Slacktivism and Selfies

Over the past week friends posting makeup-free selfies have flooded my Facebook newsfeed. These pictures are all captioned with “Love Yourself Challenge,” the hashtag #nomakeup and a nomination for a few of the person’s friends to follow their lead by posting a picture of themselves without makeup.

I didn’t pay much attention to the trend at first, but this weekend a friend caught my interest when she posted one of these selfies with her hair covering her face and a discussion of “the game” people had been participating in.

First she explained that the makeup-free faces were originally part of a campaign to raise breast cancer awareness. This was the first time I heard of cancer awareness being associated with these pictures—not a single post on my newsfeed had mentioned this link. Even after hearing this, it remains difficult to see any connection between breast cancer awareness and posting makeup-less photos on social media sites.

There’s a term for this kind of campaign: slacktivism. As the name suggests, slacktivism combines slacking and activism and is defined by “feel-good measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it take satisfaction from the feeling they have contributed,” as Wikipedia puts it.

In the case of the selfies, you also get a nice little ego boost when all your friends comment about how beautiful you are and how you don’t need makeup.
This trend might remind you of other breast cancer “awareness campaigns” that came before it, like getting women to post vague Facebook statuses with the colour of their bra and no explanation, and to complete the sentence “I like it…” with where they leave their purse (ex: I like it on the floor).

Over the years I’ve seen breast cancer sexualized through posts about underwear, sexual innuendos and the supposedly cute “I love boobies so let’s save them” taglines. This one may not be sexual, but it’s part of the bigger and more disturbing trend of slacktivism. I don’t know why breast cancer gets taken up so frequently, but I know I can’t be the only one who is tired of it.

Some people respond to the criticism of these campaigns by saying that it’s worth even the limited awareness they bring because they’re not hurting anyone. But aren’t they?

These campaigns are harmful to the causes they claim to help. Slacktivism makes people feel good, it makes them feel like they’ve contributed to something and this feeling prevents a lot of people from doing anything real.

I don’t think anyone is posting these pictures with bad intentions, and I doubt many of the people I saw posting even knew these Love Yourself Challenge selfies were related to breast cancer.

But in addition to the awareness it doesn’t raise, it’s frustrating that this challenge to love ourselves was defined by not wearing makeup. It seems small, but it’s just one more way that women are told that there is a right and wrong way to present themselves.

On the one hand it suggests that we are all always wearing makeup and that not wearing it is so difficult and embarrassing that it’s a challenge. On the other it suggests that it’s a challenge for women who do wear makeup to love themselves without it.

Finally, I think the worst part about this is that it would be very simple to make these posts meaningful. That’s usually the worst part about slacktivism—it’s so damn lazy.

People could provide details on how to do a self-breast exam, how to locate a health professional to get checked, how to donate money to the cause, or even just stats on how many people are affected by this cancer. That would be a really easy way to provide people with information and actions they can take to spread awareness and make a real difference.

Today, another friend posted a selfie for cancer awareness, but this time she tagged it #SelfieThatCounts. She didn’t take off her makeup but she proudly held a receipt for her donation to the Canadian Cancer Society and nominated all her friends to do the same with the cause of their choice.

We don’t all have the funds to make donations, but if you’re planning on posting a selfie and saying that it’s for cancer awareness, please do a quick Google search and offer something useful to go along with it.

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