Thursday before Easter Break, the St. Baldrick’s Foundation had a stand in front of my building on campus today. Lots of young guys with freshly shaven heads walked around, “raising awareness,” asking for money. I am usually supportive of students engaging in community activities, finding causes, and generally thinking about someone else than number one. And yet, this one threw me off.
I told them that I had lost most of my hair last year due to illness. I didn’t say how horribly debilitating it was to lose my hair, just as I had started to feel better physically. I didn’t tell them how my hairdresser tried to downplay the shocked expression on her face when an entire hairbrush was full of hair in one stroke.
And then I told them that I knew that they had the best of intentions and that they should be proud to engage in a cause. And then I said that to me they were not raising awareness but parading their able-bodiedness (if that is a word) around. To their credit, they were open to my criticism.
If you lose your hair because of illness, chemo or anything else, it is not by choice. It is because your body reacts to something. And while it is not the most painful thing of everything that can happen to you, it is a big deal. The young guys on campus however, did not have that experience, their hair was gone in five minutes, and it was gone because they made the choice. They had a choice. When I explained this, they said they had never seen it this way. Of course they hadn’t, and that’s the privilege of being healthy, or able-bodied or whatever you want to call it. They even joked that it was a good thing for summer to have no hair. A cancer patient may not get to experience the next summer.
To them, it was a physical sign to sufferers that they were not alone, that they were with them. A sweet and kind sentiment, and considering that St. Baldrick is a charity that raises awareness for cancer in children– it is truly heartwarming. But at the end of the day, cancer is brutal, and to be there for someone with cancer, you need to do more than shave your head. One of my best friends works in oncology, and if you want up-close-and-personal stories, check out Nurse Apple’s blog.
So how do you raise awareness then? How do you show solidarity? This is an issue that has been bugging me since the Live 8 concerts in 2005. Remember when Bono, wearing his $5000 Gucci slippers was telling the world leaders to relive African countries of their debt? Again, I wholeheartedly agree that this would be a first step, but what I saw was a freaking party in the park, TV stations getting quota and Madonna selling about 200% more of her albums as a result of her performance there. Does raising awareness have to be a feel-good event, instead of a critical engagement?
Would it have done more good if the students on campus had gone to visit kids in the hospital, made a connection and been part of their lives? If you put a price on it, no. They raised a bunch of money for cancer research that day. But then, maybe solidarity doesn’t mean that you write a check to make something go away, be it poverty, cancer or IBD. Maybe the ultimate solidarity would be inclusion instead of charity.