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When does the end justify the means?

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 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.

. . .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?

I wrote:
. . .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 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"

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?
  • Donate
  • 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.


caroline said…
This campaign really frustrated me. I don't think many people are the better for having posted or read about womens underwear. It bothers me that our culture sexualizes a serious health issue, and then tries to pass it off as "raising awareness".

I don't particularly think that people reading a bra color is titillating, however, i think this and many breast cancer "awareness" campaigns work because they are supposed to be. ("Save the ta-tas")

I am offended at the implication of efforts like this: we as a society care more about boobs and sex than about womens' well being. but i guess is Susan G Komen can hitch its wagon to misogyny, we can all rest easy knowing there's some good coming from it.
Christine said…
thank you thank you thank you.

i was very distressed about the meme bashing going on that day, and i too was "done" at a certain point. i was shocked that people were suddenly calling themselves (or others) "assholes" for participating. it bothered me that people were so offended by it all.

i think sometimes that people want to find the negative in EVERYTHING. now i am not being miss "naive happy go lucky everything is great." i am always open for an honest, safe, and respectful discussion about the pros and cons of any issue. but there was a point when people were just getting MEAN and accusatory, and i was very distressed by that.

did supporting this meme mean one was being mindlessly cruel or stupid? no

did it mean that one is anti-feminism? hell no.

what it means is that one supports breast cancer research, breast exams, and all of the friends who have suffered b/c of this disease.

also, i am am melanoma survivor. i never felt left out or like my disease was left in the background.

sometimes we need to work together as women and survivors. far too often we are separated and fight over the craziest stuff. (sound familiar? don't get me started on mommy wars)

anyway, this is sort of a disjointed comment, but hopefully you get my drift.

(i am having trouble logging in, spelling, and correctly using punctuation so this is my THIRD time posting. ugh. sorry)
Julie Pippert said…
Christine, yes, thanks, it's the bashing exactly that troubles me. We will never all agree, but (a) respectful conversation is a realistic expectations and (b) constructive conflict can really lead to improvements. But hurtling insults of causing someone to feel ashamed is the fast road to shutting down all conversation past slurring emotions at one another. You make so many good points, especially about respect and greater good. Thanks for the comment!
Julie Pippert said…
Caroline, okay explain to me about the sexualizing part...and how this precludes actually caring about women's health.

I agree that there is a total lack of equity in parity for women all the way into health care, too. I see insurance coverage for monthly viagra but I pay for hormones out of pocket because my pituitary and thyroid don't work and I need medication for a decent quality of life. And don't even talk to me about how costly the medication alone was for the pituitary tumor.

But if women are doing the campaign with other women...what does that mean?
Christine said…
julie--i should add that if anyone thought the meme was useless, silly, hurtful, pointless, or whatever, fine. but it was when the discussion turned mean ugly that i got unnerved.

i am open to hear about your opinions if they align with mine or if they differ. i engage in debates with other adults about various issues all the time. i'm a big girl and can handle a good debate! sure, there may be some frustration if someone doesn't see your point or even sadness that you can "convince" someone to see your POV. but when debates turn into outright fights with slurs and curses being tossed around.. . well, that is just unproductive.
Andrea said…
I'm with Caroline, actually. I have nothing against the people who participated or their motives adn would never have criticized anyone, but the whole idea that posting our underwear colours publicly will lead to anythign but titillation I find very unlikely. I'm glad teh Komen foundation has more facebook fans; I'll be more impressed when those fans turn into donation dollars, ongoing supporters, etc.

I mean, the whole tone of the initial message--"it'll be so fun to confuse the boys, won't they wonder what's going on!"--just told me that the point of it was titillation. Besides which, I don't think it took many of them long to figure out that all these girls posting colours could only be talking about one thing, and there are so many guys on my fb friends list that, I'm sorry, I just don't want them thinking about me in my underwear. (ex-boyfriends? friend of ex-boyfriends? yuck yuck yuck.) These are all personal reasons of course and anyone who wants to participate should feel free to do so. It didn't hurt anyone, and as you say, it came from a good place. But did it actually help? Is the number of FB fans really the metric that counts? What about recent studies demonstrating that self-exams do more harm than good? And it didn't take long for the sexualization to come right out, with the response memes (i.e. status updates reading that the whole thing was a virus and to clean your computer you needed to take your bra off in front of the webcam and record it for FB).
Unknown said…
I'm sorry but I fail to see how posting bra colors as a visual mnemonic for remembering to do breast exams sexualizes breast cancer or promotes misogyny. Silly maybe, but anybody who gets off on bra colors is in serious need of help that is way beyond the mainstream. We all need reminders in this rat race world of ours to take care of ourselves...and our loved ones. Trying to make that intention dirty is really a very sad...and disturbing.
Julie Pippert said…
Andrea, the benefit of FB fans (or similar) is like having a really solid gold rolodex. All of us want our reliable go-to people we can count on to help launch action initiatives, promote things to go viral, etc.

Eg at ACS, we have that awesome More Birthdays program, which is more geared towards prevention and good health in the hopes to decrease cancer. the other side of the coin. With a good social media network, we can get the info we need out and know it will spread. That was super useful during the mammogram situation.

The Breast Cancer Foundation does a lot of fundraising through product sales, which it promotes via social media. The more Like and Share, for example, they get in FB, the broader their message spreads.

I knwo I am preaching to the choir here, lol, but just for general edification versus telling you something i feel sure you already know.

In the end, you count on fans to actually be supporters and if done well, you build relationships with them.

Social media is a really effective and cost-effective tool for nonprofit causes.

If those of us who Do This didn't learn a TON from the bra color meme, then we aren't thinking properly lol.

As far as the tone of the message goes -- that's flirty and, coming from the south, it's definitely an accepted way of communicating and getting things done. In fact sometimes the best way. That's a big UGH to me -- especially having lived in other regions and seeing alternative ways -- but a lot of women really still dig it. I want to say they don't MEAN anything by it and I hope that communicates my thought on that -- I don't endorse it per se but I understand it.

ITA 100% re the response memes. Unnecessary. Annoying.

Can you point me to the study the SBEs do more harm than good? Any times I've seen any message like that (eg about mammograms and pap smears) it is horrifically patronizing in a "it's too much emotion for hysterical females, who shouldn't worry their pretty little heads," way.

As for the rest of your points, fair enough. Honestly. I would not be down with peer pressure and hope that didn't crop up wrt participating. I see your view: too personal.

And I appreciate, that while you didn't agree with it, you could say so (and view it) with respect for th ewomen who felt otherwise.
I missed the mutation of the meme into ugly territory. In fact it took me a while to "get" it in the first place. As soon as the light went on, I did a self exam that day. I've been involved with breast cancer awareness for several years since a dear friend lost her battle. I was the primary carer for my aunt as she was dying from lung cancer. We all have our stories.

But my breast cancer survivors loved this campaign. Delighted in it's reach, it's prompting of awareness. The sexualization argument is a red herring. You get millions of women to think for 3 secs in a clever way about the fact that they are lucky to be able to wear a bra at all? You can't tell me that isn't going to turn into dollars.
Lady M said…
Julie - your writing and analyses are amazing. Both this post and the one about volunteering from a few days ago. I gave a tremendous amount of time - years of my life - to the dance division of the my university, and got some incredibly insulting emails from the department chair. It really changed how I felt about the administration and how wary I was afterward. Fortunately, my mentor/professor was highly supportive, and I continued to help in other ways, but never trusted the administration again.
Unknown said…
We are immersed in a culture where titillation, outrageous publicity, sex- that's what gets our media talking. That is our culture. It's not surprising that this sensational campaign got so many people talking when less sensational means can fail.

I'm torn about the bra meme- donations are up, were all talking about it, great. But how high does the sexiness ante need to be upped to spur us into action? What's next?
Unknown said…
Good mercy! When did a cryptic reference to bra color become "sensational" or "titillating".

I don't necessarily disagree with your view of our reality tv culture (not that this has changed since the beginning of time), but at the same time we've become so sensitive to PC that we can't see the forest for the trees. Lets have some perspective please.
Tay said…
First I'd have to say that I don't agree with anybody who wouldn't want to raise awareness about any illness. Breast cancer gets a lot of attention lately because there are more people out there trying to tell women to check themselves. I have to admit, I'm guilty of forgetting too, and that's because I don't get my period every month so I tend to forget to check some months. At any rate, if people are offended because awareness isn't being raised on a disease that is close to their heart then they should get out there and make people aware of it, not tell other people how tired they are of other diseases getting attention. By the way, IBC is one type of breast cancer I wish would get a little more attention. If you haven't heard of it, research it because it's more deadly than the other forms and much harder to spot during exams. It also affects women at a younger age than most other breast cancers.

I think what you're doing is great. I think if you can find a cause you care about and try to make a difference there is nothing wrong with that.
Magpie said…
"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?"

Yes, J, yes. But it was awfully clunky, and pissed me off in many regards, which I duly vented about.

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