Enough with giving women a hard time over #nomakeupselfies

Last week, I clicked on an article titled “Enough with the cancer ‘awareness’ selfie stunts,” knowing that there was a good chance it would annoy me.

Guess what – I was right!

In the article, Mary Elizabeth Williams complains about the #NoMakeupSelfie (she also mentions #manupandmakeup , and “Cock in a Sock” campaigns, all created to raise “awareness” and funds for cancer research).

Selfie? In my day, we called this the "MySpace pose". God, I'm old.

Selfie? In my day, we called this the “MySpace pose”. God, I’m old.

Now, I have as much of an issue with cancer “awareness” stunts as the next person. I mean, first of all, who isn’t aware of cancer? Seriously, raise your hands if you don’t know anybody who’s ever had cancer, or that cancer kind of sucks.

And yeah, campaigns that focus purely on “awareness” can be grating. I remember years ago on facebook that you’d get an email from a female friend that was like “Change your status to the color of the bra you’re wearing for breast cancer awareness! The boys won’t know! LOL!” and your newsfeed would be filled with “leopard print ;)” and “nude – boring!”. Sure, stuff like that is kind of silly and pointless, but I’m not going to complain about it (unless it’s to actually discuss the problems with slacktivism). On the scale of annoying facebook statuses, I’d say this kind of post is just slightly less annoying than a humblebrag.

But I believe that awareness campaigns with a specific purpose – to inform people about how to detect certain cancers or how to avoid behaviors that contribute to those cancers – are a different story. So are campaigns whose aim is to raise funds for research, treatment, or survivor and family support. The #nomakeupselfie trend falls squarely in this camp.

The thing that bothers me most about Williams’s essay is that she doesn’t give any actual reasons for disliking these particular fundraising campaigns. The closest thing I could find is that she wishes we could find a way to care about people with cancer in ways “that don’t reek of self-congratulation”. She also wants all of those people taking selfies to know that “cancer is not sexy”.

Come on. Nobody thinks cancer is sexy. And it’s insulting and condescending to imply that everyone who is taking selfies for awareness would think so. How does she know what they’ve been through? How does she know they haven’t lost parents or grandparents to cancer, or fought the disease themselves?

If the trend was JUST about posting selfies, I’d probably be on board with her outrage. But the hashtag has raised over “£8 million (about $13 million) in contributions[…] The organization says the monies will help fund 10 trials covering a variety of cancers, ‘some of which we were previously unable to fully fund or couldn’t afford to fund at all.’” The quote is from Williams’s article itself.

It seems that Williams is of the mindset that many adults are when talking about selfies. There’s been plenty of hand-wringing on the internet about how selfies are creating a generation of narcissists (and bad football players, apparently?). This criticism tends to sound a lot like any other kind of concern that adults have when talking about something that “kids these days” are doing that the adults don’t understand (even though, in many ways, selfies have a long and illustrious history).

However, there’s also a school of thought that believes that selfies can help girls improve their self-image by exerting some control over the way they appear online and providing a way for people to give others positive messages. Even Dove, purveyor of “real beauty” marketing, has embraced the selfie as part of a recent marketing campaign.

That makes Williams’s decision to quote another author saying that “only an idiot […] would buy the ‘it’s brave to go barefaced’ argument” particularly offensive. You know what? For many girls, putting a picture of themselves online without makeup is kind of intimidating. I was going to take a picture of myself without makeup for this post, but I didn’t like how I looked. I’m going to argue that THAT is more narcissistic than it would have been for me to actually post the selfie. And NOBODY is saying, as Williams implies, that posting a barefaced selfie is as scary as facing cancer. Again, it is insulting to suggest otherwise.

Furthermore, let’s be serious; how are selfies for cancer any more self-congratulatory than running a marathon for cancer? I’d argue that the marathon is even more self-congratulatory: “look at me – I’m fit, dedicated, AND charitable!” The only real difference I can see is the age of the person who tends to participate in each kind of fund-raising. Coming down on fundraising selfies seems like just another way to criticize and dismiss teens and young adults – PARTICULARLY young women, since that’s the group who participated in the #nomakeupselfie and raised all of that money.

Makeup-free and TOTALLY self-congratulatory.

Makeup-free and TOTALLY self-congratulatory.

Also, there’s the very real fact that charitable fundraising is easier when there’s some kind of stunt involved. For instance, when I ran a half-marathon a few years ago (I didn’t say I WASN’T self-congratulatory), I used it as a way to solicit donations to a homeless shelter where I volunteered. Without the race, it would have felt really awkward to ask my family and friends for donations, but running it gave me a “legitimate” way to raise money for a cause I believe in.

The truth is, these days there are so many causes and so many charities that it can be really hard to decide where to donate your time or money. Stunts like these do help issues get support. Sure, in an ideal world, we’d all have the time and energy to research causes to decide which one needs help the most, and then check out the various charities associated with that cause to determine which use their funds most effectively. But we don’t live in an ideal world. And while I’m sure that there are plenty of cases where these kinds of stunts result in fund-raising for a less-than ideal charity, in the case of the #nomakeupselfie, that didn’t happen.

If these stunts result in people donating money to causes that are actually working to make a difference, I think it’s kind of crappy to dismiss them without any specific reasons.

11 responses to “Enough with giving women a hard time over #nomakeupselfies

  1. Boom! You hit the nail on the head. Obviously the selfies aren’t directly halting cancer in its tracks, but I find it refreshing when women can confidently show themselves bare faced for any reason!


  2. ‘Movember’ NEVER comes in for the kind of criticism the no make up selfie did.
    I’m not a huge fan of either but I can’t stand the way so many people unquestioningly accept the (mostly male) trend of growing facial hair in November but sneer at the (mostly young) women posting photos of themselves without make up.

    The other thing is that i didn’t see many no make up selfies that didn’t conform to normative ideas of beauty. Largely, there was lots of bright-eyed, clear-skinned photos of young women online. That, combined with the comments underneath “girls are so much better looking without make up- you look so beautiful” etc. etc. kind of made me feel that the selfie trend was hijacked pretty quickly in favour of promoting a “natural” beauty. The fact that it raised so much money is, obviously, fantastic but I can’t help but feel like the whole trend (perhaps unconsciously) is privileging another type of beauty.


    • Because Movember was creative, seeing just what you can do with facial hair, which lead to some neat stuff. The selfie one wasn’t creative, you just woke up and took a picture. I’m a guy and I’ve worn makeup almost my whole life due to some insecurities, but eventually you have to get passed that, as unlike a woman, I can’t wear makeup everywheres.

      Hell most guys could give a damn less if you wear makeup or not, WE WON’T NOTICE. Women are usually the ones I hear ragging on eachother(all of my friends except 3 are women, and all of my cousins are girls), where as guys don’t nitpick about that shit. Your busy being concerned whether you look ok, I’m more busy trying to figure out if your safe to take back to my house at anypoint in the future.

      In the end you have to stop listening to society, and no one else can do that other than you.. or don’t, it’s your life, you live for 80 years average. that is literally the equivelant to 1.5 seconds compared to the universe. Where do you think Gay rights would be if we kept listening, the same place, the same thing with transgendered men and women.


      • Since when is Movember more creative that taking a photo of yourself without make up? For the record, I don’t think either counts as high culture but as, y’know, photography is considered art by many people and (as far as I’m aware) not removing your facial hair is not, your claim that Movember is ‘creative’ when no-makeup selfies are not is, frankly, bizarre. When, in your words, “seeing just what you can do with facial hair” becomes a benchmark for artistic credibility then perhaps something has gone wrong. Or is it just that anything men do with their faces is inherently more inspiring and worthy then anything young women could ever do?

        Anyway, good to know that you still fancy us without slap. That is, after all, why women wear make up – we’re vain! The years of socialisation, patriarchal norms and messages from the media have nothing to do with it – it’s all because we’re unimaginative and too lazy to stop listening to what society says. Thanks for clearing that up!


  3. I think the problem with these no makeup selfies are that they may be making cancer patients feel bad about themselves. Some wish they could look as good as these people posting the no makeup selfies. Some cancer patients wish they had eyelashes to put a little bit of mascara on them.
    I guess I would compare it to when someone would say about my reconstruction after my double mastectomy, “my breasts don’t define me.” Well, guess what? Mine didn’t define me then and they still don’t define me today. BUT I am thankful that at least I was able to come out of a breast cancer diagnosis still feeling a bit like myself.
    I am thankful for the donations that are being raised, but does everyone who posts a no makeup selfie know why they are doing it? If you want to post a no makeup selfie I say go for it! But just know why you are doing it.
    I love your blog, it brings such thoughtful discussions.


    • That’s a good call – I think one of the big criticisms of online activism is that people don’t have to really THINK about the things they’re doing – so that on the one hand, while it’s a quick way to donate and feel good about yourself for doing so, you don’t really have to think about any broader implications of your actions.

      One thing I should have researched while writing this post was whether there was supposed to be any connection between “no makeup” and cancer patients – like, was it supposed to be like “people going through treatment often feel bad about how they look, so let’s post pics of ourselves makeup-free in solidarity”? If so, yeah, that’s a problem. I didn’t make that connection when reading about it, but it now seems like something someone might think. That would definitely be pretty tone-deaf.

      Thank you for the feedback!


      • I’m not a fan of this sort of slacktivism.I once did a round table with a group of female cancer survivors, and more than a few of them expressed frustration with the deluge of pink products on October.These women’s life or death struggle was being used to hawk hot pink toasters, and they didn’t appreciate it.

        A volunteer that was sitting in on the meeting (who had not had breast cancer but considered herself a “progressive internet activist”) came up to me at the break and complained that the women at the meeting weren’t appreciate enough of the awareness campaigns and the good intentions behind them. I told her that this meeting was not about her or trendy breast cancer activism, and that patient’s views should be respected. She hufffed off and quit, because her identity as an “activist” was much more important to her than the actual opinions of actual cancer survivors.

        I also feel this way about current anti-rape activism. Many current anti-rape bloggers are not even survivors themselves, but endlessly blog and twitter about every rape story the media throws out for outrage points (media does not care about the rape victims they exploit, they run those stories for their “hot button” factor).

        The point is, I see a lot of so-called “anti-rape” bloggers who do nothing but fight with people on the internet about news stories, and who consider rape a part of their personal political platform. It is very insulting as a survivor myself to see people who have no experience with sexual assault, using rape victims to fight with their preferred internet opponents (Republicans, MRAs, rape babies in the abortion debates, playing the blame game in college rape stories, etc.)

        I’m not on the side of MRAS or Republicans, but I sure as hell don’t appreciate people using people’s personal tragedies ( like rape), to whine on the internet about how they hate white male politicians or trying to demonize the right-wing. It’s just fucking selfish as hell, and it ignores the fact that sexual assault survivors come from all walks of life – not every rape victim is a leftist, “progressive” college educated feminist who blogs about rape. Elderly people and conservative people get raped too, and I’m fed up with it being used as a political bludgeon by people with too much time on their hands and no godamned respect for anyone but themselves and their “progressive” internet activist buddies.

        It’s pathetic and nowadays when someone says they are “progressive” it means totally self-absorbed and interested in getting “care” points so they can stroke their own egos.


  4. One of your last points that “Sure, in an ideal world, we’d all have the time and energy to research causes to decide which one needs help the most, and then check out the various charities associated with that cause to determine which use their funds most effectively.” is the one that really stuck with me. I admire fundraising efforts like the Project for Awesome which actually take a good look at the charities they are donating money to. It’s sometimes disheartening to scratch beneath the surface but it’s vital if we want to make some progress on these issues. There are websites that vet charities. There are people out there raising concerns about Autism Speaks and documentaries like Pink Ribbons, Inc.


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