Yesterday, I was tagged in a friend's Facebook post nominating me to upload a make-up free selfie in the name of breast cancer awareness. My friend's picture was beautiful and it was encouraging to see her bare, smiling face on my timeline - a place that's usually populated with pictures of people at their very best (with a little help from Instagram and Perfect360).
Before long, many of my friends had followed suit, posting their make-up free selfies and nominating their friends to take part. It was all very well meaning and inoffensive but, as far as I could tell, absolutely nothing to do with breast cancer awareness. If anything, it was trivialising a very serious issue and using it to justify a vanity project.
"Here's a picture of me. Beautiful. Bare-faced. Make-up free. Like it. Share it. Validate me. Do the same and I'll validate you. Go on, take a selfie. It's for a good cause LOL!"
Tell me, what is the good cause? Who exactly is this benefitting other than the person in the picture, who will undoubtedly be swathed with social endorsements of her natural beauty?
Since the term 'selfie' entered our vernacular, it's come to characterise the narcissism of the internet age. Every social network cultivates the self and in many ways, selfies grasp at our hero worship of celebrities - the modern day messiahs. Getting lots of likes on a picture offers a dizzying taste of this reverence, validating our physical appearance and so validating the carefully constructed image of who we want to be.
Now I'm by no means unaccountable. I grew up on the internet so I've been engrained in this culture since myspace was life. I take selfies because they serve as a reminder of my own self-worth. On days when I feel like a deflated balloon, I look at these pictures and think, "See. It's not so bad. You scrub up alright."
So I understand why people do it. I understand the need for validation and reassurance. I understand the buzz you get when someone tells you that you're beautiful. What I don't understand is why this has been hijacked as a force for good and why this trend insinuates that a bare face is worthy of adulation?
Are so many of us hiding behind a mask of foundation and fake eyelashes that sharing a make-up free picture is shocking enough to raise awareness of a disease that destroys lives? No. The only awareness it raises is that of a society that's sick and that values beauty above all else. Of a society that systematically batters self-esteem so that people consume; so that people spend thousands of pounds on beauty products and clothes just so they can feel good about themselves.
And this too is true of slacktivism. If we do something that dresses itself up as altruism, we feel good. And when it's so easy, why wouldn't we? Take a picture, post it to Facebook, good deed done for the day. Aren't I wonderful? But this kind of behaviour is a lot more passive than actively donating money to a cancer research charity, much more passive than coming up with an original idea to attain that heady rush of do-goodery.
This issue has been hotly debated on the Cancer Research Facebook page, with many people announcing that they've donated to charity because of the selfie campaign (which Cancer Research UK does not claim ownership of). But it's the same thing. If you need to tell people how much of a good person you are, it's time to question your motivation for doing good at all. Goodness should permeate throughout life and in every decision we make, not because a trend on Facebook tells us to.
Some have argued that the selfie campaign serves as an antidote to the mindless hedonism of Neknominate, which was an incredibly destructive and tasteless trend that actually cost lives. But instead of turning these social memes into a force for good, the selfie campaign has simply highlighted how conceited and contrary we are.
After all, if social media caters to the individual, why do so many of us share trends and viral content without independent thought? There have been so many instances of this in recent years, with KONY 2012 being the most memorable. That video spread like wild fire because it was supposedly altruistic. Then, someone did their research, exposed the lies and the issue was dropped. People stopped caring about the child soldiers of Uganda and all the traffic was diverted to articles explaining why KONY 2012 was a sham. From one extreme to the other, just like that.
Facebook is a school playground, where peer pressure and crazes reign supreme and the blind lead the blind because it's easier than thinking for yourself. But to counteract a society that values the individual's beauty over the individual's mind, it's time to question the wider social context of viral content before hitting the share button.
To donate £3 to Cancer Research UK, text BEAT to 70099.
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