Seeing the Self Through Selfies: Beauty, Selfies and Cancer
When I was diagnosed with Stage 2 Breast Cancer two days before my 28th birthday, the first question I asked was “Am I going to lose my hair?” “Probably,” the nurse answered, as I felt the ground fall away from under my feet.
My hair wasn’t the best hair in the world (it
had recently recovered from a horrendous, self-imposed quarantine fringe), but
it was still mine. Well-meaning comments of “it will grow back” and “it is only
temporary,” whilst being true, delegitimised the very real sense of grief I felt.
Every time I touched it in the lead up to my first chemotherapy session, I
imagined it not being there and felt a lurch in my stomach. I couldn’t imagine
my face without eyebrows or eyelashes, and in my obsessive reading about
side-effects, I convinced myself that my nails were going to fall off. Of
course, being bald temporarily was preferable to dying, but classic media
images of cancer patients haunted me. It felt like my identity was being
stripped away, leaving me with nothing but illness.
Beauty practices and selfie-culture are often
positioned as symbols of narcissism and vanity, with writers like Jonathan
Freedland stating that “the selfie is surely the ultimate emblem of the age of narcissism” and a Swansea University study contending that selfies “fuel narcissism”.
In 2021, a journal article published in the Psychology of Popular Media
concluded that “grandiose and exhibitionistic aspects of narcissism are tied to selfie-taking” .
Likewise, frequent headlines such as “A Generation of Self-Absorbed Social
Media ‘Influencers’ Needs to Grow Up” reinforce the image of a failed
generation lost to their phones. The media is particularly keen to scoff at
young women who participate in taking pictures of themselves or make money
online from beauty, with Gaby Hinsliff writing that young women’s association
with narcissism may stem from their “overindulging in all kinds of navel-gazing, from the cult of “self-care” (taking time out to cosset yourself) to compulsive posting of selfies.”
[…] A whole load of boring sexist and heteronormative discourse around selfies attempts to suggest that selfie-takers are insecure and seeking external validation. This jars with my largely anecdotal hypothesis that the vast majority of selfies don’t get posted online. I’d wager that most selfies simply sit quietly in private albums on people’s phones. They are scrolled through from time to time for a quick reminder of aesthetic excellence, much like dusty old dukes who had oil paintings of themselves hanging in their bedrooms.
It’s worth noting that I was only able to
experiment with my style due to having a secure job. The indignity of losing
your hair, eyebrows and eyelashes (among other side effects) is lessened
significantly when you can have ‘fun’ with your appearance, an experience not
afforded to people forced onto statuary sick pay (a pitiful £96.35 per week) or
in insecure employment. There are prescription wigs available on the NHS and
great charities like Wigs for Heroes which provide grants for women to purchase
wigs and other items, but that doesn’t answer the question of why our
government thinks it is acceptable for people to face potential financial ruin
whilst battling cancer.
Of course, there are problematic beauty
structures; historically, Whiteness and thinness has been synonymous with
attractiveness, a default position that is often replicated in the mainstream
media. But, engaging with beauty practices and selfie culture as a method for
enjoying one’s own appearance can be a resistance to these standards. For
example, trends like #BlackGirlMagic and #Effyourbeautystandards encourage
women outside the Eurocentric beauty ideal to position themselves within
“contexts of beauty, desirability and dignity.” This is not to suggest that such campaigns alone will change the racism,
ableism and heteronormativity that underpins normative assumptions about
beauty. Nevertheless, carving out space for bodies outside of the mainstream
conceptualisation of beauty can only be positive.
Structures of femininity are innately
paradoxical; women are constantly bombarded with images of beauty products,
whilst simultaneously ridiculed for engaging with beauty culture. The intense
backlash and ridicule of ‘the selfie’ and other examples of online beauty
culture (e.g. beauty vloggers) reveals the ways that capitalism profits off
women’s insecurities. Taking joy from one’s appearance, therefore, is in direct
contestation with the market and expectations of femininity as existing solely
for the male gaze, rather than for oneself.
For me, the end result of embracing my new appearance was significant - when I looked in the mirror, I saw myself, rather than someone with cancer. Selfies acted as a marker of this new version of myself, hardened by my experience and comforted by my new knowledge of beauty tips and tricks. It doesn’t have to be such a drastic example to defend selfies/beauty culture though… maybe women just think they look nice and want to share that.