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.


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.