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).
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.
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.