are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. We’re urged by the patriarchal directive to ‘take care of ourselves’ (read: keep ourselves attractive) while making sure to always keep our egos in check by suffocating them under a thick layer of self doubt and self loathing. This, too, is a form of control.

It doesn’t matter that so many of the #nomakeupselfie photos being posted on social media now include CRUK’s text number link to donate £3; the narrative has already been decided, and it once again portrays women as facile, frivolous egomaniacs who will use even the Very Serious Issue of cancer to indulge their already out-of-control vanity and desperate need to be praised. Because sexism is still sexism, even without the lipstick on.

If you would like to donate to the Australian Cancer Research Foundation, you can do so here. For a very handy interactive guide to the facts and statistics about cancer in Australia, please see this from the Cancer Council.

 

Clementine Ford will appear in All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House on 30 March 2014. See booking details here.

16 comments

  • I opened this article expecting to validate my own criticisms but instead am now questioning my exact reasons for my dislike of the campaign.

    It raised 2 million pounds, that's amazing! If women can feel good about themselves (with or without make up really, who cares?) and we can raise money for cancer I am kinda questioning my reasoning for disliking the campaign in the first place.

    Commenter
    Spanner
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    March 25, 2014, 8:27AM
    • Sure it's great that they raised that money, but surely they could have done it with a less vacuous campaign?

      Commenter
      Escritora
      Date and time
      March 25, 2014, 10:05AM
    • I agree. Regardless of anyone's opinion on these types of campaigns you cannot argue with 2 million pounds being raised for an amazing cause (coming from someone who has watched my mum suffer with 3 separate breast cancers and a very good friend with 1 at the age of 35). And no publicity is bad publicity when it comes to fundraising either so good job on the article!

      Commenter
      AJC
      Date and time
      March 25, 2014, 11:42AM
    • That, Spanner, is the best thing you could have possibly said - being open to having your opinion changed is a beautiful thing. I high-five you, awesome person!

      Commenter
      eatmeetswest
      Date and time
      March 25, 2014, 12:05PM
    • @Escritora, could they? This seems like a very successful, low-cost campaign. It works because it engages people, possibly not always in the same or expected ways, but it engages nonetheless. What are your alternative ideas for raising two million pounds?

      Commenter
      Dags
      Date and time
      March 25, 2014, 3:08PM
  • Sometimes people over-analyse things. A number of the women I know who have supported this have themselves battled breast cancer. One point being made is the time it takes to put on make up you can check your boobs, which is why one friend who's had a mastectomy said she could wear lippy for her selfie - "less to check". And do we have to judge the success of something by how much money it has made? Sometimes just sharing among friends, whether it's the latest social event, 'words of wisdom' or discussion about cancer can be worthwhile. I think it has brought a bit of fun, solidarity and support to communities of friends who have all been touched in some way by this awful disease. And yes, we can pontificate about make up and feminist critique, but seriously? Good on those of you who don't wear much make up, your choice, but some of the most intelligent, independent women I know also know how to slap on the war paint and look and feel amazing while holding down a career, raising a family and trying in some small way to change the world.

    Commenter
    Deb
    Date and time
    March 25, 2014, 9:20AM
    • But why are they "slapping on the warpaint"? And why is it "brave" not to wear make up?

      I'm in my mid 40s and never wear make up. Should I expect my medal for bravery in the face of consumer-driven rubbish in the mail?

      Commenter
      Sigh
      Date and time
      March 25, 2014, 9:50AM
    • I don't think its about the make-up (because honestly, thats just its cutsey little hook), I think its about the fact that we all know about cancer. A discussion about cancer should include "I knew there was something wrong with my mum when she stopped being able to physically tolerate foods that had never been a problem for her before" (which is how her colon cancer ended up being diagnosed) and "unless she'd been on mandatory check-ups because of her colon cancer, I don't know how long it would have taken for her breast cancer to be discovered" (which is entirely true). Me taking a photo of myself without make-up on and hash-tagging it and saying "I support cancer awareness because of my mum" doesn't inform anyone. I had no idea that the concept was "in the time it takes you to do your make-up you could check your breasts" cos that wasn't added to the "campaign" in any significant way. Im with Clementine on this one.

      Commenter
      caroline
      Date and time
      March 25, 2014, 5:04PM
  • A bunch of very pretty young women without makeup. Now, that's bravery!

    Commenter
    Jace
    Date and time
    March 25, 2014, 9:55AM
    • I was beginning to think I was the only one who thought this campaign was flawed for all the reasons you state. Also as someone who only wears makeup once a month anyway the concept of going makeup-free as a brave and special thing doesn't speak to me though clearly it does for a lot of women. May I suggest they live their daily lives without makeup for a while to get over their fear of going without it? It's sad that these selfies are considered a brave and special thing to do. Also, in practically 99% of the makeup-free selfies I've been inundated with the women in them look like they are trying even harder than they do in their selfies with makeup! The irony...

      Commenter
      Escritora
      Date and time
      March 25, 2014, 10:04AM

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