Sunday, January 10, 2010

On saving the tatas and/or, y'know, women

Okay, so maybe I'm just a particularly incurious person, but when a few of my friends popped up with Facebook status updates like "lavender lace" and "black!!!" I didn't immediately hop to Teh Google to find out what they were talking about. I figured that it was, like so many overblown Facebook security warnings and "tell me exactly what you think of me and then post this as your status IF YOU DARE!!!" memes, something that didn't particularly concern me. I certainly didn't receive any messages indicating that I should do otherwise. It was only when a few folks started posting actual links to actual blog posts and news stories that I understood the trend and why, purportedly, I was meant to care:
Just write the color of your bra in your status. Just the color, nothing else. And send this on to ONLY girls no men. ... It will be neat to see if this will spread the wings of cancer awareness. It will be fun to see how long it takes before the men will wonder why all the girls have a color in their status... Haha!

Now, far be it from me to discourage anyone from any kind of activism or raising of awareness, but... really? Is that going to do it? If I were to post "blue plaid" (really, it's totally cute) as my Facebook status, would my friends' minds fly immediately to the plight of women (and men) with breast cancer? Blogger Bilial Hameed said, "The campaign has marked the first successful use of Facebook status updates with very few words to send a powerful message across," but what was that "powerful" message? The status updates themselves don't include links to breast cancer sites, urge women to perform breast self-exams, or even mention breast cancer--or for that matter, even breasts, or even bras--at all. It strikes me that

1. it's the viral message itself, not the fun and naughty status updates, that spreads awareness, meaning that any woman who didn't receive the message would gain no awareness of anything from the statuses;

2. explicitly excluding men from the game misses a whole subpopulation that also can be concerned about breast cancer and supportive of breast cancer research; and

3. people who argue, "But it's obviously been successful! Look at how everyone's talking about it now!" fail to notice that all of the chatter and media attention is centering around the sassiness of the bra-color meme and still not around breast cancer awareness, fund raising, or research.

It also strikes me that this is another awareness campaign that puts all of the emphasis on the jalumbos and not the women behind them. I will admit to having--and loving--a bright-pink "Save 2nd Base" t-shirt with appropriately placed baseballs because I think it's funny. Its purchase also contributed money to breast cancer research, and the corresponding Web site ( is named on the back. This isn't to pat myself on the back for being super-duper generous and thoughtful (because the fact is, there's a lot more that I could do than wear a sassy t-shirt) but to point out that boobs are hardly the worst things a woman, and her family, can lose during her battle with breast cancer.

Blogger Kate Dailey points out, in a post about provocative, bikini-centric awareness ads, "While breasts can be sexy, breast cancer is a serious, sometimes deadly disease. And younger activists hoping to draw attention to the issue and recruit younger donors are not above using sex--along with viral video, catchy slogans, and stylish T shirts--to promote breast-cancer awareness. But are ads that play up the desirability of full breasts in a string bikini sensitive to cancer patients with mastectomy scars?" Bouncing melons certainly are a striking, attention-grabbing image--much more so than solemn talk about cancer screening and the impact of research dollars--but by emphasizing some sexual, sensual essentialism of breasts, what are we saying to women who have already given theirs up to save their lives, or to women who already fear the loss of their femininity and self-image as they stare down the barrel of a mastectomy? What does it say about us that we only think about saving women's lives if it's by way of saving their ladypillows?

The real importance of raising awareness isn't about the bra or the breasts inside of the bra--it's about the woman behind the breasts inside the bra. And in our effort to find a new, attention-getting, tittylating (couldn't resist) approach to increasing awareness, we need to remember that.

There's no real harm, in the end, in posting a mysterious and contextless color in your status--but there isn't really any benefit, either. It's fun and sassy, and all of the men wonder what naughtiness you're up to, but you aren't spreading a powerful message unless you're spreading a message. If you want to play the game, try adding a link along with your color; consider the American Cancer Society's instructions on performing a breast self-exam to remind women to check themselves monthly, their page about breast cancer in men to remind the men in your life that they're vulnerable too, or Think Before You Pink, a site to help you evaluate breast cancer charities and pink-ribbon campaigns to make sure your dollars are put to good use. Maybe make a donation to a breast cancer research charity and challenge your friends to do the same (awareness and screening are important, but let's not forget the importance of research in curing and preventing breast cancer). Draw attention to the numerous issues currently influencing women's health: new health guidelines that could ultimately limit women's access to cancer screening and information about self-exams, gender inequity in health-care coverage, commonly used hormones and chemicals that can contribute to breast cancer, and the best use for breast cancer research funding. So go ahead--e-flash your Facebook friends and confuse the guys. But don't forget that you're doing it for a reason.

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