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What does the Whale's Tail of a Red Dress Do?

Yesterday morning at work, I noticed a few people wearing this red pin on their sweaters or coats. “How cool,” I thought. “People are putting whales’ tails on. Weird, but cool.” An hour later, someone handed me my own pin to put on and I saw the whale’s tail in a new light:

Is This a Red Dress or a Whale's Tail?

OK, so it wasn’t a whale’s tail. It was a red dress. Why should I wear it? “To fight heard disease in women,” the person handing out pins told me. The following is the complete text on the back of the card holding the pin:

"Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women in America. Wearing the red dress, which is the symbol of women and heart disease, is a way to speak up against this largely preventable disease. Make the choice today. Our Hearts. Our Choice. Join us and Speak Up to Save Lives."

Heart disease actually is, according to the CDC, the leading cause of death in women (and in men too, by the way), slightly edging out cancer. And I’m all for speaking up against bad things that we can change. But what does “speaking up” accomplish in this case? What does it change?

If I say, “Well, I think heart disease in women is a bad thing,” who exactly am I standing up against? The evil we-love-women’s-heart-disease lobby? I don’t know of anyone who thinks heart disease in women is good. This makes wearing a pin against heart disease in women very different than, say, wearing a pin against gay bashing — because there are still a lot of people out there who think that a round of “smear the queer” is a good idea. Wearing a pin against heart disease in women is also different than wearing other pins because, as far as I can tell, “speaking up against” heart disease doesn’t intimidate heart disease in the slightest. Cholesterol plaques don’t dissolve in response to a good talking-to. Anti-Muslim bigotry, on the other hand, might wash away under the display of a supportive pin.

Does my wearing this red dress pin give any heart disease research group any money? No. I got it for free. Does wearing the red dress pin change any law or institutional practice? No. That’s not what’s called for in any picture or text or other message associated with the pin. It’s my understanding that the American Heart Association participates in some other “red dress” activities that teach women about heart attack risk factors or enable women to get a checkup, which is good, but the pin doesn’t do that.

What did the pin do? I nicely asked people at work yesterday why they were wearing the pin, and the answer over and over again was a smile and some version of the words “to stand up against heart disease in women,” followed by a return to work. No ensuing conversations. No exchange of valuable information. The feeling of participation and having done something was pretty much it.

There’s a word for the feeling of having done something without having actually done something: “slacktivism” — and this pin strikes me as slacktivist. Slacktivism can be worse than doing nothing because it releases the pressure people feel to get off their asses and actually do something.

So put away the red pin, please, or make it meaningful by having it stand as a badge of having actually, really done something. Do you really want to stop heart disease in women? Here’s a few tips.

If you are a woman, then stop smoking, eat more fruits and vegetables, and get some exercise today and tomorrow. Also donate blood — it thins your blood.

Read about some policy changes that if implemented could reduce women’s deaths from heart attacks. Then call the Congressional Switchboard at (202) 224-3121, ask to speak with your Representative’s or Senator’s office, and advocate for those changes.

Donate money to specific research and treatment programs (not general “awareness campaigns” that distribute meaningless pins).

Take these actions and you will have accomplished something.

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