On Tuesday 18th March 2014, as I was scrolling through my Facebook page I noticed several pictures of women posing for “selfies” with no make-up on. On further inspection, I discovered that these selfies were to raise awareness of breast cancer and cancer research, and each person posted their selfie after being “nominated” to do so by one of their friends. About an hour after discovering the Facebook selfies, I was nominated to share my own.

Taking My No Make-Up Selfie

When taking my selfie, I must admit that I took a few attempts and put a bit of thought into which photo I wanted to share. I am aware that this completely goes against the point of the exercise, and I concede that this says far more about me than it does about the selfie project, or even social media as a whole. Nevertheless after 10 minutes or so of careful consideration, I posted a close-up selfie with my hair carefully framing my face and acting as a sort of shield- i.e. just enough to show that I wasn’t wearing make-up but not so much that I would scare my Facebook friends and lead them to the “unfriend” button. Again, I fully acknowledge that this was completely against the aims of the selfie project, but my thought process when it came to taking my selfie proved to be important, and I will return to this later on.

A Negative Response to the No Make Up Selfie

What happened next fascinated me. As my news feed filled up with selfies, there was another kind of post appearing on my feed just as quickly as the selfies had done. These posts related to the selfies but were much more negative in their approach. Protests about what the selfies had to do with cancer in the first place, angry accusations of women sharing their selfies for attention under the disguise of doing some good for a cause, and demands to donate money rather than wasting time taking pictures of themselves. A quick look at what was trending on Twitter presented much the same pattern- an almost 50/50 split between those who were posting their selfies and urging others to get involved, and those who vehemently objected to the selfies, some of whom were vicious in their appraisals of the people who dared to go bare-faced, which seemed to me to be an excuse to practice that most endearing of communication so prevalent on social media: the art of trolling.

So on seeing the outpouring of negativity, and knowing that, by posting my own selfie, I was part of the group of people this was directed at, I was left with some things to think about. My first feeling was anger. How can these “haters” not see that any form of awareness for cancer or any other illness is a positive thing? Where was the harm in posting a few selfies? Were the people who were objecting to the selfies donating to cancer research to illustrate their protest? Or were they simply wasting time, as they had accused the selfie-takers of doing, by voicing their support for a particular view without actually doing something that could help i.e. donating money to the cause.

To Donate or Not to Donate

The subject of donating also left me with some troubling thoughts. The selfies I viewed earlier in the campaign were generally not accompanied by any mentions of whether the person had donated to cancer research or not, but when I woke up the next morning to see even more selfies on my Facebook news feed, I found that a lot more were accompanied with screenshots of “Thank you for your donation” webpages and text messages. This is clearly a good thing, and the increase in awareness obviously led to more people donating to cancer research. However, why was there now so much focus on sharing the fact that we donated money as well as taking our selfies? Was there now a need to justify ourselves, by ensuring that those who were protesting knew that we were doing something good and not simply in pursuit of a few nice comments and some “likes” for our displays of natural beauty?

Jennifer McElroy No Make-Up Selfie

My No Make-Up Selfie

After I had posted my selfie, I did donate to cancer research. I didn’t publish this on my Facebook page, however, because I didn’t want anyone to think I was bragging about doing my bit or looking for any sort of appreciation for donating a few pounds. At this point I couldn’t help but wonder if I was over-thinking the whole exercise, but again that perhaps says more about me than the campaign. I must be entirely honest here and admit that my reasons for donating to cancer research were certainly not ideal. My main motivation for donating wasn’t because cancer research is an important and worthy cause, although this is undoubtedly true. Instead, I donated to prove the haters wrong, to somehow justify my membership of the selfie-taking group by showing that I understood the significance of my selfie and the importance of the cause and that I wasn’t just looking for people to appreciate what I looked like without make-up. Please believe me when I say that this admission fills me with guilt, and I am more than a little bit disappointed in myself.

A Positive Behaviour Motivated by Negative Thoughts

So what does this say about me? What I have essentially done here is a positive thing motivated by negative thoughts i.e. donating to a charity as a result of my anger and frustration at the people who opposed something I had participated in. This was a difficult thing for me to admit to myself. The importance of cancer research should have been enough in itself to prompt me to send my donation text, but this wasn’t my primary motivation. Instead, it was the wave of negativity I had observed that led me to donate. Does this mean I can only be persuaded to do good things when I am trying to prove a point when faced with opposition? By reacting positively to negativity, am I encouraging people to be negative or even nasty or cruel?

Why was I so Angry?

On further reflection perhaps my experience of taking my make-up-free selfie has simply taught me a little bit more about myself. Why did I get so angry about the negativity surrounding the selfies? Why was it my feelings of anger and frustration that prompted me to donate to such an important cause? And why did it take me several attempts to find and post the selfie I deemed to be acceptable when the point of the exercise was to embrace and share our natural beauty in support of a cause that should surely put worries about our physical appearance into perspective? The simple act of posting a selfie has certainly left me with a lot to think about.

I realise that to think about myself in the context of a discussion about cancer seems somewhat self-indulgent. But in line with my original argument that negativity can have a positive impact, essentially I have been given an opportunity to understand myself a bit better following consideration of a subject which to me encompasses one of the most frightening experiences imaginable. Perhaps if more people took the opportunity to think about what kind of person they would like to be, how they would like their loved ones to view them, and how they can make a positive contribution to the world, no matter how small, we wouldn’t feel the need to post negative or nasty comments on our social network pages in the first place.

Increased Awareness and Donations for Cancer Research

Regardless of whether you were a member of “Team Selfie” or “Team Put the Camera Down and Donate Money Instead”, something quite wonderful has happened as a result of the campaign: for a few days at least we have all been talking about cancer. Indeed, reports of increases in donations to Cancer Research UK as a direct result of the campaign are now emerging, despite the charity itself not being responsible for the selfie project. To return to my reasons for donating, perhaps in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t matter why I chose to send my donation text message. The important thing is that I did donate. If I am ever to directly experience cancer, either by having to go through it myself or with someone important to me, I suppose I’m not going to be too concerned about why someone chose to donate to the research that could ultimately save my life or the life of a loved one.

Whether your response to the selfie project has been one of enthusiasm or protest, it has achieved what it set out to do: it has raised awareness of cancer and research. It has also highlighted the power of social media and the good it can do when used to its full potential. Perhaps, as in my case, it has also raised our self-awareness, which I believe to be an entirely positive thing that will benefit each of us. Whatever you choose to take from the make-up-free selfies, it has undoubtedly made us all think. When we think, we discuss, and discussion leads to increased awareness. In raising awareness, we are all contributing. Let’s embrace that.

Written by Jennifer McElroy, The Green Rooms Psychology Assistant