A response to #NoMakeupSelfie: Good is not the enemy of something better


The recent #NoMakeupSelfie campaign to raise cancer awareness has gone viral. The campaign, which was circulating around Facebook on Tuesday afternoon, asks women to upload selfies and “nominate” friends to follow suit, in a thinly-veiled ode to the recent “NekNominate” craze that suffocated the newsfeeds of 18-25s the world over. Financially, the campaign has been a resounding success: Cancer Research UK are understood to have raised more than £2 million through over 800,000 text donations. The selfie campaign’s unofficial Facebook page, ‘No Make Up Selfie For Cancer Awareness’, has also accrued more than 250,000 “likes”. But the campaign has not been uncontroversial. There are at least two clear themes amongst this criticism, but neither should detract from the greater good that the campaign has generated.

The first criticism concerns harmful gender expectations: in particular, perpetuating the notion that a woman’s appearance represents a major part of her value. Many have noted that it is unfortunate that a woman appearing in public without makeup is considered a brave or contrarian choice. Certainly, no woman should need an excuse to choose not to wear makeup; least of all a charitable one. Similarly, a parallel #MakeupSelfie campaign – where men share selfies wearing makeup for the same cause – could be seen as furthering the idea that breaking societal gender norms is something out of the ordinary or extreme.

But the associated issues run deeper still; members of an Oxford University gender equality group have noted the harmful implication that the “bravery” of being seen without makeup is in any way comparable to the bravery that comes with battling cancer. However, positive movements have come from the trend nonetheless. At a small scale, instances of women that are afraid of appearing without makeup receiving public support for participating could serve as a positive reinforcer, helping counter any underlying anxiety. In addition, the #MakeupSelfie male counterpart offers men an opportunity to get involved in a campaign originally focused on breast cancer, an often female-driven fundraising drive.

A second criticism argues that the viral campaign “seems like narcissism masked as charity”. It is clear that many people have uploaded #NoMakeupSelfies in a transparent attempt to prove their own “natural beauty” to their friends, continuing facebook newsfeed’s resemblance to an online vanity project. As Lara Prendergast of the Spectator recently wrote, “[a selfie] raises awareness, sure – but awareness of yourself”. It goes without saying that, in an ideal world, people would donate en-masse to Cancer Research without narcissistic/gender-normative undertones. However, there is no evidence for the  underlying assumption that donating without narcissism is a likely alternative. It is fair to assume that the two alternatives are: no viral campaign, no additional donations; vs. viral armchair activism, possible associated narcissism, and an additional £2 million raised for cancer research in forty-eight hours. I know which I would pick. Futhermore, powerful images of mastectomy scar selfies circulating the internet have garnered widespread support and respect – it seems cynical to assume that all people uploading no makeup selfies are doing it to curate a Facebook persona.

We know that Cancer Research is amongst the world’s most high profile charities, and sharing images of yourself without makeup shouldn’t be a big deal. And yes, most #NoMakeupSelfies come with a heavy dose of narcissism. But theres no evidence that this incredibly successful campaign would have worked without this baggage, or that donating without narcissism is a plausible alternative. Regardless of these issues, it is undeniably admirable that so many people are working to raise awareness and financial support for Cancer Research UK. Something good should not be the enemy of something better.

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