Vanessa Chevukwa Mukhebi and Clare Angel-Auld are on a mission to uncover the way in which sexism and discrimination can be conveniently hidden behind the guise of a ‘good cause’.

It’s no surprise to see a ‘selfie’ or five when scrolling through your newsfeed on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. However, the latest selfie trend has sparked a surprising amount of controversy, cynicism and debate. In recent months ‘au naturel’ faces of women across Australia and the UK have sought to counteract perceptions of the selfie with fresh-faced photos in the name of breast cancer awareness.

The #nomakeupselfie first emerged in the UK as an un-officiated move by individuals hoping to stand in alliance with breast cancer patients and survivors by demonstrating that the illness does not compromise their beauty in the eyes of society. While it has since surpassed £8 million for Cancer Research UK through text donations, many individuals took to social media lamenting that countless, if not most people had taken the time out for the selfie, but not the donation. It is worth asking ourselves whether these arguments around accuracy and also narcissism are warranted, and where we draw the line for the good of a campaign or cause.

Expert in behavioural psychology, Amanda Lacy says there is an aspect of self-gratification in these behaviours, but the campaign has a genuine, emotional reach. “They want to support the sisterhood.” She says there is a legitimate link between the concepts of no make-up and breast cancer. “Breast cancer is close to most women’s hearts, it touches the very essence of image and I think how this correlates to no make-up is quite a profound synergy in many ways.” 

 It is worth considering, though, that the ‘raw’ and ‘exposed’ image participants seek to emulate may not be a true symbol of solidarity with the experience of the illness. While both the true effects of cancer on women’s bodies and wearing no make-up are not in compliance with the archetype of femininity, one is clearly more debilitating than the other.

Kim Stephens, journalist and breast cancer survivor wrote in the Brisbane Times that “By putting down their lip gloss, snapping a picture of their healthy faces and blithely professing their bravery for posting it publicly, women everywhere are indirectly saying ‘this is me at my least attractive’… to a woman at the height of a chemotherapy regime who barely recognizes the reflection that greets her in the mirror, these images are not unattractive at all.”

The utilization of the selfie also sets a dangerous precedent to some. “It’s possible that [the campaign] is perpetuating the binary of make-up as a negative and no make-up as a pure state of being” says Zsuzsanna Ihar, an Arts and Science student at Sydney Uni. The appearance of articles such as ‘How to take the perfect no make-up selfie for cancer awareness’ in UK online magazine sofeminine, may further indicate that ‘the ideal image’ has overtaken the breast cancer message. Dr. Heidi Hilton, a researcher in cell biology and breast cancer prevention at Westmead Hospital agrees that despite its widespread significance, the message could have been lost. “The campaign didn’t really hit the mark for me.”

But Anna Phillips, who partook in the selfie campaign and has been affected by the disease says the criticism surrounding the no make-up selfie campaign is largely unfounded. “I might look at some people and think ‘why are they so narcissistic?’ but it is problematic for me to think that because why should it matter if people post pictures of their face? It’s self-expression. If they are feeling comfortable, are really happy in their appearance and they want to share that, then I don’t think we should be cutting people down.”

She also questions the voices of many commenting from behind computer screens. “No one can speak for every single person who has had to fight cancer. As someone who grew up with it, I found it unsettling for someone to tell me that something was or wasn’t working… and I question whether or not those people have lived through experiences of breast cancer, whether they really understand what is best.”

Phillips says the selfies are simply about acknowledging that breast cancer is also an appearance-based issue. “This deadly illness creeps into all aspects of your everyday life. You start to lose your hair – you may have to get a wig. It’s such a confrontational thing because of how it constructs femininity and what it means to be a woman.”

The question of whether the selfies are to be deemed a violation of those who experience the cancer, or a liberating endeavor for collective understanding must also be accompanied by questions of the campaign’s overall success.

Thomas Owens, a postdoctoral research associate specializing in breast cancer at Sydney Uni says the campaign is a huge achievement for researchers and anyone affected by breast cancer. “There have been lots of different campaigns over the years and they all have some sort of impact, they are all reaching a certain group of people. The more variety of campaigns, the more variety of people that we can reach.” He suggests the narcissism-altruism debate does not matter because it provides much needed support for researchers and those with the illness. “From my perspective as a researcher I feel very strongly that research is needed in order to improve treatments and cures for the future, and for research, we need funding.”

Dr. Hilton says it’s also about success in terms of awareness and prevention, that the campaign actually encourages women to do self-checks and get mammograms. Breast cancer survivor, Anne Migheli participated in the Facebook campaign after being ‘nominated’ by friends. “I think the fact that it raised awareness is great. For a long time if I had listened to my body I may have discovered it sooner as apparently I had had it a long time… Many mothers I know are so busy looking after everybody else they don’t check or worry about their health.” She credits the use of social media as a way of reaching audiences with these messages. “Through Facebook, I hear of breakthroughs, current research and what’s happening in breast cancer survivor groups. The more we talk about this and other cancers the more we can help one another.”

Perhaps the most interesting question is what the campaign reveals about society. It may simply be a contextual shift in the nature of technology and consumption. But it may also be that our behaviour, our needs and our motives are evolving.

Lacy believes that “people have a hunger to connect with others, to be heard and to be seen. We are social beings and are wired to connect. The internet and social media are new forms of being able to do that.”

“[It is pleasing] to see so much energy, enthusiasm and debate taking place, and the acceptance of women whether one, two or none breasted increasing… I think we will see more campaigns like this about a vast range of topics and causes, simply because social media is made for this.”