I was on the T heading to Boston Common to watch (500) Days of Summer (amazing movie) when I looked up and saw the above advertisement situated on top of the door. Me being over six feet tall and damn near color blind, the relative “loud” sign stood out on the otherwise dim train. I didn’t think about it that much but when I looked again, it made me uneasy. The picture isn’t the best quality but it is a flyer for the BeBoldBeBald campaign, a call to arms of sorts began by the Small Army for a Cause organization, that is raising money for cancer research. September 17 is the day we are to show our solidarity with those living with or those who have died from cancer by wearing a “bald cap”. I find this "show of solidarity" problematic. Before I continue, I hope what I say below does not come off as my denigration of a group of sympathetic individuals who work for a noble cause. Rather, I question the entire process of dawning on another’s identity, persona, or physical characteristic for a cause when one always has the freedom to eschew any such constraint, hindrance, or restriction it places on one’s abilities (taken abilities to include those things one ordinarily are able to do).
Just to be clear, I had this same feeling when watching My Sister’s Keeper when Cameron Diaz's character dawned the “bald cap” when she opted to show her solidarity with her ailing daughter’s struggles. I remember similar conversations with friends when Will Smith puts on a “fat suit" in the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to know what it means to be and feel fat.
I may be jaded in my assessment because of my reading of John Griffin's Black Like Me, a “study” of a white man who wanted to know what the Negro experience was in the South so he chemically darkened his skin and entered the hostile world as dark enemy rather than white friend. I acknowledge that I have grouped physical ailment, body type, and race in the same category. However, I argue that this goes beyond these individual examples. When I look at the show 30 Days, I have the same underlying criticism: walking in someone’s shoes for a while to show solidarity can be a tricky encounter for one must always remember that one is borrowing the shoes and mimicking the walk. And here we arrive at another double-edged component to such an activity. We must realize that we do not become who we pretend but also that those who we pretend to be are real. It is the mismatch between the show of solidarity and the reality of the life of those individuals that I find most troubling: the insolence of understanding.
Furthermore, in the case of this organization, undoubtedly doing work for a good cause, I believe that they make too light of a very serious and, often times, grave situation. They have a feature on their website called the “Balderizer” where you can upload an image of yourself and, basically, make yourself look like one has been through chemotherapy or another treatments that forces one to lose one’s hair. The face that is positioned next to the link that leads to the actual face is a smiling, happy go lucky one. Now, let me be clear, I am not a fan of extremes in any direction: showing the always downtrodden cancer patient is just as erroneous and problematic as the forever, elated smiling one. To make the effect of the treatment into a game of sorts, however, takes it beyond the extreme continuum previously outlined and perverts it in such a way that it makes it more of joke, a fun activity to do, than anything else. I know that there will be those who disagree with this assessment of the computer program (I will call it that and not use a more colorful description) but I stand by my stance that it flattens the reality of the experience of chemotherapy and other cancer treatments has on the body and the family.
I leave with these questions, what are we really saying when voluntarily and temporally “take on” someone else’s struggles in the physical form? What are we to gain or take from those tournaments when healthy individuals voluntarily restricting themselves to wheelchairs for a basketball or volleyball tournament? The fat suit? The bald cap? In my opinion, the experiences between those with the “condition” and those who adopt it for a while are incommensurable for there is always that option, that privilege of exiting from the play that is someone else’s life story.