THE BLOG

#nomakeupselfies - Who Are They Really Benefitting?

28/03/2014 12:12 GMT | Updated 27/05/2014 10:59 BST

You've pretty much got to have been living under a rock for the past week or so (unless you're one of those rare people with a life outside of Facebook and Twitter) to not have seen the latest social media trend that is #nomakeupselfies. Initially, when seeing people posting pictures of themselves barefaced online, I rejoiced that women everywhere were finally sticking two fingers up at the patriarchal system that compels women to think that they look less than human without several layers of slap on. However, as more and more of these selfies appeared, I started to see captions such as '#nomakeupselfie for cancer awareness' and '#nomakeupselfie for breast cancer', and something didn't feel right. It became very clear that women weren't uploading selfies to shun the make-up industry, as I had originally thought. Despite this, in many articles defending the selfies, people have conflated the two very different issues of #nomakeupselfies as an anti-make-up campaign, and #nomakeupselfies as a means of campaigning for cancer awareness - in particular breast cancer awareness. I see nothing wrong with women using their bare faces to shun the make-up industry, but I have a big problem with women going barefaced in the name of cancer awareness.

I'd like to point out that I'm all for women choosing to go make-up free. I rarely go out without some form of make-up on, because I too am victim to this shitty system of corporeal control. I'm well aware that my 'choice' to wear make-up often boils down to either spending time making myself feel more attractive by applying make-up, or leaving the house feeling ugly. The aim of this post, therefore, is definitely not to belittle women for being brave enough to post #nomakeupselfies. Were the aim of this trend to make women and girls realise that it's okay to not wear make-up, and were it to make them realise that it's okay to express their frustration at being valued for their aesthetic beauty, this would be a totally different campaign, and one I'd be fully behind.

As I understand it, women and girls are taking these selfies to show cancer patients that they are beautiful too. This is a great gesture - we are all beautiful, and no one should be made to feel ugly or less than whole because they are battling a potentially life-threatening illness that often subjects them to mutilating surgery, hair loss, weight gain, and even feelings of identity loss and disembodiment. But we live in a society where scars, hair loss and weight gain aren't considered attractive physical traits, and without generalising women's lived experiences of breast cancer, sadly this loss of feminine identity is a reality for many women. However, I fail to understand how a 'healthy' woman's #nomakeupselfie might increase a breast cancer patient's body positivity. I do understand that the notion of sisterhood and women using the internet as a platform to empower other women is very attractive (and for sticking twos up at the make-up industry, it's great!) but I wonder if anyone has stopped and thought about the effects that these selfies are having on breast cancer patients?

To suppose that there is one definitive 'breast cancer experience' is to essentialise every woman's experience, which is unhelpful and borders on ableism. However, having read a selection of breast cancer patients' blogs, it's clear to see that many women feel that the #nomakeupselfies are doing more harm than good for the breast cancer cause. I'm not going to link to the blogs because I don't want to turn them into a commodity or a social experiment for 'healthy' people to pick over (they are easily Google-able if you are genuinely interested), so instead I'll sum up some of the arguments that were posed by women living with a history of breast cancer.

If we liken not wearing make-up to being unattractive, with captions such as 'omg I look so ill without make-up', surely we are reinforcing the message that cancer patients who ARE ill are unattractive. Now I'm sure that when people caption their selfies with these light-hearted comments it's definitely not with the intent of making cancer patients feel worse about their appearance, but good intent is not what's being questioned here. Subliminal messages can be just as hurtful. Similarly, I've seen a lot of 'ugh my hair looks so thin and flat without mousse/backcombing' - how about just being grateful that you have hair? Additionally, a less-well known side effect of chemotherapy is increased sensitivity to make-up, so how do you think it makes a woman who cannot wear make-up feel when she sees you braving all for exactly five minutes of your morning? These selfies that are posted with a side of I-know-I-look-really-ugly-and-ill-without-make-up basically reinforce the message that that's how cancer patients look all the time, regardless of your good intentions. Moreover, a #nomakeupselfie might make you feel liberated in your snubbing of patriarchal control over women's bodies and faces, but if this campaign is to raise awareness of breast cancer (as the photo captions suggest), then I'm sorry but it's just not about you. Liberating yourself at the expense of women who are already experiencing traumatic changes in their life is just not on.

I appreciate that a lot of people have been posting the selfies alongside their £3 donation to Cancer Research UK, and I don't want to make people feel like that is a negative thing to do. We're socialised to think that if we do something for charity then we are altruistically giving back to the world. Having lost two grandparents to cancer, I want to find a cure as much as the next person. Eight million pounds is a lot of money, but how much do you actually know about Cancer Research UK? While I sweated my way round four Race for Life events, I honestly thought that my pink tutu and I were ridding the world of cancer. I fully subscribed to the I'm-doing-something-great-for-charity-so-how-dare-you-criticise-me attitude that is so common in the West. Then I did some digging and was quite appalled by what I found. One fifth of all donations to Cancer Research UK are spent on adverts - much like the ones I get through the post that go straight in the recycling bin. The ones that make cancer look pink and fluffy and sexy (because something that is pink and fluffy and sexy is a much more appealing cause than something that is devastating, debilitating, and mutilating, right?). These are the same adverts that promise a cure if only you'll stop being lazy in your healthiness and do your duty as a good citizen. These are the same adverts that promote unhealthy obsession with 'fitspiration' and shroud us in the myth that if enough women Race for Life, we'll all be protected from cancer. Great, so 1.6 million of your benevolent 8 million pounds has been spent on creating a false sense of reality.

In actual fact, only half of the money raised goes to funding laboratory research - and that means it goes to PhD students at universities who don't get any of the glamour for their hard work. Half of all clinical trials that test out new cancer treatments are not even funded by research charities, but instead by other organisations and corporations. All of this information can be found on Cancer Research UK's website. You have to dig around for a bit first, though, because obviously they don't want you to know this. Congratulations, you're probably paying for a rich guy in a suit to sit at a desk and contemplate new ways of exploiting women in the name of 'charity'. Incidentally, 6 out of 8 people sitting on the Board of Chief Executives for Cancer Research UK are men - did someone say patriarchy, because I felt my feminist senses tingling.

So what are the alternative means of raising awareness of breast cancer? Perhaps we should be teaching people that it is not one disease, but many diseases with multiple causes and multiple effects. Perhaps we should be teaching people not to buy into the capitalist culture of 'pinkwashing' whereby corporate companies make money from selling products in the name of 'charity' - yet another way that cancer patients are made to feel like commodities by our philanthropy. Perhaps we should be naming and shaming companies that manufacture and sell products that leave us exposed to carcinogens and toxins in our food, in our drink, in our perfume and, oh look, in our make-up, too. Perhaps we should be teaching people to check their privilege and listen to breast cancer patients' grievances about this as a way of actually supporting them. And perhaps we should be teaching young women and men how to properly check their breasts for signs of cancer. Sorry ladies, but uploading a selfie for 'awareness' is not doing any of these things.

As an aside, (I could write another post on this alone) the image of the male #makeupselfie perpetuates the appalling attitude that when guys decide to wear make-up, for whatever reason - be it for drag or because it's part of their gender identity - that they are there to be laughed at. I can only imagine how gutting it is for people who don't adhere to strict gender binaries to scroll down their newsfeed and see people's blatant amusement at the idea of a man wearing mascara. Grow up - it's not funny.

Tell me I'm overreacting if you want, but I'm not a fan of any trend that makes people feel worse about their body image, no matter how much money it raises. Let's stop selling out our sisters and disregarding their thoughts and feelings, and instead start doing something productive to raise awareness.

Find out where your money's really going:

http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/

Find out about the dangers of 'pinkwashing':

http://thinkbeforeyoupink.org/

Pink Ribbons Inc. provides a frank and honest portrayal of the dangers of 'pinkwashing':

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sZXDOoGJ-vQ

For breast cancer awareness and signs & symptoms (you can also find visual aids on how to check your breasts online):

http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Breastcancer/Pages/Breastcancersymptoms.aspx

Breast Cancer UK is an NGO committed to raising awareness of the environmental causes of breast cancer, so that we can help prevent breast cancer before it occurs:

http://www.breastcanceruk.org.uk/