This week, the internet is swamped by no-makeup selfies, or, as most men and many women call them, selfies. The good news is they’ve resulted in a spike in donations to breast cancer research. The bad news is actual people with breast cancer find the whole trend incredibly insulting.
As Australian journalist and cancer survivor Kim Stephens wrote, “washing off your foundation, losing the mascara and posting a photo of a face that remains healthy and attractive is not brave. It is self-indulgent and offensive in the extreme to those you are professing to support.” Stephens went on to recount how traumatic it was to watch as chemo wreaked hell on her body, and particularly on her face, and argued that if the extra donations have come “at the cost of making the most hellish time in the lives of women enduring chemotherapy harder than it already is, it has no virtue whatsoever.”
I’m largely inclined to agree with Stephens; I don’t think the makeup-free selfie for cancer awareness makes much more sense than the recent social media trends of posting your bra color in your status update for cancer awareness, or posting things like “I like it on the floor” or “I like it under the table” which sound like sex but are actually about your handbag for cancer awareness. I can see how, to a person who is actually suffering from or recovering from cancer, or caring for a loved one who is, that all looks like a steaming pile of pointless bullshit.
But I do want to question the notion that there’s nothing at all “brave” about posting a makeup-free selfie. I think that a woman battling cancer and a woman posting a no-makeup selfie are both brave in the sense that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and I both have biceps: there is a spectrum here, and between these two things, there is quite a long stretch of spectrum indeed. I don’t for a moment want to question how utterly disorienting, upsetting, and corrosive to one’s sense of self it must be to have your appearance transformed by illness and by the treatment that you hope will cure that illness. But in a culture that so often tells women that their faces aren’t socially acceptable or pleasant to look at until they’ve had several layers of expensive goo slathered onto them, a culture that equates wearing said goo with “taking care of yourself” and “making an effort,” and that accordingly expects women to expend a good deal of time and energy buying and applying the goo, I think that there is something if not brave, then at least subversive, about putting your naked face out in public for all to see. (And yes, as you can probably tell from my picture on this very website, I myself wear goo, because despite being a feminist, I am still a woman living in patriarchy, and that’s how patriarchy works: it breeds and rewards collusion. Which is why me and all my feminist friends are so excited about smashing it to teeny tiny pieces).
That’s certainly the idea behind the Barefaced and Beautiful campaign, a new initiative from the Renfrew Center, which has long been associated with eating disorder treatment. Each year, to coincide with Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Renfrew encourages women to eschew makeup for a day, or post a no makeup selfie on social media, “to start a dialogue about healthy body image and inner-beauty.” Last year, MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry got in on the action and took her makeup off on live TV, saying that makeup “shields our authentic selves, full of perceived imperfections, from a world that judges women harshly and repeatedly on how we look, rather than what we think, how we contribute, or who we are.”
In such a world, going without makeup isn’t an act of bravery on par with battling cancer, but it takes guts nonetheless. Being considered ugly, as Stephens discovered, can do terrible things to your sense of self. Recalling how, during treatment, she stopped looking at herself in the mirror, Stephens writes that she started avoiding the mirror “mainly because my reflection returned the undeniable reality that I was critically, dangerously sick. That I could very well die.” But, she says, she also stopped looking “because, by conventional standards, I was ugly. There was no escaping it.” Stephens writes that she found the experience of being this particular kind of “ugly” incredibly upsetting. “On bad days, it made me fall to the floor and cry.”
To get a sense of how integral we consider makeup to be to making a woman presentable, you only have to look at the masculine rejoinder to the no makeup selfie trend: cock in a sock, which is exactly what it sounds like. Unable to make a statement by taking off their makeup, since they aren’t expected to wear any (or indeed, socially permitted to wear any), men took off all their clothes, put tube socks over their penises, took photos of themselves, and posted them on the internet.
Now, I love a nice cock in a sock as much as the next straight lady, and some of these dudes are a whole lot of fun to look at, but that’s not really the point here (so you can keep reading, Mom and Dad). These dudes are wearing no clothes. The women are clothed but wearing no makeup. The fact that we deem these things equivalent — that the only way to make a man as naked as a woman who’s wearing no makeup is to strip him down to nothing but a tube sock — suggests that makeup, for a lot of women, is simply part of being clothed. You are naked without it.
No makeup selfies aren’t brave compared to battling cancer — few things in life are. And though don’t seem to have anything to do with cancer, which makes putting them side by side, as if they’re comparable, deeply problematic. But no makeup selfies have the potential to be, subversive. As it stands, the no makeup selfie trend and the barefaced beauty campaigns are still far too much about affirming that the women in question are physically beautiful (yes, even without makeup!) for my liking. But rejecting conventional standards of beauty, or having your body rebel and revolt so that you no longer even come close to meeting those standards, can be a political act of sorts. And a political act, even if it’s a little one, always demands courage.