Confronting Cancer: A Critique of the "No Make Up Selfie" Craze

By Kirsty Bailey (Editor) 

The #nomakeupselfie ‘trend’ that occupied our Facebook news feed for a few weeks in March created a social network phenomenon which in true social ‘trending’ style faded as quickly as it had began. Within a few weeks the craze died down, people forgot, became indifferent, and progressed onto the next social network ‘trend’. The temporality of the craze itself was insulting, as was the general concept of the nomakeupselfie.

For those of you unaware, the nomakeupselfie was a movement where people took ‘selfies’ of themselves with no make up, posted it on Facebook and donated money to cancer research, ‘nominating’ their friends to do the same.

The nomakeupselfie campaign cannot be confused with a cancer awareness campaign. It was a good way of raising money, I am not disputing this, but it should not be clouded with the concept of cancer awareness. As Paul Rudd, assistant director of Nursing at Blackpool Teaching hospitals stated, Cancer needs to be put “at the forefront of people’s minds – to add as a reminder that we have to take responsibility for our own health”[1]. Awareness of cancer needs to be addressed and acts such as the nomakeupselfie, I felt not only belittled the concept of cancer, but distracted from the reality of the disease. There are over 200 different types of cancer[2] most of which there is no explanation or reason for, and no complete cure. Life can be extended, prolonged, but the reality of being ‘cured’ from cancer is unfortunately extremely unlikely, especially the later it is identified and diagnosed. This is the reality of the disease; awareness with statistics and facts need to be raised, as the actuality of cancer is harsh. Each year nearly 300,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with cancer[3] and it is estimated that more than 1 in 3 people will develop the disease at some point in their lifetime[4].

People need to comprehend the severity of the control that cancer still has over the human population. Within this era of ‘medicalization’ and ‘biotechnology’, we tend to forget that there are still diseases we cannot cure. As Ivan Illich a philosopher states, “awe-inspiring medical technology has combined with egalitarian rhetoric to create the impression that contemporary medicine is highly effective”[5]. We have become apathetic to diagnostic technology, expecting miracles to heal and fix us. The reality is that we still do not really understand what causes cancer, and there is still no absolute antidote, we are powerless to its lack of mercy. Medicine does not have a miracle cure for this disease, and awareness and understanding of this needs to be highlighted. Without awareness we will never manage to confront it, we will never be able to face it head on. Hiding behind a nomakeupselfie masks its severity and gravity. Agreed that the more money that is raised for research to cure this disease is beneficial, but it fundamentally needs to be understood what the reality of cancer is, and something as temporary and impersonal such as the nomakeupselfie disconnects this.

When you are diagnosed with the disease of cancer, an entire illness phenomenon sweeps over you that words can’t really describe. It is like falling off a swing as a child, the air is whipped out of you as you crash to the floor. It is not just the individual that suffers with the illness, it is their friends and family, cancer consumes and engulfs people, both metaphorically and physically.  As Arthur Kleinman a psychiatrist/medical anthropologist states, “disease affects single individuals, even when it attacks a population; but illness most often affects others as well (e.g family, social network, even at times an entire community)[6].

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Chronic illnesses, such as Cancer disrupt plans, performances, meanings and creates an experience described as ‘loss of self’[7]. Makeup is considered extremely important to those of us suffering with cancer and undergoing chemotherapy. It is a part of this ‘self’ which we can reclaim, that the illness and the disease cannot remove. It is a mask that hides the ‘chemotherapy look’; the dark lines under the eyes, the pale complexion and skin that resembles that of a hormonal teenager. It is a protective curtain that enables us to blend into society, helps us feel less self conscious and is a reminder of the days when we did not have this ‘ill’ look about us. It is a part of us that the illness cannot remove, it is something we actually have some control over when we are consumed by a disease that influences and restrains us in so many other ways. Makeup is a sign to yourself that you are feeling better, a sign that you might feel ready to re-join the outside world, to feel ‘normal’ again, an attempt to return to the identity you had before.

Needless to say, I found the #nomakeupselfie exceedingly excluding as a cancer patient. I felt it was a display of everyone who is fit and healthy, an emphasis of how well everyone looked with no make up on. It was insulting, demoralising and frankly hurtful at the display of everyone on Facebook who really thought it was appropriate to isolate those who are sick and ill in this way. I am not suggesting that this was a deliberate act by the majority of those who partook, but the fact that this was not even considered, to me shows how ridiculous these social network ‘crazes’ are. People ‘follow’ these ‘trends’ without due consideration or thought to the act that they are committing, emphasising my point that is was not actually cancer awareness or understanding. Instead of ‘displaying’ how healthy one looked with no make up, and making it a rather egocentric gesture, why not just donate the £3 to Cancer Research. Excluding the isolating and futile act of a nomakeupselfie, the money could still have been donated without this conceited middleman gesture. It as a cause ‘trivialised’ the disease and the illness of cancer, the temporality and the concept was insulting and isolating. Awareness needs to raised, not distracted from, and the severity of cancer needs to be understood. Our lack of control and understanding the disease needs to be fundamentally appreciated by the population.






[5]Ivan Illich, Limits to Medicine - Medical Nemesis: The exploration of Health (London and New York: Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd 2001) pp. 22.

[6] Arthur Kleinman, Patients and Healers in the context of culture: An exploration of the Borderland between Anthropology, Medicine, and Psychiatry (Berkeley: University of California Press 1980) pp. 73.

[7] Charmac 1987 quoted in Visawanathan, H and Lambert, B, ‘An inquiry into medication meanings, illness, medication use, and the transformative potential of chronic illness among African Americans with hypertension’. Research in Social and Administrative Pharmacy 2005: P23.