23/03/2014 20:03 GMT | Updated 23/05/2014 06:59 BST

The Controversy Surrounding the 'No Makeup Selfie' Gave It Depth - Without It, It Was Empty

I already feel completely worn out from discussing this but I wanted to put something down with more reflexivity than just a Facebook comment. When I saw a couple of the "no makeup selfies" come up on my newsfeed, I felt irritated. For an entire day, they splashed across social media with no mention of the donation, merely a vague reference to breast cancer and a nomination of friends to do the same. It came about like many of the other lazy social media marketing campaigns that passes through Facebook once in a while. Ones like, "Write the name of your favourite flower and the colour of the bra you're wearing now, as your Facebook status, for cancer awareness".

As an ex-cancer patient, I made pretty clear early on that the "no makeup selfie" had zero relevance to the experience of cancer. In my eyes, the NMS was supposed to be a move of solidarity for the people going through cancer. Baring yourself, exposing yourself, making you feel vulnerable, to try to understand a mere taste of the fragility that someone with cancer experiences when they look in the mirror. The photos I saw did not show that. They were still mysteriously camera ready and lacked the level of realness that the cause demanded. I commented that I would have more respect if you took one, first thing in the morning, under fluorescent hospital lights, after a colonoscopy, as it was a little more relevant. That kind of vulnerability and loss of dignity is closer to what I felt as a cancer patient. I obviously cannot speak for all of the one in fours but for me it seemed vapid and vacuous, and a waste of my attention.

It was only after all the controversy began that the new pictures began to show with a snapshot of a text donation and a reminder for everyone to donate. Had the controversy not started, it would have dissipated along with the 'Tulip- Red' Facebook statuses; no one would have spoken about the monumental amount of money raised, because there wouldn't have been any. That, whether you like it or not, is the truth.

I've found myself coming to blows with a lot of people because trying to tell thousands of people that the nice thing that they think they have done is stupid, will fall on deaf and/or angry ears. I had a complete stranger lambast me in a 15cm (approx.) in length Facebook comment on an article an acquaintance posted. She then motioned that, "I suppose you want people to inject themselves with cancer so they can understand how you feel?" Quite the opposite, dear. My real qualms with the "no makeup selfie", is that cancer is synonymous with image. You see a thin woman, with no eyebrows and wearing a headscarf, you assume she has cancer. It is an illness with a face, a signifier with a signified; and the signified is always bald. I remember the half an hour spells of crying, looking in the mirror, as my fingers caressed whispers of fluff which were all that remained of my hair. I was never so bold to shave it all off completely, just let it go on its own. It was a measurable way of watching the old life I had fade away. I walked around incredibly aware of myself, wearing a wig, wondering if people noticed how few eyelashes and eyebrow hairs I had, and whether somebody would rip the wig off my head in public. That only ever happened once, in a club, at a rave, so anyone who saw was way too fucked to give a shit.

One of most powerful and liberating parts of my cancer experience, in relation to my image, was this selfie:


My friend Faith and I were sat up at 6am after having been on a night out, it was around a month after I had finished my twelfth and final cycle of chemotherapy, and I had very little, if any hair at all. She encouraged me to embrace it, and it being 6am and me barely coherent we took a picture, whacked on a flattering filter, and posted it with the cringe-inducing, "And what?" caption on Instagram and Facebook. It was one of the best things I ever did, I felt vulnerable and empowered at the same time. I have seen many other similar empowered selfies by other men and women fighting the disease. A middle finger to the disease and pride in the fight. I was personally inspired by my friend Jennifer, whose blog was full of candid, raw images. A true inspiration and worthwhile read for all suffering with the disease or not.

Had the no makeup selfie been as raw and real as that to start with, paying homage to this kind of exposure, I would have been fully on board. It wasn't, not for everyone. Now, as two days have passed, the ones that arrive on the newsfeed are more real and always have a reminder to donate. It's still self-serving but I was reminded that all charity is self-serving and I guess that's right, to a certain extent.

I have been told not to take the NMS personally; many people cannot understand why I found it hurtful. I am reminded constantly about how much money it has raised but something like this should have meant more than just money.

At first it was nothing, now it really seems like something. Those who champion the campaign are encouraging others to carry on, make sure to donate and take part, prove people like me wrong. I find that admirable. People who think I'm being overly sensitive or reading too much into this "bit of fun" need to understand that my experiences, as with everybody else's, means that I simply cannot not take it personally. My "no wig selfie" was me facing my worst fear and the NMS seemed to trivialise it; at first. I think it has more merit now. I am happy for people not to agree or see my point of view, but for people to tell me I'm wrong is disgustingly short sighted and ignorant.

It shows some intelligence to understand that just because you don't get it, it doesn't mean it's invalid. It's the equivalent of a white person telling somebody from a minority not to be offended by something that they found racist, because they themselves don't see it. There is one thing that I believe above all else and that is that you should never tell anyone how they should feel. Every person has been shaped by their experiences, background, appearance etc. We will all feel and react differently to things in life. There is no right way to take something.

The NMS has achieved an incredible amount and is more than just your average social media campaign. It began life as an empty, attention seeking gimmick, now, thanks to the uproar, it has raised over £1million; an incredible fundraising achievement. And although I didn't post a selfie myself, I am certain that I and other detractors have played a significant part in this success.