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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