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Breast cancer awareness goes viral on Facebook . . . with bra color updates

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 9, 2010; C01

The world awoke Friday to discover that Davi's bra is black. Janet's is blue with bows. Kim's is pink. And Susan's is a "decadent beige."

Throughout the day, on Facebook pages across the globe, hundreds of thousands of women were freely, willingly, even gleefully sharing the color of the bras they were wearing -- without really knowing exactly why they were doing so.

"Robin's egg blue," wrote Jan Schorfhaar.

"Beige with slight lace," wrote Melissa Castino Reid.

"Black!" wrote Naomi Bebo.

Purple. Polka dot. Grimy white. And even as the bra colors went viral -- wildly so -- cyber-arguments erupted about what it all meant. Was so openly and brazenly posting something as intimate as one's bra color an attempt to raise breast cancer awareness? Or was it all just another Facebook time-suck, another "send your friend a snowball" novelty? A meme?

It was no game to the people at the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, who were stunned to find themselves the beneficiaries of a Web phenomenon they didn't begin to understand. At the start of Friday, they had exactly 135 fans on their Facebook page. By 5:30 in the evening, they had 135,000.

"It would be nice to claim credit for this, but we really have done nothing," said John Hammarley, spokesman for the foundation, who was at first speechless trying to describe the magnitude of that jump in interest. Indeed, the foundation had spent the past two years trying to connect with an audience through social media and not making much progress, even after hiring two staffers dedicated solely to developing ties on sites such as Facebook. "We have honestly just sat back and watched a classic example of a viral phenomenon unfold from sunrise to almost sunset."

Hammarley said the foundation got an uptick in donations as well, but they haven't yet sorted out how much they can attribute to the bra color craze. "We really don't care what color you're wearing," he said. "But we will seize the moment."

The American Cancer Society, likewise, saw a bump in interest about breast cancer, but was slightly more defensive about the bra color postings. "We are not behind it," said spokesperson Andrew Becker. "And the reason I say that up front is that there was a news outlet in India that was saying we had something to do with it."

India.

Although tech people at the Komen Foundation spent most of the day Friday trying to trace the bra color phenomenon to its source, they had no luck. They have no idea who started it. Or when. Or, really, why.

Becker said a co-worker received a BlackBerry message in December asking her to post her bra color -- from her relatives in Nigeria.

Nigeria.

One Facebook group, "Breast Cancer Awareness. I updated my Status with my Bra Colour," was started in Britain in July with a handful of supporters. By 6 p.m. Friday, it had 30,314 fans.

Kimberley Griffiths, the administrator of that group, said she had nothing to do with getting the phenomenon started, but hoped to spread the word to increase breast cancer awareness.

But, for many Facebook users, that's not how it came across.

Starting Tuesday or Wednesday, in the United States at least, many women received a chain letter-like e-mail from Facebook friends that went something like this: "Some fun is going on . . . just write the color of your bra in your status. Just the color, nothing else. It will be neat to see if this will spread the wings of breast cancer awareness. It will be fun to see how long it takes before people wonder why all the girls have a color in their status Haha."

Some versions of the message included gleeful speculation about how posting colors in status updates would keep "the boys" confused.

In a fairly typical pattern, Davi McDonald of Austin saw a color in her aunt Judy's status update, asked what was up, then posted her own bra color and sent the e-mail to a host of her Facebook friends. One of them, Janice M. Shaddox Lee, posted her bra color, explaining that she was doing so "in honor and memory of my mother, who passed away from breast cancer 13 years ago, and in honor of my friend who is a breast cancer survivor. I also did it to bring awareness to others to get regular mammograms."

Some began to question the propriety of so widely broadcasting information they preferred to leave to the imagination. "It was for the awareness, because otherwise it's probably not the kind of thing to post," McDonald said. "However, nowadays, we will have to bare it all at the airport if we want to get on a plane, so I guess anything goes!"

By Friday afternoon, some people complained that posting solely a color, without a link to a breast cancer awareness site, or information about how one in eight American women will get breast cancer, was little more than a silly game or a crass attempt to get attention from men.

"I have a friend who is in her late 20s, just had a double mastectomy, chemo, and is now going through radiation, and she was furious about this," said Tanya Alteras, a District resident who responded to a request for comments on The Post's Story Lab blog. "How this raises awareness about breast cancer is beyond me. When you have people posting 'Saran wrap,' it just becomes offensive."

Some breast cancer survivors blogged about their own heart-wrenching decision when faced with the fad. "I wrote 'None -- in fact, I don't even own one,' " blogged one survivor. She said many of her friends who'd had mastectomies were writing "Nude" or "Nothing" on their status lines.

Shana Aucsmith of Bellevue, Wash., deleted the chain letter she got Friday morning. Just another Facebook fad, she thought. But hours later, she began seeing bra colors pop up all over her friends' Facebook pages. And some of those friends, she knew, had survived breast cancer.

"It was astounding how quickly the word had spread," she said. "So, I decided to post my bra color to show support for them. I thought of writing black, because it sounds sexier, but I told the truth and wrote beige. Now everyone knows how boring I am."

As with any trend, countertrends immediately sprang up. Within hours, new Facebook groups, such as "Not Posting the Color of Your Bra" and "We Don't Want to Know Your Bra Color" began attracting fans. Men weighed in with "Post your boxer color (Guys)" because "it's about time guys got to proclaim the color of their undergarments too." Another message went viral later in the day, pretending to warn against a virus related to the bra color posts. "To fix it," the warning said, "you must remove your bra, then go to Setting>Enable Webcam> Record Movie. Please repost to your status."

But just who thought of asking women to expose their bra colors to the world remains a mystery. As does the reason that so many women were so willing to let the world know theirs was magenta. Or pink with gold and white flowers.

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