For the last few weeks, the radio station has been incessantly running ads for ‘Massage for the Cure,’ an event organised to take place tomorrow. Customers at Massage Envy, a national massage chain, can get a $49 therapeutic massage and $15 of that goes to the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation. I actually have a multi-part series planned for October talking about breast cancer ‘awareness’ and a lot of the flaws with how ‘awareness’ campaigns are handled, but I couldn’t resist talking about this particular campaign, because it has many interesting things to examine. Consider this a preview of the kind of stuff you can expect in October.
Let’s start with the way the ads are framed, like you, personally, will be fighting cancer by going in for a massage. What the ads don’t disclose is what percentage of the cost of the massage actually goes to an organisation working on breast cancer issues; you can only find that out by going to the Massage Envy site. One might reasonably ask why people don’t just send $15 to a breast cancer organisation of their choice.
Chain massage is something that I feel deeply ambivalent about. I like the idea of making massage more accessible to people who want it and can benefit from it. However, what many people may not realise is that the working conditions for massage therapists in most spas and facilities like this are not very pleasant. Of the cost of the massage, a very minimal amount actually goes to the therapist. Some get paid hourly, some by the massage, but in both cases, they rely heavily on tips. Yes, there are advantages to working in a spa, liking having linens managed for you and having a receptionist to book appointments, but it’s hard work. Massage is hard work. Doing four to six massages a day is very hard on your body, most spas don’t provide benefits and time off, and the wages are low. Spas are most commonly used by people just starting out, or supplementing other work, because of the working conditions. A lot of patrons are not aware of this, and don’t know how to find independent massage therapists working in their area.
In the case of a $49 massage where $15 is taken straight off the top, I can’t see how the therapist is making more than a few dollars. Therapists pretty much would have to take a cut on their normal rate for this event to work. Maybe a bunch of massage therapists at hundreds of locations all decided to volunteer, but it’s hard to ‘volunteer’ when your work place presents you with something like this. If you say ‘no, I would rather not participate,’ people are going to shame you for it.
Setting aside my concerns about the setting, though, let’s delve a little bit more deeply into the chosen charity. According to Charity Navigator, almost 84% of funds raised actually go to the causes the Susan G. Komen supports. Administration costs are fairly low, when compared to other charities[1. Just for perspective and comparison, the Red Cross, a charity I strongly dislike, spends almost 92% of its funding on operating expenses. The Humane Society of the United States, a dismal 71%. Doctors Without Borders, almost 87%.]. Which is good, but what exactly does the foundation support?
The focus of the foundation is on curing, less on support of people currently diagnosed with breast cancer, an issue I will delve more deeply into in October. It’s excellent that they provide some educational resources for people working with a cancer diagnosis, but it doesn’t seem like funds go into things like helping breast cancer patients afford treatment, stay in their homes, access counseling, and other services. The foundation is active in underserved communities, providing grants to allow access to early screening and diagnosis, but a search for ‘need help paying for treatment’ doesn’t turn anything up.
The site is heavily branded with pink, another issue we will be covering in more detail next month, but suffice it to say that the pinkification of breast cancer is a serious issue, with some serious repercussions. I note that the representations on their front page are mostly of women, and are heavily white. The men are people working in solidarity with patients, not patients themselves. Nowhere is there room for people of nonbinary gender.
Pinkwashing is actually something this particular organisation bears a lot of responsibility for. Indeed, the foundation feels a certain sense of ownership over pink branding for breast cancer and has taken cases to court over it; the proprietary relationship over the colour pink has led to situations where organisations using pink branding have wasted money fighting suits with the foundation over it. Money that, it should go without saying, could have gone to support for breast cancer patients. The organisation has also been accused of involvement in some pretty questionable pinkwashing campaigns. There’s a reason there’s a group called Think Before You Pink.
To the Komen organisation’s credit, it seems less involved in the heavily objectifying and deeply offensive campaigns relying on catchy slogans about ta-tas and boobies, but it’s certainly not a charity with impeccable credentials, either.
Campaigns like this traffic on the genuine and understandable desire to do good, to fight cancer, while also generating lots of positive publicity for their corporate sponsors (‘look, Massage Envy really cares about women!’). They also elide more complicated issues, like, where is the money going? Who is benefiting from it? What kind of activities are being funded? Are there better or more efficient uses for your funds? Would your $15, or $49, go further if you donated it directly to a local cancer resource centre?
These are important questions to ask, and there are no simple answers. A very quick probe turned up a lot of information I found relevant. I’d do a much deeper one before donating (or deciding not to donate). What is important to talk about, and what I will be talking about in October, is how these campaigns are used and positioned, and what kind of impact they have on services for people with breast cancer, access to diagnosis, preventative care, and treatment, and, yes, ‘awareness.’
I hate cancer of all forms more than I can even begin to convey. Which is why I think it is super important to make sure we fight in the way most likely to kick its ass from here to kingdom come.