Last week, colors began appearing in people's Facebook statuses. I received several messages about it, some entreated me to join in and a few asked me what was going on. Most of the messages were the same coy message most other women -- and yes, just women, no men -- received. It begged that we, to paraphrase, titallate our fellow Facebook users, especially the guys, by posting our bra color without explanation. The concept, you see, was to raise awareness of breast cancer.
Always a supporter of initiatives to benefit finding a cure for cancer, I decided to play along...in my own way. I dropped the coy thing, but kept the playful element. When I saw people ask "what's up?" I was honest. Initially, okay once, I stuck to the original message. After that, I began sending out my own. I said, to paraphrase, that the idea was to "check your bra to remember to check your breasts -- self exams monthly!"
The next day, I went in for my annual check-up and I tweeted that I had had my annual clinical breast exam and asked women, "When did you last get checked?" Prior to that, I'd done quite a bit in support of mammograms.
Anyone who knows me knows that when it comes to cancer, activism, volunteering, social justice, etc. I put my actions (and my money) where my mouth is.
I don't just "do" Facebook statuses or forward tweets.
But so what if that's all I did? What if that's all I could do, at least in that time?
My effort would still reap rewards and benefits. It would have been sincere, true, and worthwhile. And it should be appreciated. That's because I did something valuable -- even if all I did was push the word out further, I got it in front of someone who could and would do something more about it.
Awareness raising has positive effects. In fact, this very bra meme provided higher results of action than previous attempts. The Washington Post reported that awareness drove action:
. . .its impact was immediate and dramatic: As bra colors went flying around the net, something strange happened at the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. After two years of intensive efforts to boost its profile through social networking, hiring two full-time people to do solely that, within two hours Friday morning, their fan base on Facebook exploded from 135 to 700."This would fall into the unprecedented category. We’ve never had a spike like this,” said spokesman John Hammerley. “We don’t care if it’s a $20 million campaign or a, what do you call it, a kind of electronic chain letter asking for your bra color. It’s fun. It gets people talking, and hopefully, it will lead folks to really getting a greater awareness of something that’s going to affect one in eight American women.”
I'm sure it would rub some the wrong way, exclude some, bother or offend. You can't get it all right all the time. And I'm terribly sorry about that.
In fact, my friend Annie, who I greatly respect, wrote eloquently about how it feels to view all the limelight focused on the cause célèbre cancers:
. . .I am not kindly disposed towards awareness campaigns that are never ending, as breast cancer is, and I still have issues with the whole “raising awareness” for certain diseases and not others.
For example, my late husband died because of a genetic metabolic disorder. There are about a half dozen metabolic disorders and nearly all of them are life-limiting in gruesome, family destroying ways. They are rare. Which is their bad. And no famous people have been afflicted by them that I am aware of, which means no one can start a campaign that will touch the hearts of the masses. No fun little “remember the genetically afflicted” FB meme’s for the victims of metabolic syndromes, alas.. . .
Rob’s late wife had melanoma. Do you know what color the ribbon is? Black. Nothing frou-frou or girly or uplifting about that color or even the tiniest bit hopeful for melanoma victims. Do you hear much about melanoma except for the yearly half-assed media censure against tanning salons that usually come out around the time that little high school girls are getting ready for spring prom?
Annie makes a good point -- what about the lesser known, less publicized and less "sexy" cancers?
Some men had begin a "boxer-brief" or "boxer color" meme, in response to the bra meme, supporting prostrate or testicular cancer (or both, reports vary). However, again, these are well-publicized, especially through Lance Armstrong LIVESTRONG.
Breast cancer survivors weighed in, too, wondering if people understood how it felt that an action intended to help their cancer so painfully excluded them.
Other cancer survivors joined in, telling me that they felt left out too. After all, this was ostensibly an effort to raise awareness of breast cancer — but one in which breast cancer survivors themselves could not participate, and were reminded (as if we needed a reminder) that we didn’t need bras anymore, that most basic undergarment of women everywhere, that symbol of sexuality, for the simple reason that we had already sacrificed our breasts in a hail mary attempt to keep the rest of our bodies from dying of cancer.Like Annie, Susan makes a valid point. The bra meme did exclude some people, some of the very people it intended to help. Even worse, it hurt some of them, dreadfully.
Those of us with a heart were regretful, sorrowful -- we could sympathize with the challenge and pain.
However, not everyone felt the same way about the meme. The many comments reveal a variety of opinions on this issue. Quite a few breast cancers survivors said they totally agreed, other disagreed, and many other people chimed in with more and more thoughts on the matter, from the constructive to the flat out rude.
I found this post by Susan, who I serve with on the American Cancer Society Blogger Advisory Council, through a note by a friend who said, "Now I feel like a real asshole."
I went from "oh no, this hurt someone," to "uh oh, this is about to move from meme to kerfuffle."
People began chastising one another, on Susan's blog and off, casting shame on themselves and others for participating in the meme. More came in to begin the perverted take on the situation -- shaming participants as teases who want to show off.
In addition to simply not wanting people, regardless of position on this issue, who meant well feel horrid, I had another, larger concern: how would people, after being so shamed, respond to the next awareness and action meme from a cancer group?
. . .what feels true and honest to one can seem misguided to another — as the wide range of comments here prove. I see little positive outcome from criticizing people who intended support and meant well. It’s a burn that can cause people to shy from what they now view as a stove. How much more effective might it be to instead propose another action, like some commenters did? Eg, “Mine is green with Benjamin Franklin on it and I sent it straight to ACS for the new education program!” or “I lit mine on fire…to liberate and celebrate, and then I joined ACS More Birthdays.” or if we dislike bra talk or implied bra talk, offer a great alternative.
I begged that we not make people feel ashamed and horrible on the one hand while expressing consideration, respect and understanding on the other. It was sort of like tossing a pebble into a gravel pile.
The "bra memes are hurtful and cruel and participants are jerks" meme spread as fast as the bra meme. People began chiming in with, "Memes are stupid anyway."
The incredibly positive tone of Thursday morphed quickly into a severely negative tone. Within a couple of days from the day everyone was so joyfully participating in a silly, yet well-intended, meme about bra colors...the self-righteous were out with the shame wands ready to strike anyone down.
I read them on Twitter, Facebook, blog posts, and elsewhere. One came on to my Facebook with a chastisement for me and my status.
My brother-in-law Dave, who lost both of his sisters to cancer in one year (breast and ovarian) has expressed his grief eloquently. On his blog, he wrote movingly about losing his sisters. On his Facebook page, he posted happy "last all together" family photos, including one from his wedding, where I was a bridesmaid with one of his sisters. "Last all together before the cancer," he titled that one. After his second sister passed away, he did a four square photo montage of himself, his face revealing his grief and loss so poignantly that I cried, literally. "Suddenly, an only child. I have no words." That's what he titled those photos. Nevertheless, he's worked to aim his grief into a constructive do-something direction. I can't replace his sisters, but I am one of his sisters, even if only in adulthood, even if only by law -- it is also through caring and friendship, too.
So this weekend, when he asked me to re-post a cancer status, it was the least I could do.
Dave and my sister-in-law both thanked me. I hoped it helped to know that someone else was with them in this, and remembered Cheryl and Debbie, his sisters, too.
Mindful of the bra meme brouhaha, I added a comment that we were all active, too, in programs to prevent and find cures for cancer. I had hoped that this would reassure people who were suddenly concerned about social media slacktivism (and while that's another post, I have NOT found slacktivism in social media. I have found it an incredibly useful means to drive action, as Komen found.)
I wrote, "And lest anyone wonder...in addition to awareness raising on FB status, we take ACTION too by donating money, volunteering, and helping in other ways. You can find ways to help here, too http://www.cancer.org/docroot/home/index.asp."
Sadly, my preventive measure failed.
I was deeply distressed when someone else commented with a critique, demanding that I mention mammograms, etc. The comment was phrased in such a way that I caught the tone, despite the medium. Clearly, people had been influenced and were on the hunt for slacktivists and horrid cancer meme participants. Or people perceived as such. By their standards, whatever those are.
Despite my commitment to working to help prevent and cure cancer, by the end of the evening Sunday, I was All Done. At least for a while.
Even though my ACS group was working on some actions, I wanted to beg for at least a week's reprieve, to give it all time to die down and fade.
After all this is how people were feeling about it by Monday (again, my friend Annie):
Someone on my FB friend’s list was upset by the “backlash” against the campaign. She thought we were heartless people not fit to be good friends and play along because you never know who might someday be stricken. That’s her opinion. I can see why she might feel that way. I offered my experience with the meme and was basically told to “fuck off” by some of her friends, and so I did. In the yoga sutras, Patanjali advises use of the fourth key in some instances and this was one of them.Discord. Discord on both sides, because, after all, now suddenly there are sides: the for and the against. Each side, clearly, is guilty of shaming and hurting others.
Annie also said:
But pretending that something was a good idea or properly executed when it clearly wasn’t is not the way to go about promoting anything but discord and does more to turn people away from awareness efforts than not.
I see the point -- true. The flip side is true, too. Making participants who meant well and joined in feel ashamed and terrible has that same effect, and worse.
Some may not like a campaign. It might hurt them, annoy them, or they might find it stupid. This is inevitable. There may be some awareness fatigue and valid frustration that awareness raising only extends to the "popular" ones, however, awareness does drive action.
At the end of the day, one could accurately call this bra meme extremely successful. Komen saw better results than any of their efforts had wrought, and a number of women told me it reminded them to do a self-exam. Additionally, a large number of women said it really resonated with younger women, who aren't aware.
I do think future memes could be designed more considerately, with broader inclusion of people and diseases. But can you really please everyone in every action?
Is it possible that if you saw one action work well for one thing, instead of being angry it excluded your thing, you could feel motivated to start or support an effort for your thing?
Does now knowing that this meme did have a positive effect for an organization it was intended to help change your perception of this meme? Do the ends sometimes justify the means?
What can you do?
- Join ACS CAN to affect policy change on a local and national level.
- Volunteer -- for Relay For Life, for Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, for Reach to Recovery
- Volunteer as a Road to Recovery driver so that they can help transport people going through cancer to their treatment.
- Prevent --- take charge of your own health by visiting a doctor for a clinical breast exam or a mammogram and by taking steps to reduce risk of breast cancer by eating a healthy diet, exercising and limiting alcohol consumption. See the More Birthdays campaign, and support it, too.