This week hundreds of thousands of women have posted pictures of themselves with no makeup on the internet, to raise awareness of cancer and raise money for cancer charities. So far over £2million has been donated to Cancer Research UK from people taking part in the campaign. Women have been nominating each other publicly on social media, inviting one another to show they care by taking part, and by nominating other women.
We have read some critiques of the campaign,which claim that women are mindlessly following a trend1, that the campaign is pointless unless women donate to charity2, , and that the late addition of making donations was an “empty gesture”3. But lots of our friends and family have taken part, and we know that, for many women, its been about addressing something which is very real and very painful. Because that’s what cancer is.
We are not writing this to criticise those who have posted selfies. On the contrary. Instead, we want to ask how we could all harness these feelings to do something that actually, really, might help.
Nevertheless, we won’t be posting no makeup selfies to support the cause of cancer. And we want to explain why.
1) To make up or not to make up.
In the first place, as has been pointed by Sali Hughes in the Guardian,4 there is something pretty wrong with assuming that we should all be wearing make up as a matter of course, and that the we are vulnerable/naked/brave for appearing in public without it! Most of our existing FB photos are “no make up”, so the whole thing becomes a bit meaningless.
Meanwhile, lots of women actually don’t want to be seen in public without make up on. And why should they? All any of us can do, in this jungle of patriarchal media, where women face constant assaults on our self esteem, is find the way to be that makes us feel the most okay. And if that is wearing make up, or if it is not wearing make up, then PLEASE let us make that decision for ourselves! It is our face after all. We have seen comments on women’s selflies, challenging them that they ARE wearing eyeliner, and are cheating! FFS. Seriously? The girl police are out again.
Women’s choice about how to look, or about whether they want their face posted on the internet, is absolutely nothing to do with whether they care about cancer. And this campaign is yet another pressure on women to do something, or not do something, to our bodies, just to be accepted as normal.
2) Is cancer a women’s issue?
As well as putting pressure on women to change how we look, the campaign also makes cancer, especially breast cancer, a women’s problem. Cancer happens in private, in the home, in care settings, and as such, it is our job, as women, to sort it out. If we would only stop worrying about silly trivial things like make up, and focus on the important women’s work of saving the human race through the power of our compassion alone, cancer would be gone already. If we can just show we care enough about our sisters, mothers, children, parents, partners, brothers, then surely we can overcome this? (Guess what – we can’t. It’s gonna take a lot more than showing how much we care to tackle this one.)
The selfie surge has really shown how much we are gendering different types of cancer too, and it is a bit scary. The trend started with a focus on breast cancer, with the hash tag #breastcancerawareness. It was a “women’s campaign”, about a “women’s cancer”. Despite the issues we are raising here, is great to see that so many people want to do something to highlight the breast cancer epidemic.
However, we are saddened by the response from Prostate Cancer UK, encouraging men to #manupandmakeup to fight prostate cancer. Not only is this kind of offensive, as it takes the piss out of women, but wouldn’t it have been great if men could publicly care about breast cancer too? The split between men and women supporting different cancers forges a weird battle over whose cancer is more important. Do men or women deserve more research funding? Do men or women deserve more investment in treatments? Whose lives matter most – men’s or women’s? In a world where masculinity rules supreme, this is really not a road we want to go down.
3) We don’t need any more awareness!
Hashtags have shifted now from #breastcancerawareness to just #cancerawareness. Either way, is all this awareness raising something we really need? In the UK more than one in three of us will develop cancer during our lives, and more than one in four will die of it. As women, our risk of developing cancer has increased 43% since the 1970s. (Men’s has increased by 23%, though men are still more likely to develop cancer than women). According to Cancer Research UK, “Cancer is the number one fear for the British public, feared ahead of debt, knife crime, Alzheimer’s disease and losing a job”5. We are aware of cancer. We don’t need social media campaigns, how ever well meaning, to remind us of it.
The origins of breast cancer “awareness raising” campaigns lie in pushing a message that early detection saves lives. But the reliability of early detection as a means of protection against breast cancer is highly contested, and there are many types of cancer, including metastatic breast cancer, from which no amount of awareness can protect you.
3) Is it all about the money?
The selfie campaign has been enormously successful in generating donations to cancer charities, particularly Cancer Research UK. Yet the biggest criticism it seems to be that some women have taken part without making a donation to charity. In a disappointingly narrow and patronising piece in Wednesday’s Independent, Yomi Adegoke argued that women should just make a donation to a cancer charity, rather than post a picture. We think this really misses the point for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, where does all the money go? We haven’t (yet!) done a lot of research into the way Cancer Research UK spends its money, so we can’t comment specifically on its usefulness. However, we do have questions about the cancer industry overall, and its effectiveness at protecting us from cancer. Despite the hundreds of millions of pounds raised each year the UK alone, cancer rates are still on the increase. Beyond individual lifestyle factors, we still don’t understand much about what causes different cancers. For example, 50-70% women who are diagnosed with breast cancer have no known risk factors (excluding age and gender). Meanwhile, as Rachel Cheetham Moro explained in her blog Cancer Culture Chronicles, “metastatic disease accounts for 90% of breast cancer mortality, but receives less than 5% of global cancer research funds”.
Secondly, is it really all we can come up with, as feminists, to pass judgement over one another according to whether we have donated ‘enough’ to charity?! Do we really think that having something to say about cancer is only acceptable if you have disposable income? We are living through a breast cancer epidemic. We are going to need to have much more imagination than this if we are going to tackle it.
We are very good, internationally, at raising money for cancer charities. We are not so good at preventing cancer, or treating aggressive cancers. Certainly in breast cancer’s case (but we suspect many other cancers too), we need to do a whole lot more than just keep donating if we want to stop it from killing us.
4) So if we are not going to post a selfie, what shall we do instead?
The #nomakeupselfie campaign has been so successful because cancer is a universal issue, and one that people really care about. We want to learn a lot more about it, and can’t write here everything we think needs to be done to address it. We will write more blog posts with more ideas and information.
For now though, these are some initial ideas of things to do if you want to “beat cancer”.
1) Fight fracking. Fracking contaminates water with carcinogens and endocrine disruptors, exposure to which cause cancer. Read Breast Cancer Action’s briefing on Breast Cancer and Fracking. Then find your local anti-fracking group and get involved.
2) Defend the NHS. We all need to be able to rely on high quality health care, funded through taxation, so that we can receive the treatment we need if and when we need it.
3) Fight cuts to welfare and benefits. People with cancer need to take care of themselves, eat well, and not be in poverty. People with cancer should not be forced back into work when they are not well enough to be there, or face benefit cuts if there is no work available that is suitable.
4) Resist “pinkwashing”. This is companies profiteering by selling pink ribbon products, without doing anything effective to tackle cancer. It is also selling products which claim to help fight cancer, but actually contain carcinogens and/or endocrine disruptors.
5) If you want to donate to a cancer charity, do your research. Where does the money go? Does it go into finding out what causes cancer, and how to prevent it? Does it go into researching treatments for aggressive cancers that we are a long way from finding a cure for? Does it go into supporting people who have cancer and their families? Or is it used to fund drug research that is profitable for drug companies but doesn’t go far to change things for people with cancer? Or to “raise awareness” of cancer without actually taking steps to stop it? If you are unsure about which charity to donate to, consider a grassroots local organisation that provides services for people with cancer, such as a hospice or support group.
1. Adegoke, Y. (2014) “The ‘no makeup selfie’ craze seems like narcissism masked as charity. Why not donate instead?” in The Independent, 19th March 2014 ↩
2. Moir, S. (2014) “The #nomakeupselfie campaign: Are people missing the point?” in Yahoo Lifestyle 20th March 2014 ↩
3. Hughes, S. (2014) “No-makeup selfies on Facebook won’t beat cancer alone” in The Guardian21st March 2014 ↩
4. Hughes, S. (2014) “No-makeup selfies on Facebook won’t beat cancer alone” in The Guardian21st March 2014 ↩
5.All from Cancer Research UK Key Facts http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/cancer-info/cancerstats/keyfacts/Allcancerscombined/#How,accessed on 23rd March 2014 ↩