Supporting The Show?

Weariness and fatigue will make me do anything, I suppose. Last October I voiced frustrations I had with a few words and phrases, like “awareness”, “show support/support breast cancer”, and every single slang word in existence for breasts (Some Word Problems). In that post I mentioned that part of the reason I disliked “show support” was because it always seemed like some people were more about the “show” portion of that phrase, rather than the “support” part. The post was about being tired of hearing those words and phrases to the point that they had lost meaning for me, so I did not want to delve into what really bugs me about “showing support”. Plus, I was afraid my thoughts were too harsh to be shared.

If I’m harsh, so what?

This time of year, the ads and pleas to go bald (whether for real or wearing a shower cap thingie) or do some Pink thing to show support for “sisters” with breast cancer overload my senses via many forms of media. I understand that many people succumb to these ads and buy a silly trinket, wear a t-shirt, or put a sticker on a car, with good intentions, with good hearts. They think by being public with their caring about their friend/relative with breast cancer will please that person. And maybe it does please some patients. But not me.

I wrote about my frustration with all the head-shaving-in-solidarity a couple of years ago. I still think it is rather useless compared to acts like cooking for a patient, or simply listening to a patient’s many fears. I remember around the time I wrote that post there was a small kerfuffle about some young girl getting sent home from her school for shaving her head to show support for her bald friend with cancer (it violated some dress code). So much outrage in social media about it—so much praise for the bravery of the head-shaver; the girl with cancer wasn’t mentioned much. While I think it is great kids show empathy, I could not help but think that scenarios like that teach future adults at a young age that the “show” is the most important aspect. Yes, I am a cynic—read other posts on this blog!

Now, before anyone starts howling at me; YES I know there is no one way to do cancer and I have no right to criticize those embracing Pink while expecting respect for rejecting Pink (not going down THAT road today, but see Reciprocity and Respect). And YES, as stated above, I know that many people wish to show support with the best of intentions, thinking it is the right thing to do, as it is so socially acceptable and all.

But why is it socially acceptable—why is there this ongoing trend of advertising oh so publicly: “I CARE, I HELPED”? And no, this is not an issue limited to cancer.

I actually began noticing this well before I got cancer. Working in the non-profit sector and managing volunteers, I saw how frequently volunteers expected a little “prize” for their contributed time and efforts. I especially noticed the same volunteers wanting the same t-shirt emblazoned with the word “volunteer”, year after year. I knew they must have a couple from previous years; wearing those would’ve helped my budget—because while the shirts were cheap, they were not free. (Contrary to popular belief, businesses are not tripping over themselves to donate to the many, many non-profits in existence, all with outstretched hands: “please give”.) But I thought back then, cruelly perhaps, that some people really liked showing off: “look I helped!”

And yes I point the finger at myself too. Many years ago I would participate in a walk for a local animal shelter, and there were the usual t-shirts and other “prizes” for money collected. I wore my t-shirt proudly—“look, I raised money, I’m a good person!” But as years wore on and I had less disposable income, I began to resent when national animal organizations would send t-shirts and notepads to entice me back into giving donations. It was money wasted; I don’t have the money, and the dollars buying “prizes” should’ve been used for sheltered animal care. But perhaps the t-shirts were donated and I should not complain (and they may have gotten a discount for mailing that stuff out, but it was not free, in my limited experience, the USPS does not do freebies).

You can kind of get the picture as to how I got cynical about showing “I helped”, right?

This cynical view has been confirmed many times over now that I reside in CancerLand. I especially noticed it a couple of summers ago when some centerfold models jumped out of airplanes topless—you know, setting boobies really free—for awareness. When criticized, one of the models/participants protested back and the usual “you should be grateful we’re doing this for you” finger-wagging, and the “my (insert relative here) had breast cancer and she has/had no problem with this type of thing”, comments left everywhere ensued. I noticed it again more recently this past summer, with the soda bottle incident. The reactions by the porn organization that instigated the stunt to the outcry directed at them were almost laughable. It’s so clear at times like these that applause for all this “support” being showcased is expected. How is that NOT about self-display?

I was relieved last year to learn I was not the only person who looks at all the instances of setting ta-tas free (with a selfie to document the act), or just plain old wearing of slogan-saturated apparel, with some cynicism. I ran across an interview (transcript) about all the “Boston Strong” t-shirts that were the item to wear on the anniversary of the deadly marathon incident. Here was the part that caught my ear:

SMITH: Dobens says getting the shirt is as important to people as giving the donation.

DOBENS: It has this idea of, like, I have proof now that I helped. I can show people that I really, really care about the people that I’m helping.

JOSEPH BURGO: It’s hard not to get cynical about this stuff.

SMITH: Psychologist and author Joseph Burgo says he understands the underlying feelings of solidarity and defiance. But he can’t help but cringe at people feeling that their every sentiment has to be tweeted or posted or literally, worn on their sleeve.

BURGO: I mean, why wear anything? You know, I think that there’s a kind of a feeling that unless you share your experience with other people – like, it isn’t entirely real to you unless you announce it to other people. It’s just part of this narcissistic culture of ours, where everything is about self-display.

SMITH: It’s almost as if people are using the Boston Strong brand to brand themselves, which raises a whole other concern; that Boston Strong is not actually a brand, and isn’t trademarked. So anyone can sell it whether or not any money goes to charity
That last bit about where does the money go—that wouldn’t sound familiar now, would it? Yes, being sarcastic.

Of course, I must consider the power of The Show. Seeing a sea of people wearing pink t-shirts is a strong visual statement: “wow, lots of people have to deal with breast cancer, we better do something about it, because it must be a huge problem”. And then public perception and pressure follow and that is how charities start raising money, and politicians start granting funds for research. I’m sure politicians want to “show” they are doing something (don’t get me started there). Seeing a sea of pink reminds women of how common the cancer is—better get that mammogram! (Otherwise known as “awareness”). I see the big picture, and understand the power of the movement.

But I still cannot help but wonder if something got lost along the way.

Many other bloggers and journalists have written extensively about how buying that feel-good pink-drenched item really doesn’t result in much money going where it can be useful. It’s pointless for me to repeat information that is easy to find, especially since most readers of this blog already know what I’m talking about.

And truly, I’m not trying to hit out at everyone—cancer patients or not—who wears Pink slogans or slaps them on cars. In fact, I’ve been wondering if now “self-display” will be lobbed at those of us who’ve posted pictures of our scars in a retaliation of sorts to crap like no bra day. I see more and more mainstream articles featuring women baring scars with or without non-cosmetic tattoos. While personally I hope to provide solace for those facing the same surgery, and to combat the “sexy” campaigns, I’m sure some would say it is “showing off”. I’m still on the fence about this, and beginning to contemplate removing my pictures for the “show off” aspect, as well as a few other reasons (see Random Thoughts On Baring the Scars).

Do I have the solution for this? Of course not—I never do. I am merely pointing out that for me it was easy to become cynical about “The Showing of Support”. I seriously doubt I will ever think head-shaving in solidarity is useful, especially compared to activities like cooking or cleaning for a patient—you know, regular, grunt work that doesn’t make for a good photo-op. Personally I did not have to endure any incidents of having someone do something personally more of a “show” when I would’ve required more of that someone, but I’m sure others do have such stories (feel free to share those incidents in comments). And while I cringe when I see the sea of pink and all it represents to me (see Take the Mythical Image of the Strong Warrior Breast Cancer Survivor And Bury HER Once & For All), I understand the power of that image.

I wonder if society will ever get to a point when we can stop supporting the show.

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Author: Cancer Curmudgeon

Oct 2010 diagnosed with Stage 3, HER2+ Breast Cancer. Completed treatment Jan 2012. Waaaaaay over pink. Applying punk rock sensibility to how I do cancer.

17 thoughts on “Supporting The Show?”

  1. I love this post. I was only 2 months into treatment, totally rocking pink ribbon stuff, & attending my first “pink out pep rally” at the school where my hubs & I taught at the time. Several of our female students made shirts for the pink out that read “We ❤ Kimberly" on the back. They made me a Survivor sash. And I was def overwhelmed & very touched by the guesture. But then, sitting there, center fuckin stage with the other "honored survivors" is when it hit me like a ton of bricks. Wtf??? Ok, this is just stupid. And while I am still touched by the sentiment behind these outward expressions of support, because I do realize their heart is in the right place, they just don't know any better because that's how the pink culture works, I am very quick to point out better ways to support & show you care.

    Thanks for this excellent, as usual, post. xx

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    1. Oh thank you Kimberly, I knew you would “get” what I was trying to say here. I was worried it could be kind of offensive, calling out this kind of stuff. But I just had to do it.
      I think there are many “good” stories like yours, and I’ve read some stories a little less so, friends annoyed when a patient did not meet expectations of fulfilling their “mascot” for lack of a better word. And those people came off quite selfish, to my view anyway. I was lucky too, I had concrete support, less of the symbolic gesture type of thing–which again, I did not mind exactly, I understood the desire to do good behind it. It’s stuff like celebrities or silly people on social media doing bra strap things or whatever that I really have no patience for.
      Thanks, as always! xoxxo!

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  2. I agree with your very well written blog. A thought did occur to me. When I was re-diagnosed stage 4, everyone in my social and work world desperately wanted to offer me help, not to show off, but because they genuinely cared. When I repeatedly said no to offers to cook meals or drive me to the hospital ( I feel fine and don’t need) they increasingly came up with ways to show their support for me in other ways–weekly deliveries of flowers for example. I think it comes from feeling helpless and wanting to pitch in. The small acts of kindness do help me to not feel so all alone in the world of MBC.

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    1. Oh absolutely, feeling helpless is a big factor here. Much of this issue has to do with our stunted culture that has not evolved in a way to deal with illness, death, grief. While breast cancer is no longer taboo because of the focus on “boobies”, the illness part can still be a bit taboo I think. And some people refuse to say the word dead/die (see a very old post of mine called The D Word). This is one of the many reasons society needs to “grow up”. Your family and friends are certainly good examples I hope others can follow.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi CC,
    I am fascinated by your insights on this. I think there are a lot of people who do want to help out (for whatever cause it might be) more for the show part of things than for the support part. Sad, but true. And as I have blogged about, I am way more “impressed” when people talk about/reveal their invisible scars than I am when I see them showing their mastectomy scars or whatever. And just today I was watching an NFL game and I thought to myself, that pink stuff everyone’s wearing is a prime example of the NFL wanting to look good. I’m not saying they don’t care, but… well, it’s just so overdone. As are so many things during BCAM. Like you don’t know that, right? Maybe I’ll write a post about the NFL thing. Or maybe not. Another great read. Thank you.

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    1. Thanks–this was a difficult post to write, and I’ve been thinking on this topic for years–even before I got cancer. I REALLY thought those yellow Livestrong bracelets were more of a trend than real awareness back in the day. In fact, I just read some pop culture nostalgia piece this evening referring to them as something everyone wore, with no mention of why.
      The physical scars vs invisible scars is tricky, in that part of the issue of the mastectomy scar is that it is often an outward representation of the psychological scar as well. Or at least it is for me. But, I am worried it is getting to be overdone, like everything, sigh. Anyway, thanks!

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  4. So with you on this. I’ve been reading a lot about the downside of cause marketing, and this is surely it. All show, little do. Buy a pink bracelet, forget the woman with breast cancer who can’t pay her bills. Here’s one of the quotes I found in an article from philanthropy.com: “When we attach charity to consumerism […] we become inured to true suffering.”

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    1. I read that article you posted on FB yesterday and posted it myself–gave me lots to chew on, so I loved it even if I have some questions about it. People have been trained now to want a reward for donating, and to show it off so turning the tide will be difficult. Many other BC bloggers focus ire on corporations–but corporations are doing what they’ve always done–finding ways to make money. The ones not donating anything but slapping pink ribbons on stuff–why do they do it? Because people will buy it, because they want to identify as “doing something”. While the corporation doing it is indeed despicable, at what point does consumer responsibility come into it? And this is where is gets murky for me–I know I should not blame people who embrace pink for how they do cancer just as I do not wish to be called negative for the way I do cancer (tho’ that happens anyway). But, the Pink is not helping, but if people keep buying it, perpetuating the cycle–well, at what point do we talk about that?
      Just thoughts. Anyway, thanks for reading! xoxox

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  5. You always make me think about the what and why of things we do. I too after reading your blogs for awhile no am turned off by the ribbons and the ‘pink’ everywhere. I appreciate being able to read and ‘feel’ what you have to share with the world. I know many dollars that are collected never gets to the people it is donated for. Like the Doctor said in the interview, its more about showing than perhaps anything else. We need to question ourselves as to why we do what we do. Is it offensive? Why are we doing it? The big question that was raised in that interview…is it only for self gratification and show? Thanks for giving me something to ponder and share with my circle. We should all be questioning our motives around our actions.
    As always THANKS for the authentic point of view you bring to your writings. Bravo

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    1. Aww thank you for your kind words. Now I’ll really blow your mind: this topic was brought up about a decade ago on an episode of “Friends”. Joey and Phoebe argue about whether or not there is such a thing as a truly selfless act. I just remembered that–but couldn’t have put it in this over-long piece anyway.
      I do think most people want to help, but being seen to help is a part of that. And this has been going on for a long time, lest anyone be tempted to blame the urge on Millennial generation selfie culture as bringing it about.
      Anyway, thanks again!

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  6. I very much agree as well. As you point out, sometimes the “show” is well-intentioned, and perhaps in the early days some elements of show were useful in bringing attention to the cause. But we’ve moved past that point and need to find a better way to generate substantive support. No answers here either, but thanks for raising this important issue!

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    1. Thank you Lisa, I admit I had a great deal of fear about posting this one. This is a complicated issue, no doubt I’ll revisit it again. At another time I will post about a similar issue–identifying as a BC survivor via all the apparel–and the “Show of support” thing is linked to that a bit. Tough stuff but I want to hear it discussed.
      If you check my FB page I shared an article about philanthropy (the one Accidental Amazon posted) and it addresses related issues. The author of that piece had no solution either.
      But I guess it all starts with bringing up the topic, eh?
      Anyway, thanks for reading, as always, I really appreciate your comments.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. You thought this through a lot. I can see how this would be a hard topic to write about because we can be misunderstood and perceived as ungrateful.

    I agree with a lot of what you are saying. Personally, one reason I never wanted attention for my cancer, was because I was not sure about the intentions. Now, let me clarify, those closer to me — family members, my guy and some friends — I know they really wanted to help, but with others, I felt they wanted to use my cancer to get attention. Is that mean to say? Do I sound ungrateful? This is how I felt. But this is all part of the cancer culture too although this type of behavior happens with other situations, not just cancer. People like to feel they’ve done something “good” and often fall under the “center of attention” trap. I too feel it’s all about “the show” and not so much about the patients — at least this is how Pinktober makes me feel. I dislike the marketing behind all of this too.

    P.S. Loving the new header.

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    1. Thanks–I do stuff like the header to prove I can do it in Microsoft free stuff–just a personal “I can do it for free” thing!
      This is a tricky thing–I do not want to offend, but have to ask about intention. Obviously I do not have answers yet. I think all need to look into their hearts and minds and ask themselves the difficult questions, ya know?

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