19/03/2014 12:12 GMT | Updated 19/05/2014 06:59 BST

Selfies 'for Cancer': Your Face Won't Change the World

This week a new 'nomination' craze has hit Facebook: the 'no makeup selfie for cancer'. Ostensibly a good thing, right? False.

This week a new 'nomination' craze has hit Facebook: the 'no makeup selfie for cancer'. Ostensibly a good thing, right? False.

The 'no makeup selfie for cancer' requires (mainly) women to remove their makeup, take a selfie, upload the picture to Facebook with a caption like 'fresh-faced for cancer <3' and tag friends they wish to follow suit. To my knowledge, there are no links to cancer research provided with these 'nominations' - just a face and a word familiar to the vast majority of us. A word that has touched lives in the gravest way.

Some have suggested that this 'campaign' is a good thing, that it raises 'awareness for cancer'. Well, that depends how you define 'awareness'. If you define it as knowing the word cancer and knowing that cancer kills people yes, I guess it does. Yet that is an extremely narrow explication of 'awareness'. To me, 'awareness' is a far subtler, deeper thing: it is knowing the causes, effects and ends of a thing, knowing how you can prevent yourself from getting cancer of help those who have it. Posting a picture of your face does not increase 'awareness' because it offers no new information. This is how those pictures sound to me:

'Jess, why do you have a banana taped to your head?'


'What about cancer?'


'Ok, thanks for that'.

If you're using the word 'cancer', you have a duty to explicate it, to justify its use. Would you stand on a street corner with a handmade sign saying 'NSPCC', ask for money but refuse to show any supporting material or tell the public what the NSPCC does? As far as I can see the 'no make-up for cancer' 'thing' is not linked with any official cancer charity. Indeed, Facebook sites with pictures of 'celebrities' apparently taking part are merely gleaned from google - some are years old. Charitable causes require some sort of authenticity behind them, something that links them to a 'bigger picture' - not just a picture of your face. These photos float in a cyber vortex, unattached, invalid and thus - ultimately - meaningless.

I say 'meaningless' because the alternative 'meanings' the photos have are really quite terrible. I saw someone say that going without makeup is about solidarity. The implicit point here - and I really hope it isn't the point - is that girls without makeup are either ill-looking or 'weak': like cancer sufferers. A man's face, makeup-less, well that's just a face; but, apparently, a female face without its 'war-paint' on is a simulacrum of a dying person's. This 'campaign' reinforces the myth that the female face should be hidden away, exposed only on 'special' occasions. The fact that men, and girls, have criticised others' 'naked' faces - said how different or ugly they look - on the networking site shows how alien they are to us. It perpetuates feelings of inferiority and inadequacy in women - rather than liberating them.

I suppose the 'campaign' is meant to make women feel like they are giving a piece of themselves away, being brave girls. But, going without makeup isn't brave. Going through chemotherapy is brave, telling your children you might die is brave, facing the prospect of your own death is brave. Wearing no makeup should be natural, normal, everyday. Let's not get things twisted here: let's not confuse what we 'can' do to ourselves with what cancer sufferers have no control over.

But, this 'campaign' isn't really thinking about cancer sufferers, is it. The 'selfie' (a word which entered the dictionary in 2013) is now a prominent feature of everyday life, and a glaring sign of our modern narcissistic preoccupation. Never before have we been so vain, or so keen to re-describe vanity as 'self-documentation'. This 'campaign' not only fulfills that desire, but makes us feel 'good' about ourselves for possessing it. Adding the word 'cancer' to a selfie means nobody can attack it or you: right? Well, I will. We have a very high opinion of ourselves, but, believe it or not your selfie (heck, not even Beyoncé's selfie) will change the world. Cancer doesn't dissipate at the site or your 'bare' face; thus, to parade it in that context is merely another shade of egoism.

Ultimately, the intentions of the people taking part in this - inauthentic - 'campaign' are well-meaning, but misplaced. I urge anyone considering posting a picture to think twice, to see if there might be a more effective way to raise 'awareness' - real awareness . Maybe this was the 'campaigns' goal all along, to cause people to reel against it and talk about cancer in a new way and learn new things. Yet, that's an awfully circuitous way to go about it. In charity we need clarity and transparency, not an ulterior 'point' that people have to search out for themselves - because most won't.