Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Facebook and Cancer Awareness

I don't often deviate from writing about the kids and our Home Edding, but every now and then, I just can't help myself. Today is one of those days - normal service will soon be resumed....

We are in "silly season" again. Once more there is a Facebook "campaign" around cancer awareness. These things are usually specifically referring to breast cancer; I actually have no idea whether that is the case for this particular campaign. Anyway, the idea is to post a "selfie" wearing no make-up.

These "campaigns" drive me a bit nuts. At first glance, I initially thought that at least this one isn't actively offensive to people who have or have had cancer - but it still is, and actually, it's also quite offensive to women in general. More on that later.

The first of these Facebook games was to post the colour of your bra as your Facebook status. This was all orchestrated by private messages, and included a friendly "warning" not to give the game away to men - who obviously don't get breast cancer....oh, wait, they do - at a rate of over 1 per day in this country. Blogger Susan Neibur eloquently posted in 2010 at her pain in seeing these status updates, following her double mastectomy as part of her treatment for breast cancer. Subsequent "games" have included posting how many weeks pregnant you are - equally devastating to those women and men who have sacrificed their fertility in the hope of recovering from cancer. On the face of it, this year's campaign is gentle in comparison - except that for many women struggling with their identity after surgery for cancer, the last time they faced the world without make-up may well have been when they had to scrub their faces clean for life-changing surgery. So, these games are tactless and hurtful to the very people they claim to be raising awareness about.

Surely though, if it raises awareness.....? The trouble is that it doesn't raise awareness. It simply makes people believe they are raising awareness. I entered into a discussion today where someone said that their 17 year old daughter had seen all the selfies on Facebook and asked her how to check her breasts. In other words, none of the pictures purporting to be raising awareness of breast cancer had given this young person any information on how to actually protect herself. 

If it was just useless though, I wouldn't be letting myself get enraged about it - it would just be another silly, harmless Facebook moment, like "filling Facebook with art" or "Which TV character are you?". The problem is that it isn't simply useless - it's actually harmful. Behavioural Economics suggests that when you are rewarded for an action, you are less likely to carry out that action again, unless you are similarly rewarded. In this context, you post your selfie to Facebook. You feel good that you have "raised awareness". You might think that you ought to check yourself when you next have a shower, but you'll probably forget - because you have already been rewarded - by feeling altruistic, and from those lovely positive comments about how great you look with no make-up on. Maybe you even donated £3, if you happened to see someone's status with the text details. All of this adds up to feeling pretty good about yourself - and it means that the next time a leaflet pops through your door asking for a regular donation to a cancer charity, you are actually less likely to make that regular donation, because your brain is telling you that you've already done your bit. 

At best, these campaigns provoke a short-term increase in giving to the relevant charity, but with a likely long-term loss of long-term giving. At worst, just the act of posting a selfie makes people feel good enough about themselves that they feel they need do nothing else. Some cancer charities are already hurriedly putting out their own pictures with text details on, urging people to donate, trying to salvage what they can out of this misguided campaign. Sadly, they are likely to lose out in the long run.

So, thus far, these campaigns are a) offensive and hurtful to those living with cancer b) dismissive towards men, particularly those also living with cancer c) uninformative and d) actively detrimental to the fundraising efforts of cancer charities. One further point though - this particular campaign is also detrimental to women in general. In asking women to post a selfie with no make-up on it is further normalising the assumption that women should be wearing make-up; that it is somehow a brave act to be seen in your natural face. It is suggesting that we present ourselves (just this once) in a less-than-groomed state. The number of comments reassuring each other of how lovely we look in our un-made-up state are testament to how this is further eroding our self-confidence in our natural beauty. I don't have a problem with make-up - I see it in the same way as I see facepaint; a lovely way to have a bit of fun....but I don't want my daughters feeling that it is somehow "brave" to present an un-made-up face to the world. I want them to have the confidence to wear make-up, no make-up, facepaint or masks and never feel that it has any bearing on their beauty.

If you do want to raise awareness of breast or testicular cancer, either in yourself or others, Coppafeel tells you how to check your breasts, and Checkemlads has a great video on how to check your balls. Maybe we could share the links, instead of another selfie.....


  1. I would like to publicly say how strongly I agree with this post, and also point out that Movember which was a campaign during which time men would grow moustaches on the basis that other men would comment on it, and they would then say yes its part of a campaign to raise awareness about testicular cancer, have you checked your balls mate? failed terribly. On a recent trip to the barbers I got chatting to a gentlemen who told me he had grown his moustache for movember and kept it. I asked him if it had let to a lot of conversation ions about testicular cancer - and he looked at me blankly. He hadn't heard that the Movember campaign had anything to do with testicular cancer, prostrate cancer, or mental health which has been the focus of the campaign.

  2. Think you'll find that people are donating to Cancer Research UK and this helps with research into ALL cancers for men and women and children!

  3. As I mentioned, it is almost certainly a short-term gain resulting in a long-term loss, sadly.

  4. Not bad for a short term gain.