The Vagenda

Why I Don’t Need A #nomakeupselfie



Above: Lady Gaga’s #nomakeupselfie

Don’t get me wrong – I am well aware that there are bigger things to worry about than whether some people want to post up a picture of themselves without make-up and donate to a cancer charity. In the scheme of global injustices, it ranks pretty low. But, as my Facebook (bareFacebook? no? ok…) feed has been increasingly swarming with #nomakeupselfies, couched in the stiff-upper-lipped-ness followed by an out-pouring of repressed emotion I normally associate with Blitz dramas – “no excuses! we’ve just got to get on with it! But darling – you’re beautiful! I never realised!” – I’ve felt more and more uncomfortable with the whole campaign.

It seems impossible to criticise this campaign without facing a barrage of “WELL IT’S RAISED A LOT OF MONEY FOR CANCER SO IT’S ABSOLUTELY A GOOD THING.” I am not in the pro-tumour brigade, just to make that clear. I will not be suggesting a “ciggieselfie” campaign whereby everyone can take a photo of them pouting with a fag, text a number, and money will go to fund the efforts of tobacco companies to get kids in the third world addicted to nicotine. But, I do have a right to think whether or not I will participate in the means that lead to the money-raising ends. If people do, then that’s fine – it’s their decision. But I don’t want to participate in this one, nor do I feel that other people should be pressured into. Here’s why.

The debate around the nature of this campaign seems to revolve around two opposing arguments. Firstly, does this perpetuate the idea that going without make-up, and showing your horrible bare face, is a terribly brave and frightening thing to do, requiring oodles of courage – just like the bravery shown by those fighting cancer? Or, does it empower women, allowing them to realise that slap-free faces are pretty normal and that they are *KLAXON* not actually disgusting to everyone else around them. So it seems like you can either complain on these grounds: that equating the “bravery” of going without make-up to that of someone going through cancer treatment is wildly offensive, or you can defend the campaign on the grounds that it’s created a groundswell of more naturalistic images of women, and raised some money in the process.

But to me, this dichotomy doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. Courage is entirely subjective: for some women, going make-up free is probably terrifying, and props to them if this whole exercise makes them a bit more comfortable in their own skin. The real issue with this campaign is that it does nothing to shift the parameters of the relentless focus and scrutiny of women’s appearances: it simply shifts the goalposts in another direction.

The introduction of the nomakeupselfie seems to bring into play a whole other set of aesthetic ideals for us to live up to. I don’t know about you, but the nomakeupselfies I’ve seen have felt rigorously controlled and artificial. Hair perfectly blow-dried, skin dewy, posed in a flattering, over-exposed light, with the wide-eyed selfie taker exhibiting a blandly noble half-smile, or solemn pout. It strikes me that, even though these are called selfies, there’s very little “self” in them. They just feel like tightly controlled single images, fleeting shadows of the platonic nomakeupselfie ideal, which is something akin to a peach with false eyelashes, and thus the whole exercise becomes a carefully orchestrated performance of “being natural”.

And here’s what really irks me about it: I am not going to be pressured into looking any particular way, by anyone, even if it’s for charidee. If I was being asked to get my tits out to tackle, say, the extinction of whales, I would refuse (probably. They are majestic – and so are the whales). It’s my right to do what I want with my face and my body, and I won’t be pressured into presenting any particular image of it – even if it’s ultimately for an undeniably good cause. We should diminish the scrutiny of whether a woman is or isn’t wearing make-up, and the significance of whether or not a woman chooses to do so. The women I know are starting businesses, raising babies, dealing with physical and mental illness, being posted overseas, making films, helping loved ones through tough times, writing books, being promoted, meeting people, breaking up, moving abroad, buying houses, studying, running marathons, getting drunk, getting their shit together, falling apart, starting again, and loads more besides. And I really, really don’t care whether they’re doing all of the above in full make-up, bare-faced, or saying that they’re not wearing any when in fact they’ve got a dab of concealer on and a bit of blusher. I don’t give a shit. It’s entirely their choice. And, no one else should care – the focus should be on what we are doing and who we are being, not on how we look with or without a swipe of bronzer.

So, even though I totally agree with raising money for this cause, I’m not joining in with a campaign that insidiously increases the scrutiny of our faces. Of course I think that a society in which women are more comfortable going without make-up, and in which we have more diverse images of women available than those which are groomed and airbrushed to within an inch of their lives, is a good thing. But I’m not sure that turning the unpainted face into a piece of social media performance is getting us any closer to this goal. And anyway, I want to sit in a bathtub of baked beans when I raise money for charity. The colour really suits my skin-tone.


28 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Need A #nomakeupselfie

  1. I agree with a lot of the criticism here, but the original idea of the trend was that in the time it takes you to put your make-up you could check your breasts (or testes), so it wasn’t about comparing the ‘courage’ of bare faced photos with that of people living with cancer.

  2. I think that while it shouldn’t be considered a brave thing to do to post a selfie without makeup, in a superficial society that’s most critical of women’s looks in particular, the more women out there showing off their naked faces the better. It normalises what should already be normal. It might even make someone realise that the entire idea that they don’t look good without makeup is a myth created by a patriarchal society (and the Daily Mail) to make us insecure, shy and ashamed, :)x

  3. THANK YOU! Finally someone has been able to eloquently voice my feelings on this subject. Every time I question this trend I get ‘BUT IT’S RAISED SO MUCH MANY HOW CAN YOU NOT AGREE WITH DONATING TO CHARITY’ and it frustrates me that a) it’s taken a narcissistic screen-based trend to actually cause so many great donations, which says a great deal about our generation, b) people feel the need to broadcast the fact that they donate to charity like ‘look at me aren’t I a good person’ and c) it almost belittles all the other impressive fundraisers people do for charity like Race For Life & baked bean baths such as the author describes.

  4. Balls, this was meant to be on the comment above. If anyone is moderating this, please delete the above comment and i’ll move it. Cheers.

  5. I have to say I completely agree with this post. Unlike what a few have said on twitter our views don’t conflict, they simply offer a look at two different aspects – you dealing with women and how they are perceived etc (for want of better words) and myself on how actually this #nomakeupselfie is a challenge to society to stop Cancer being a subject that is taboo and more so to get more people across the world to check themselves. Cancer found earlier is better than found to late.

    Article i wrote today is over at


  6. First of all – YES, thank you, someone gets it.
    But it seems to me that the problem here isn’t really the no-make-up aspect of these selfies; it’s the selfie itself. I kept hoping this great article would get there, but it never really did. Selfies are almost entirely artificial, posed glam shots who’s only purpose is to shout, “Look at how I conform to beauty standards!” Which sucks. I occasionally see great, goofy and/or utterly beautiful self-taken photographs of women in my life who don’t always conform to the mainstream concept of beauty, but for the most part Facebook is chock full of women/people posing in the same way in order to look exactly the same. I think a no-make-up selfie campaign like this one just reaffirms that there is one way to be pretty, and unless you pout and look coyly at the camera, you’re doing it wrong.
    Thanks for another on-point article, Vagenda!

  7. What bothers me the most about it, is that before a lot of the women post their photos, they caption it with ‘Sorry, hope this doesn’t scare anyone!’
    I think it’s awful that this is how women feel they should act when posting a natural photo of themselves! Don’t apologise for looking like yourself!

  8. I think the problem with this response is that it relates feminism and perception to strongly with the intention of the campaign. The way I see it: the trend started with the ‘no make up selfie’ which I can see is problematic, link established with ‘bravery’ and cancer ect, again I can see how this is offensive, but THEN cancer research make it practical and tell people how to easily donate = so something which is arguably a bad reflection on society becomes a positive force productive in raising 8million pounds. What I think would have been ultimately depressing is if it had gone viral with no productive outcome. At least vanity is now raising money for charity

  9. It’s a great point, but make-up = more attractive? My point is not that women should still feel proud of themselves un-polished, but that women often look more attractive skin blemishes n all. I had never considered Lady Gaga remotely attractive until I saw her photo at the top of your blog. Likewise for several friends.

    (By a fully media-indoctrinated man who doesn’t wear sandals or love yurts.)

  10. Thank you for making the point that I for one was too scared to make, lest I was torn down, once again, for my (obviously quite offensive) feminist thoughts…

  11. I think basically we can expose the issue here by asking the question Caitlin Moran asks: “Are the men doing it?”

  12. Exactly how I feel. I had been afraid to admit feeling uncomfortable about it but another friend expressed her views and we both felt the same. Something so inherently wrong with the whole thing. Thanks for posting this! Faith in humanity restored.

  13. I thought this article was great…I was unaware that originally the idea behind the campaign was that it takes the same amount of time to check for cancer as it does to put your make up on, so it makes more sense.
    However, this idea in itself does not mean that it can be excluded from various criticisms.Something which has been so hugely successful in raising this amount of money and awareness is bound to be looked at and assessed and I think it is absolutely necessary to continue to do so. It doesn’t remotely undermine people giving to charity, but instead adds to the moving field of debate about women’s self image.
    There are things which I think are great about this campaign, but it is also interesting to get a feel for how women feel individually doing it (aside from the giving to charity factor)…at it’s best for someone it could be freeing and empowering, but at it’s worse I worry that as the writer says it just moves the goalposts, and making it a nomination based idea just means that it comes along with added expectation and social pressure, something I think women could do without any more of.

  14. I ranted about this on Facebook and I think that what may be grating me most is the strong suggestion of the frivolity of women. The most painful everyday thing we can sacrifice is our uniform habit of putting on make up? a) Like that’s the only daily activity every woman shares with one another and b) that its one of the most profound in our day, and thus to sacrifice. I think women can be called upon to offer more than this in our joint battle against cancer…

  15. As a blerk making some very similar observations in his own blog (insert self-promoting and in one context highly hypocritical link here: I was perhaps putting myself out on a limb too far… ‘Snide’ was one of the nicer comments I got on my Facebook page :D
    Funny coincidence with the baked bean/bath references – just shows how closely that particular image is associated with ‘charity wanking’, I guess!

  16. I’d be more inclined to consider your point, if the campaign created the no make up selfie. It didn’t. It’s been around for ages. This is probably now where you begin scrutinising Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, because THATS’ where it originated. I think to criticise the campaign is a farce in itself. Those who want to do it, will do it. Those who don’t, won’t. There’s no pressure involved. There are no rules or regulations. If we’re talking about SOCIAL pressures, that’s a whole different story, and nothing to do with the campaign itself. They just used something that was already popular to raise money for something important.

  17. Yay! I have been checking vagenda repeatedly for your opinion on this and finally, it has landed. I concur with all the above, and tried so hard to relay similar sentiments to some people. Here is what happened:

    I had a lamentable debate with a silly man on facebook who had put as his status something along the lines of (he has since deleted it- one can only hope, out of shame – so I can’t repeat word-for-word): ‘feeling nauseous -green smiley-since when did these delightful photos cure cancer?’. Another of his mates responded ‘why don’t they just donate a month’s worth of their make up costs to cancer research?’ Whatalad.

    Where to begin? I responded that both this and that other campaign with the knickers – the one where women just wrote the colour of their knickers on facebook, wtf, to raise awareness appaz- was bloody annoying. But I called them on their misogyny, disguised as a sudden concern for the efficacy of cancer campaigns. I called them on the their contradictory dictats to women: ‘belurgh, put some slap on, you’re making me feel nauseous..but stop spending so much money on make- up, you vain, self absorbed bimbos!’ Etc.Etc.Etc.

    Guess what I got in response: from the mate: ‘I don’t think anyone is denying that [name of offensive male] is a misogynist’. Offensive male: ‘not even me.’ Great, now it is a lad credential to be an out-and-proud misogynist. I should mention that this offensive male is a colleague of mine, we are doctors. Medical doctors. He treats women.

  18. Thank you for writing this article! It is SPOT ON.
    I personally love to wear makeup, but as the writer says, why should we give a shit if other women chose to wear it or not, there are way more important things going in our lives. Enough with the narcissistic nonsense!

  19. After trawling through feminist blog after feminist blog I have finally come across this article. Completely agree.

  20. Like many others, I have felt alone in my sense of discomfort around this campaign. I think the article highlights a number of really salient points.

    I think my major sense of unease is that there is such a huge disconnect between the constructed vanity and narcissistic worthiness of the action and the ultimate outcome.

    It comes down to a moral debate around whether the end justifies the means for me. And whilst I can see the value of the end objective, it’s a sad indictment of society more generally that what seems to be a self interested and somewhat conceited action becomes a badge of honour for goodness and kindness.

    Having recently supported someone through cancer treatment I am saddened that we can’t find more other-directed creative mechanisms for raising awareness and support.

    I wouldn’t judge those who have participated, but neither will I be made to feel inadequate because I choose not to engage with this particular act.

    Women face enough ostracisation and pressure as it is. This is just another example of how that mentality can be turned inwards and divide women at a time when we should be supporting each other.

  21. I’ve never really worn makeup, so didn’t do the selfie as it didn’t really mean anything coming from me. What I did consider doing, but bottled on, was doing a Made-Up-Selfie. A photo of me, in full makeup, posted on Facebook for all to see. That is truly terrifying to me.

    It’s hard to explain, but I get a kind of disassociation when I see myself too altered. When I was thirteen I was a friend’s bridesmaid and had my hair curled and pinned up. I went to use the loo, saw myself in the mirror and burst into tears. Not because what I saw was bad, but just because it wasn’t MY face.

    As a teen was cajoled into having a makeover at a party, and I’m sure the makeup artist did a great job, but I couldn’t wait to have the stuff off. I dislike face paint in a similar way, although at least that’s more obviously meant to be a costume.

    Now I’m 26, and my housemate had me try on her longline corset when we were going through her wardrobe. I did, and was completely confused by my appearance. I had no idea what I was looking at, no frame of reference for whether this was good or bad or what.
    I’ll put on a bare minimum of makeup for weddings and posh parties (tinted moisturiser if I’m having a blotchy day, neutral eye shadow and mascara. Done.) but as soon as it starts to obscure or alter my features too much I freak out.