Posted by: capitalgirl | January 8, 2010

“TMI, Ladies!” or, Why Posting Your Bra Colour is Stupid at Best and Harmful at Worst.

So last night I became aware of this dumb Facebook meme telling women to post the colour of their bras in their statuses with the supposed aim of raising breast cancer awareness. On the face of it, this is moronic: it’s hardly raising awareness if the entire thing is based on a secret code only familiar to the people already posting (and therefore already “aware”). Not to mention that the target audience here was really ineffectively chosen. The vast majority of women arealready aware of breast cancer and how to check for it, and men – who, yes, can develop breast cancer! – were deliberately kept out of the loop on this one, despite perhaps having a greater need for breast cancer “awareness”.

On other levels, though, the whole thing is symptomatic of an unhealthy and unproductive approach to the breast cancer problem. Years ago, raising awareness of breast cancer was a real and pressing concern. It was one of those diseases that simply wasn’t talked about, and as a result women were dying without ever understanding or confronting the cause. Now, breast cancer is the superstar of incurable diseases. Everyone and their dog has a pink product for sale, “with a portion of proceeds going towards breast cancer f*ckery”.

“F*ckery?” you may say. “Isn’t that a little harsh?” And yes, I will concede that there are, in fact, breast cancer related campaigns that are not full of fail. However, there are also lots and lots that are.

Let’s start off by talking about the fundraising runs. I acknowledge that getting people involved this way can be a fun way to raise money. Unfortunately, the amount of money required to organize these events often means that more than a third of money raised goes towards event costs. Getting people to just hand over cheques would be far more effective. Still, I understand the perspective that the cheques wouldn’t get signed if not for the runs, so I won’t give these an F. Maybe a C+, and a “More effort needed”.

Now then – the awareness campaigns. Does anyone remember that episode of 90210 where Brenda finds a lump in her breast and thinks she’s dying of cancer? And then she goes to the doctor and finds out that it’s nothing? Because less than 7% of breast cancers occur in women under 40? Yeah. While it’s great to be informed, it’s not good when that information is causing unnecessary anxiety and healthcare costs. In fact, while the revised US Preventative Services Task Force recommendations on breast cancer screening are framed in a way that’s super-patronizing, they do emphasize an important point: screening is good if it’s helpful. If it’s not – if pushing breast cancer awareness over and over and over again is scaring women instead of informing them – then it’s not helpful, it’s harmful. Hell, the only carcinogen definitively linked to breast cancer is the ionizing radiation used by mammography machines. Stick THAT in your pipe and smoke it.

Now let’s talk pink. Thinkbeforeyoupink.org does a great job of asking some critical questions about whether or not pinkification programs are effective, so I won’t repeat that here. What I do want to talk about is the phenomenon of “pink-washing”: where companies will wear pink while pushing products that may actually cause cancer in the first place. In the words of Cindy Pearson, director of the National Women’s Health Network, “Breast cancer provides a way of doing something for women, without being feminist.”

Avon is a major sponsor of breast cancer causes, while producing make-up containing toxins (parabens and phthalates) that may contribute to breast cancer. Yoplait sold pinkified yogurt that contained rBGH-stimulated dairy, another potential cause of breast cancer (though, through the efforts of Breast Cancer Action, they are now rBGH-free). Traditional car exhaust contains toxins linked to breast cancer, but this doesn’t stop Ford, Mercedes, and BMW from using breast cancer to promote their products. Cause-related marketing also means that the money raised by pinkified products is often minimal (think American Express’ one cent per credit card transaction) and subject to limits (likeEureka capping its annual contribution from sales at $250,000). Cause-related marketing raises money for awareness and cures, but avoids any mention of cancer’s causes. In fact, the real causes of breast cancer are mostly unknown, despite breast cancer’s position as the most popular girl at the dance. But breast cancer rates have increased by 46% since 1988, so something is clearly wrong.

Photo by techne, found at Feministing.com

Finally, there’s the fact that breast cancer campaigns are often egregiously sexist. Check out the photo above, which evokes images of violence against women more than violence against cancer. By focusing on breasts, instead of the women attached to them, women’s concerns are removed from the equation entirely. Cancer victims – and women as a group – are sexualized and dehumanized when we’re reduced to just boobs. The pink products, which are almost uniformly infantilizing and domesticating (teddy bears and pink vacuums, anyone?) make the disease seem harmless and easily conquered, while also reducing women to passive, uncritical children/patients. Cancer “survivors” are uniformly portrayed as calmly inspirational, framing their disease as a “life-changing experience” that allowed them to “refocus” on the “important things in life”. Is there any other life-threatening disease out there that’s actually promoted as a good thing to have?!

So what can we do? Read “Welcome to Cancerland” by Barbara Ehrenreich. Support Breast Cancer Action’s “Think Before You Pink” campaign. In fact, check out Breast Cancer Action’s other campaigns and do what you can to support them. Donate directly to reputable breast cancer organizations, after taking the time to figure out where your money will actually go.

Most of all, consider whether your action is helpful or harmful. Hint: posting your bra colour doesn’t fall in the “helpful” category.


Responses

  1. Heehee “full of fail”

    I’m not entirely certain, but I read today that Heart Disease, Lung Cancer and Strokes are all greater causes of death in women than breast cancer. Any word on whether this is true?

    If so..why do so many people still not know that signs of heart attack are often different in women than in men..or for strokes, that F.A.S.T is about the only useful thing I’ve learned from watching House.

  2. Lung cancer is for sure a bigger cause of death for women, and I wouldn’t be surprised if heart disease and strokes are too. I actually read a study a couple of months back that showed women were often misdiagnosed or received care less quickly when suffering from heart attacks compared to men, because the symptoms in women are less well known.

  3. “Thank you for saying all the things I never do…” !

    This is so annoying! Plus, as far as I can tell, it’s now turned into a “post your bra colour” meme that has no link to breast cancer at all. Gah.

  4. Yeah, that’s the worst part. I’ve read arguments in favour of this whole thing as a great example of viral marketing, but the whole thing is such crap. It’s not even marginally about breast cancer anymore, it’s about sex.

  5. @Capitalgirl and yet there are far fewer “heart Disease Awareness” campaigns..and I can’t buy “Heart Disease Awareness” running gear when really…that would probably be a good idea.

  6. Thanks for this well written, much needed post. You said it all.

    When writing the manuscript for my book Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s, I was hell bent on writing about and including meaningful actions that patients can get involved in to reduce cancer and mortality rates. It wasn’t easy. Fluffy opportunities abound. Smart campaigns and organizations are scarce. BCA is incredible. I also encourage patients to become more proactive in working on access to care campaigns in the field of general healthcare reform. Often we forget that access to care is what gives people the greatest chance of survival.

    Patients need to spend more time educating ourselves about the policies and science surrounding or disease and less time waxing about our bras.

    Great blog!

    Best,

    Kairol
    http://everythingchangesbook.com/

  7. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by brooke, Breast Cancer Action. Breast Cancer Action said: In response to the "bra color as Facebook status" trend: a great blog post that mentions BCA and tackles the sexism… http://bit.ly/56cdup [...]

  8. You have a lot of valid points, however as a 53 year old woman who has had 4 family members succumb to the disease, I think you are missing the point. I posted and sent this to a number of under 25 year old young women and teens. They had fun with it and so did quite a number of young men. Yes there were some “sex” references but it was thought provoking to those young people and it opened a dialogue about breasts and cancer and the importance of regular check ups. In turn I was asked some questions by some who were aware of my family background. I certainly never heard anything like this when I was their age. Young people don’t think sickness is going to touch them and turn their hearing off if an “adult” tries to talk to them about it. I hope you will post this as another point of view on how to look at this.

  9. Hi Deb, thanks for stopping in and sharing your thoughts! I’m glad this post is promoting discussion, mainly because I think the more people are talking about women’s health in a thoughtful way, the better.

    The biggest problem I’ve had with this meme’s particular form of awareness raising is that for every thoughtful comment on breast cancer that’s been made thanks to this meme, I’ve seen just as many (if not more) comments describing confusion about the rationale, comments written in anger at the superficiality of the status posts, comments that the original idea has been co-opted into a simple “post your bra colour” without even hearing the original rationale behind it, or blatant sexism and objectification.

    I’m all in favour of healthy discussion of cancer and any other health problems; I just don’t think that this particular meme is the way to promote that healthy discussion. I think what it does promote is sexism, and unfortunately for me that works out to a net loss.

  10. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by mbrooker: In response to the ‘what is your bra colour’ sexist meme: http://bit.ly/61NWgo via @bcaction…

  11. THANK YOU.

    This very much needed to be said.

  12. At least people are talking and thinking about it. Is that really something to spend time and good analytical skills complaining about? I don’t think this meme is an appropriate place to land your soapbox. I get it, I [mostly] subscribe to it, but I think you’re application is off. And I think the alternative to this kind of contextual dialogue [nothing at all] is far worse. It is Facebook afterall – not feministing. Think of the meme as a cultural reproduction of the discourse of awareness.

  13. HI, I’m kind of with Deb…but also felt the same way in regards to the pink stuff until this past couple of weeks. And, still, on a practical/does this help with the research/prevention level, I still agree with what you said. As well as with the fact that many are on the side of making money from a disease without helping to find the cure side. BUT, I was just diagnosed with breast cancer and will be having surgery next week. When my ‘friends’ posted their color and some sent me the info with their color [not apparently wanting to post it publicly on facebook...], I did feel that they were supporting ME on this part of my journey. And, I think, that is what they were doing and felt that they were doing. So, on an emotional level, it was a positive outcome even though on any other level, I would agree with you. My son even told me that HE wanted to post ‘none’ so that he could ‘support me’ on facebook…which was sweet and dear to me.

  14. @m.fitz: But people are talking and thinking about it in a context of sexism and objectification. That’s something that bothers me deeply, and I remain incredibly uncomfortable with it. Moreover, this is absolutely something I should be on my soapbox about. Critiquing sexism is an awesome thing to do regardless of context. Sure, it may not be anywhere near the same level as writing about FGM, but I’ve done that too, elsewhere. It’s not “either/or”, it’s “as much as possible”. Telling me not to talk about it because it’s not important is the same as attempting to silence me, and it really doesn’t contribute to meaningful dialogue.

    @Marlena: Thank you for sharing your story! Although I am still uncomfortable with the sexualization involved in this meme and wish it could have been approached differently, I am glad that some good came of it. Knowing that your friends and family support you in this difficult time is really important, and I’m glad that they were able to use this meme to do so. Good luck with your surgery and any other future treatment. I wish you the best of health.

  15. uh, not only all the “what you said” but also… most women who’ve struggled with breast cancer have serious issues with bras in general. they either cannot wear them after surgery, or they feel like sexy bras are useless over their scars, or … a million other issues. I am guessing that the person who started this meme never had breast cancer. my good friend who did, and nearly died, saw the whole thing and basically called it fuckwittery.

    • Hi Jessica, that’s a totally worthwhile point to add. An obvious consequence of breast cancer is partial or total mastectomy, with or without attendant reconstruction. Not making room in this awareness raising for women who have faced this diminishes their experience with this disease. The very possibility that this campaign could, and likely has, hurt survivors raises it from “misinformed” to “super-bad”. “Awareness” that does this much harm, particularly to the people it purports to help, isn’t worth it in my eyes. People need to find another way.

      • Bingo.

        I wrote about it on my blog today and the reaction has been nothing less than amazing. People never thought about the mis(connection).

        bit.ly/50d6I4

        Thanks for your harsh words about pinkwashing and the costs of fundraising.

  16. Thanks for your story. In my 40-something lifetime, we have moved from mothers’ teaching daughters that “nice girls don’t touch their naughty bits” to “early detection through SBE saves lives.” However annoying you may find it, the fact that this went viral on FB says something encouraging about our success at changing social norms during our lifetimes. If you are under 30, you probably can’t even imagine a time when breast cancer was actually unmentionable. I’m glad of that.

    I agree that many pink-washing campaigns are not just full of fail, but dangerous to women. This FB meme is one of them. The idea that changing your FB status is the same kind of grassroots communication that produced life-saving social change is troubling. I also found it interesting that my friends over 50, who are at risk for breast cancer, weren’t ‘in’ on the meme.

    And yet, it’s not a far reach from silly meme to real meaning. We can really fight breast cancer by joining the Army of Women, a massive cohort of volunteers for a variety of breast cancer research studies, online. This viral campaign to create the ultimate “snowball sample” for breast cancer research will get a cure far sooner than buying pink-ribboned yogurt or telling the world that you’re wearing a dingy pink jog-bra. Moreover, its real power that comes from real women changing the world of research, in the same way we once changed how we think about the health of our breasts.

  17. Hi. I agree with much of what you’ve written here, and cheer your rebuke to stupid facebook memes. I have one complaint though: please think before you call a serious disease “incurable.” Especially when caught early there are good treatments for breast cancer. Lots of women survive it.

    • Hi Sara, thanks for pointing that out. The point I was trying to make with that word is that from what I understand, once you’ve been diagnosed, cancer returning is always a worry. In other words, cancer is a disease that can be treated and survived, as opposed to cured. (I’m no doctor, though, so I admit my understanding may be lacking in nuance.) “Incurable” is perhaps too harsh a word that fails to communicate the complexities of a cancer diagnosis.


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