When I was a child growing up in South Africa, old women had wrinkles and grey hair, and when they laughed, their faces turned into a craggy witness to the million laughs they shared through their lifetimes. Their faces bore testament to the passage of time, and experience. Sure, their skin lacked elasticity, but they had memories, and that wisdom that doesn’t care what other people think anymore. I do sometimes wonder if my generation will understand the same lesson in the coming decades.
Last week, I wrote about #myselfiechallenge at my church, and this week, the #nomakeupselfie emerged – women taking photos of themselves without make-up on to promote cancer research, or awareness, and donating (or not) and challenging friends to do the same. Nobody nominated me, except in the generic “I nominate all my Facebook friends” kind of way. And even if they had, this is all they would have seen:
Maybe I’m just awkward, maybe it’s some deep-seated revolt or internalised social commentary, but I don’t do selfies generally. But that doesn’t mean that I should judge those that participated (or indeed, continue to participate).
Here’s the thing. People posted photos of themselves without make-up on, and some of them even donated money to cancer research – most often to breast cancer, despite the fact that breast cancer gets a whole month of awareness every year (October, if you missed it). At last count over £2million had been donated specifically as a result of this movement, which is mostly a good thing. Unless it stops people from donating to research in other areas, or I don’t know, being able to eat at the end of the month. People shared stories of their own battles with cancer, or the precursors to cancer, and shared links to encourage healthy lifestyle choices. If that caused even one person to go and get checked out, thereby allowing an earlier diagnosis of cancer, and a more positive outcome, I think it’s worth it.
But then people started calling people names. Narcissists. Patronising. Or, for those nominated who didn’t join in, spoilsports. People were accused of not donating, and so began the endless screenshots of “Thank you for your donation”. The ugly underbelly of peer pressure, and self-justification. Or a very mild form of bullying (that’s how bullying starts, name-calling because you won’t do what you’re told). [Not to belittle bullying at all. I was bullied as a child.]
But that’s not the thing that upsets me. It’s the posts that I saw saying “I finally was brave enough to do this”, above photo’s of beautiful, self-conscious faces. Why should anyone have to feel that their naked face is something so ugly, or worthy of ridicule that she needs to stir up the bravery to post the picture? When did we start caring so much about what other people thought? And when did we, as a society, start thinking we had a right to judge these women in this way? An older woman, well-respected within her community and a mentor to the younger women, apologised that she “looked even worse in the smiling one”, beneath a stern and slightly wrinkled face. The implication was that her smiling face was too ugly to be seen in public, because it was not covered in paint. What is this world coming to, when a woman cannot smile and share her hard-earned wrinkles?
So no, people shouldn’t feel forced into doing the selfie. Or making the donation. Or proving they had made the donation. But similarly, posting a selfie like that is not necessarily a sign you’re a self-centred narcissist, looking for glory any way you can. It really could just be trying to fit in – a sign of insecurity, and trying to please people. Or it could actually be, shock horror, a person genuinely attempting to engage with the difficult road that a cancer sufferer walks (as I believe to be the case in my examples in the preceding paragraph).
My little not-a-selfie lists the issues that this phenomenon has had me contemplating: self-image, identity, peer pressure, stereotypes, beauty, sexism and prejudice. These things are never going to disappear from this world, because they are deeply ingrained in the society within which we live. I just wish we could see old women as beautiful again.
You know, like Stonehenge.