About 48 hours ago, a number of self-portraits appeared on my Facebook feed. Each was of a woman ostensibly wearing no makeup, with the hashtag #beatcancer (not breast cancer, not ovarian or prostate or bone or lymph – just “cancer”). Nothing else. Simply a selfie, a slogan and a call to arms, imploring other women to do the same.
I was perplexed as to how a seemingly incongruous gesture could influence the fight against cancer in any way. I checked the Cancer Research UK website, and the charity was apparently uninvolved and at that point seemingly unaware of yet another hollow Facebook meme with as much relevance as “like this post if you believe child abuse / animal cruelty / rape is a bad thing”. As the morning wore on hundreds more makeup-free selfies appeared. One example of such a post: “Here’s my no makeup selfie for cancer! It’s a rare thing to see me without makeup but so important for so many people! #beatcancer.”
As social media feeds filled up with these posts, I became increasingly irritated, but a quick search showed I was far from alone. Women (and men) had begun posting screengrabs of their donations to Cancer Research, minus the photographs that had kickstarted the viral fundraising, often with disparaging comments about the initial drive. Cancer Research UK, realising that something big was taking place, hijacked the meme and began posting details on how to actually do something to help.
Today the charity announced it has had donations of more than £2m in 48 hours and the “makeup-free selfie” brigade have claimed a huge victory in the fight against cancer. While it arguably is – a fortune has been raised that may not otherwise have been – did the outcome justify the means?
Like many others, I had several problems with the organic campaign. Firstly, as with a lot of social networking campaigns, it asked for no useful contribution, no meaningful action, just a sort of lazy, armchair reaction that makes us feel good about ourselves. It implied that the most useful way a woman (there was no suggestion that men should do anything at all) could contribute to the solving of a huge problem, was to take off their makeup and have their appearance scrutinised en masse, as though this was some incredibly meaningful sacrifice. The same was asked of women during Children In Need’s BearFaced campaign.
Most women I know, myself included, are seen without makeup an awful lot. To imply mascara and lipstick are like oxygen to women, as though anyone who wears makeup has no sense of perspective nor awareness as to what else might be going on in the world, nor any capacity for charity, is reductive, patronising and just plain stupid.
The original campaign also took a universal, gender non-specific issue and turned it into a “women’s issue” by making it all about surface, vanity and emotion rather than about useful, practical action. No need to bake cakes for Macmillan, no use entering a marathon or simply setting up a direct debit (and yes, like many women, I have done all three) – just show your friends how great your skin looks without foundation. Only when those who disagreed with it showed their dissent by donating money, did it have any positive outcome.
There is, of course, another question about the vanity of those taking part. It was hours before the selfie mob questioned what they had actually taken part in beyond a mass exercise in narcissism greeted by adoring comments saying “you still look hot hun”. While I’m in no position to understand the genuine motives of thousands of women (Facebook memes do have a habit of indirectly bullying people into appearing worthy), the effect of such mass and glib support was not greeted with enthusiasm by all those more directly affected by cancer. One friend, in recovery from bone cancer, posted sarcastically: “Wow, you guys look just as sh*t as I did when I had cancer! It’s the SAME! #sobrave”. Another pointed out that makeup and the ability to make herself “look well” was hugely important to her while she was undergoing chemotherapy.
I’m glad that something good came out of this, but disappointed that such meaningless social networking campaigns have been vindicated in the process. Surely the floodgates are now wide open for more reductive, sexist, self-congratulatory campaigns for ominous gain.