Oh um eh….I wear a bra…

By now you know all about this, but just in case you don’t, here is a link you could read. If you, however, do not like links and don’t look up things on the net that you read about – then here is a summary:

There is a meme going around Facebook. A lot of women, (me included) received an e-mail (forwarded), from other girl friends we know — suggesting that we change our status messages to a one word colour that reflects the bra we’re currently wearing.

Why? Because it might be a fun, silly, puzzling-to-men thing to do and also raise awareness about breast cancer along the way. How? One version of the story is that smart men will track down the mail and see that breast cancer figures in the mail – another version is that the mail originated from a breast cancer awareness organization.

A lot of my friends (and apparently a lot of women) did as the e-mail suggested. I counted twenty plus colourful status messages ranging from fawn, pink, white to multi-coloured. Mine said “black” for the record. A while later I started seeing e-mails going back and forth; several which objected to this entire exercise. I like summarizing things – so in summary there were two kinds of responses a) Don’t–  this is stupid/embarrassing etc, and b) Don’t do this – I’m worried this trivializes the entire breast cancer cause.

I’m terribly worried by the latter. This opinion is both stupid, embarrassing and frankly many times worse than ‘trivializing’. Here is why:

1. It is stupid because it betrays a fear about discussing a ‘private matter’. There is nothing really private about a bra colour. In any sense. Men are privy to the vast variety of leopard prints on bras in some of the biggest malls in this country. They are also privy to the cheap, and equally designer, replicas in road side shops. Besides, nobody forced anyone into sharing the colour of their bra. What is so troublesome about seeing a bra colour openly shared? Nothing.

What is troublesome, to these sorts of people, is that so many women spontaneously shared their bra colours (I have no doubt many lied – but a fair share must have been genuine too; at any rate the truthful or fictitious nature of the color is quite irrelevant) and GASP many of them were ‘committed’ or even ‘married’. Now, I don’t know about you, but I think this is quite close to being stupid.

2. Let’s talk about embarrassment. Clearly women who voluntarily shared this information were quite unashamed. If they were embarrassed they probably would never have done it. These women also already knew about breast cancer and felt obligated (morally) to pass the information on. We’ll discuss if Facebook memes are necessarily the best mechanism to do this, in a bit.

Now, I can’t see, why I (or anyone else) should be embarrassed about passing information about breast cancer. As a matter of fact – I would feel very embarrassed if I didn’t. Clearly embarrassment goes a long way. To my mind, if people could be embarrassed into reading (which does not automatically translate into knowing/remembering or internalizing) about breast cancer, let there be more embarrassment.

3. Trivializing the issue. This the big one. This is where all the activists and gender warriors stand up wag their fingers at you. “This is all very well… but won’t men just guffaw silently about bra colours and boobs and not really give breast cancer the concern it deserves? Besides, breast cancer is a serious issue – not a joke about bras and colours, right? Wrong. Wrong because there is a huge framing problem going on here. It is poor logic. If I say I am against capital punishment is that the same thing as me saying that I believe ‘all crime should go unpunished’?

Will men silently guffaw? Sure. Many will, some definitely will. But that is not the point. Let’s go back to the question I asked in point number 2. Are Facebook memes a good way to spread awareness? Depends of how you define the objective. The objective, I think, of the meme was to raise awareness about the existence of breast cancer. Awareness is, to me,  planting a thought. Waving a word in someone’s face. If I scream “BOOBS” and get three men to pay attention and manage to say three lines about breast cancer after – what is the likely outcome?

One scenario is – the man derives some happiness from the word ‘boobs’ and moves on. Scenario 2 – The man remembers about the boobs but also about breast cancer. He has a busy day – but when he casually surfs the net, he looks it up. Maybe he has daughters who he discusses the issue with, maybe he asks his partner.

Scenario 3 – Maybe the chap does nothing other than repeat this “silly story” to another guy, who then tells some other guy…. information spreads. One of those guys is from scenario 2.

So we have a lot of lousy and different outcomes – but some positive ones too. Are the positive outcomes worth it? You decide. What are the losses? Some guys, who wouldn’t have cared either way, still don’t – they occupy the same spot on the indifference curve. Some guys act as carriers of the message. Positive outcome. Some guys, who might not have cared, (if not for the meme) actually read about it. Positive Outcome. Is the breast cancer cause doing any worse than it was in the absence of the meme? You pick.

I also said that response two (the accusation  of trivializing) does some damage. How?

One of the best things about the internet is that information is easily accessible. It doesn’t cost me more than two clicks to read about breast cancer – right now. This is the magic of hyper linked documents. The power of a social media tool (like Facebook) and a meme on it, is that it, adds personal credibility. I get a message from a friend, I read it. Even if it is a meme. Then there is the hope to leverage huge numbers. Most critically – the internet is fun.

In school, I hated statistical classes, because the information was in boring histograms and I had to draw to scale on printed graph paper. There was no undo button if I made a mistake. The cost of drawing that graph and making an error was astronomically high in that context. I had to use an eraser and hope that all the rubbing wouldn’t tear my graph paper. In college, I discovered infographics, beautiful non-histogram ways to understand statistical data. And I could create my own (on excel back then) and make as many mistakes as I wanted – because I could ‘undo’. How did I start enjoying a subject I hated? It was made fun.

Surely, there can be no better way to attract attention to a deserving cause, than by making ‘awareness’ fun? If someone wanted to get people to look up ‘breast cancer’, by mentioning coloured bras because it is fun, how is that a bad outcome?

Here is a real bad outcome – by diluting the enthusiasm to share important information and getting minds to look up ‘breast cancer’ – you’re actually hurting the cause. Time and time again I meet people in the social sector – who like occupying the high ground by using this word ‘trivialize’.

Here is how to trivialize a genuinely good idea —

The internet using population has quick and easy access to information. The meme architect has a hook that catches the eye, a free mechanism to do the networking and a social media tool to add credibility — and what do you do? You worry about bad outcomes because you think people will misunderstand.Worse still, you air those views.

Some timid people out there, who would have liked to be a part of this information chain, have now opted out because your raised doubts. In the words of Steven E Landsburg — you have polluted the communal stream of information that had clear positive spillover effects. If you don’t like Economics — this means there are now fewer people to influence more people. Now that is a bad outcome.

I would not worry so much about people’s understanding. People are genuinely rational. Also, despite my description of men, many are not as awful as one likes to believe and are happy to learn and even help.

So what colour is your bra? 🙂

PS: This is not to say that there aren’t better ways to raise awareness. Neither am I saying that different questions and issues cannot be raised. Cultural sensibilities, prices, attitudes, aspirations and a bunch of other things are extraordinarily important. I’m not entirely sure if breast cancer is a women’s issue alone or if getting men involved is enough.

The point is – you can’t attack an attempt to raise awareness by saying “you aren’t saying all there is to be said on the subject”. Of course not. If the bra meme gets people interested in breast cancer – the internet is a great place to learn, about the weightier and by no means inconsequential issues, in this arena — and breastcancer.org is an excellent place to begin.

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