Black bra, red face

Last week, on one of the nation’s extraordinarily exciting “snow days” I received the following message on facebook:

I had been curiously noting the colour status updates of my various friends for a few days, and promptly forwarded the email to some of my girlfriends, encouraging them to join in. I then sat back and watched a rainbow (ok, more of a slush-bow, if the array of “black” and “kinda grey – used to be white!” is allowed proportionate representation) emerge in front of me.

Alongside the rainbow status updates I noted friends and colleagues adding their two-penneth to their statuses. Some were having a bit of fun – one of my male school friends wanted in on the action, declaring loudly and openly that he was “red latex”. But others commented on a more serious note; one declared “Darn it – was supposed to schedule a check up before Christmas… will do it now” and another “That reminds me…” I personally remembered the meme when I undressed that night and gave myself a quick examination – something I, and I’m sure many other women, don’t do nearly as regularly as we should.  I was feeling pretty smug that we’d done out bit.

A few days later I received an emarketing bulletin highlighting all the reasons this was the perfect viral marketing campaign. Breast Cancer affects a particular and limited audience: women. Because of this, the meme told us to share the instructions with other women only, creating a sense of community and secrecy at once. This encourages us to hit that “forward” button. There is no financial incentive to purchase anything, and no discernible retail marketing slant to the meme, decreasing its chances of being considered a scam. It doesn’t require you to click on a link, so is unlikely to prove an exercise in phishing. Theoretically (and I’ll get on to that one later), the meme supports an important cause. AND it carefully avoids all the usual chain email tactics, so doesn’t tell you that if you do pass it on you’ll have good luck before midnight tonight, or if you don’t you’ll die horrifically in a car crash at 11am next Tuesday…

And then, a friend whose opinion I hold in highest respect drew my attention to some adverse views on the meme. Through Twitter she highlighted a couple of blog posts, and set me thinking about the opposite side of the coin, a side I wouldn’t otherwise have considered…

The first blog post, written by Mary Carmichael for Newsweek blog, highlighted the fact that the meme’s main purpose seemed to be to titillate teenage boys, that we didn’t know the origin of the email and so were likely all being duped into a viral scam, and that raising awareness was not something that we needed any longer – that we were passed awareness and now needed action. I commented that, if men were that easily titillated we had far greater problems than we thought, that we didn’t really need to know the origins of something if it was doing its job (I don’t care if I’ve been duped if it leads to early detection in my friends and family!) and that awareness was what leads to action. Because we are all “aware” of breast cancer in so far as we know it exists, that most of us know how to examine ourselves to spot early signs, and that it is a killer. But for the large part this awareness sits silently in some forgotten corner of our brains until someone we know is diagnosed. Or, until a meme reminds us to schedule that mammogram or self-check ourselves for lumps, bumps and changes.

The second blog post was so honest, so well-written and so moving that I couldn’t comment without revealing myself as an insensitive hypocrite. Written by Susan Niebur over at Toddler Planet, a cancer survivor whose double mastectomy prevents her from wearing a bra, it highlighted all the reasons why a meme like this shows a complete lack of empathy or understanding for those who have actually fought the disease. Because those who’ve had their breasts removed no longer need this particular kind of support – by its very nature this meme underscored their pain, ripping open their old wounds by its exclusive nature. And I confess, this is not something I would ever, even in my most empathetic moments, have considered. Beyond this, Susan’s post provoked a variety of comments, some grateful, some painful, all supportive. Beneath her post an entire network emerged, many of whom had been stung by the meme, but felt they had no outlet, no-one to share their pain with. The post made me cry in sympathy and in shame – the comments did nothing to stem the flow.

Still, I can’t help but feel that, regardless of who started it, and trusting to the aims and objectives as set out in the email I received, this meme remains an example of viral marketing at its best. Because, despite the pain it caused her, Susan did blog about the psychological as well as physical scars of breast cancer in a way that raised my awareness to new levels. The proliferation of posts across the blogosphere in response to the meme, promoted via twitter and shared on facebook proved that, as a direct result, people were talking about it. If I checked my breasts as a result of the meme, the likelihood is that others did too, which can only be a good thing in my book. And the show of support for Susan’s blog post translated into support for one another between women at all stages of diagnosis, treatment and recovery.

It got all of us talking. It got some of us checking. And it got many of us thinking. And surely thought is the preamble to action?

For instructions on how to check your breasts click here
For instructions on what changes you should look for click here
For more information from Breast Cancer Care click here
For (maybe?) the source of the meme click here


12 thoughts on “Black bra, red face

  1. I’ve lost my Godmother and several very close family friends to breast cancer, and it’s a beast of a disease that strips away not only your femininity but your dignity.

    While I can appreciate the hurt that can be felt by Susan and those who have suffered like her by a lighthearted reminder of the importance of breast cancer awareness, the loss of life is a harsher indignity to suffer.

    If nothing else, the emotional honesty of Susan’s response to this meme, can only serve to inform us further about breast cancer, and give us yet another reason to try and stop this disease in its tracks, before it causes suffering to more people.

  2. I think anything that brings the need to check ourselves to the forefront of our mind is a good thing – the awareness of breast cancer is one thing, but the reminder to schedule that scan is more important. My mother’s breast cancer was only discovered in time to save her breasts because she remembered to book her “coming up to 50, just in case” scan – if she hadn’t booked that when she did the whole experience (which was already bad enough!) would have been much, much worse.

    Doing it this way, through a ‘silly joke’ is, in my view, quite a good way to do it – the whole thing is very viral and it gets some people thinking about it. A few people might take it the wrong way and say that it’s hurting people, but if it upsets 3% of the people that view it, and another 3% book themselves in for the mammogram they’ve been meaning to get around to, then I think it’s worth it. Anything that brings breast cancer (or any type of cancer) and the need to be vigilant about it to the forefront of peoples mind, is a good thing!

  3. I have been thinking about this issue too, and I haven’t come down hard either way. I agree with all of the points – anything that is going to remind women to check themselves out or book an appointment or whatever, well that is definitely positive. I read a blog about it over at The F Word which brought up two points.

    1) Breast cancer does not only affect women. Certainly, it is mainly women who suffer from this kind of cancer but men do too, so by making it a women only thing it might make it even harder for the men who have suffered/are suffering to feel like they can talk about it

    2) Making it about your bra seems to be another example of the sexualisation of women in almost any context.

    Now, I’m not entirely sure how much I agree with those points. Also, I’m not on Facebook so I don’t know if I would have responded but certainly, I think that the point that Caroline made about titillation and also the F Word’s point about it are valid ones, and things I wouldn’t be comfortable with.

    The F Word blog is and there is also a post about it at Jezebel

    • Your first point is very important I think, not just in relation to breast cancer with regards to men but also in relation to the way breast cancer is actually campaigned far more than other diseases. Yet, seeing as a lot of us STILL don’t check ourselves as often as we should, I don’t see how the campaigners can win. We can’t help but be aware of breast cancer thanks to all the pink ribbon stuff, but it has become so synonymous with fashion and “pink” that we no longer get the messages they’re trying to promote… I’m not sure what the answer is either way.

      The second point, I’m not sure about. On the one hand, yes, there is the potential for sexualisation if you choose to see and play it that way. For me personally that’s down to context – there’s nothing sexy about my undies when I go to see the nurse for my check up, for example – in this context I feel safe that none of my facebook friends are going to see it that way. I’m proud to say with confidence that none of my female friends are the sort to use this as an excuse for titillation, and none of my male friends are going to get excited at the thought of a bra of any colour on any of the girls in such abstract. Equally, I’m friends wiith my brothers, my Dad, some of my uncles and my Graddad on fb, and am confident that none of them would be embarrassed by it either…

      Oh gawd – am rambling. I’m going to stop now. But I think you get my point…?

  4. All virals/memes are chain letters, and people will do anything a chain letter tells them to do no matter how outlandish or unlikely etc. if cancer, or Jesus is mentioned somewhere in the meme. “For a good cause” Not a good enough excuse to pass on virals and post bra colors on Facebook statuses. I stayed away from Facebook after getting that blasted chain email from someone and will keep away until enough time has passed so that people stop posting these annoying viral statuses.

    • I’m not sure I understand your point though Capri. So what if they are chain letters – they don’t cost anything, they don’t promise you anything… I guess what I’m trying to understand is what it is about them (generically) that people find so insulting. I raised some reasons why people might find this particular version insulting, but am not sure I can see the argument against them across the board.

      I’m really not sure what Christianity has to do with it either… :S

      But thanks for putting across your thoughts – I guess everyone’s opinion on this differs somewhat.

  5. Today my bra color is gray of the sports variety padded with bandages and tube is draining the excess liquid from my breast as I have just had a lumpectomy. I too saw all the statuses on Facebook and thought that they were having a little too much fun with it, as I am now fighting for my life. Bottom line is be aware of your body, do the self checks.

    • Lisa, i thought of you as I was typing this, and really hope it hasn’t insulted you. It isn’t my intention to make light of what you or countless other women are going through just now, and I can see that in some ways viral marketing such as this can seem to do just that.

      I think what I’m trying to do is underline the fact that, even if it does sometimes seem to trivialise a life-and-death situation, these viral campaigns are making a difference in some small ways. And if my choice is between passing it on and having a handful of my friends check themselves or deleting it and one of my friends having to go through the ordeal you are coping so graciously with, I’d rather risk the insult.

      I’m very glad to hear what the doctor had to say about your lumpectomy. And to hear that you’re being so well looked after, both medically and by your husband. He sounds an amazing man.

  6. things that mean well sometimes hurt people because there are some things in life that are so truly horrible that anything that reminds a person of their experience brings back a lot of challenging emotions–consider a meme about parents for someone who has lost theirs.
    So we might as well never say anything at all to anyone because we’ll always run the risk of hurting someone.
    Now thanks for reminding me to go and check my breasts. As someone who’s lost 4 aunts to breast cancer, I can’t afford to forget something as useful as a home breast exam.

  7. I do entirely get your point and, as I said – I’m not sure how much I agree with the opinions of the blogs I mentioned. They were both very hung up on the idea that by posting something like black lace that you were encouraging men to reply with ‘ooh sexy lol’ or whatever and they found this notion distasteful. As I said, I’m not on Facebook myself so I haven’t actually had the opportunity to be offended(!) first hand on this!

    I think I am rambling now. I think the blogs I mentioned were concerned that this in some way trivialised the issue of breast cancer. Again, I don’t know if I agree with that. One thing that is very positive, though, is the way in which this meme has got people talking about it in a variety of contexts. It’s good to think about how breast cancer should be and can be discussed, I think.

  8. Some really thought-provoking stuff there. I certainly never thought about the potential hurt that could be inflicted by a bra-related meme but it just goes to show that even people with the best intentions don’t always get it right. The important thing is not to beat yourself up for it.

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