Let’s begin with a story…
Mary sat hunched over on the edge of the cold chair in the doctor’s office. Two years ago she had received the diagnosis that the lump she found on her breast was indeed cancer. She had always thought that she was the exception, that in no way could she have cancer. After her diagnosis and nights of tears, she began chemotherapy. She felt weak all the time.
She was too nauseated to go out with her friends. She took several naps during the day as she was too tired to do anything else. It was okay though because once her hair began to fall out, her friends stopped asking her to go out with them anyway.
She would walk into the grocery store and people would stare at her, as if she were patient zero and could cause them to get cancer, too. After all of this ravaged her body, today, she had just received the news that she had to have a mastectomy. At the age of 46, she would cease to be a woman.
As stores begin the transition to their pink states, and workers put up banners advertising breast cancer awareness specials, an unsettling feeling is no doubt entering the stomachs of breast cancer survivors everywhere that their efforts to bring awareness to their pain, change the status quo, and ultimately get the attention they so rightly deserve will be in vain once again.
Every October, Americans receive an onslaught of breast cancer pink. They wear pink shirts, pins, and ribbons. They purchase pink car decals, key chains, and hairbands. They even eat pink ribbon bagels and drink pink lemonade energy drinks. Images of attractive women decorate bars and clubs promising donations for their new drink or food special. Despite the fact that America is overrun with these campaigns, breast cancer deaths remain the same.
Awareness campaigns are not bringing awareness to the issue of breast cancer, but in fact, are robbing people of their dignity and self-worth, and companies are all too quick to cash in on this mistake. With its overt sexualization of breast cancer, misrepresentation of the true issues, and reduction of funds to real breast cancer research facilities, Americans need to stand up to this false advertising and fight, not for breast cancer awareness, but for male and female breast cancer fighters and survivors.
1. The Sexualization of Cancer
Plagued with images of sexy women scantily clad in tight bikinis and campaigns such as “Feel your Boobies” or “Save the Ta-Tas,” it cannot be surprising that Americans just do not understand the effects that breast cancer has on a woman. The history surrounding the word for a woman’s breast is an interesting one. Until recently, women barely uttered the word “breast” let alone “boobies” and “ta-tas.”
Women were not half-naked on television and city streets advocating for breast cancer awareness. Women did not have access to mammograms and good health care. If a woman had breast cancer, she just stayed quiet. After the sexual revolution of the 1970s and the high profile breast cancer diagnoses of Betty Ford and Shirley Temple, breast cancer went public and more awareness was brought to the plight of silent women. Unfortunately, it was here that breast cancer began to take a sexual turn.
In our over-sexualized American culture, where sex is shown to be the key to life and happiness, it was only a matter of time before businesses began to cash in on this by producing sex-centered awareness campaigns. It ranges from seemingly harmless campaigns like “Feel Your Boobies” and “Save 2nd Base” to pornographic websites like PornHub who earlier last year offered to donate 1¢ per pornographic video watched to the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
While the Susan G. Komen foundation refused the donation and collaboration with PornHub, the issue of what money is good money and what awareness is good awareness inevitably came up. Kat Stoeffel, the author of the magazine, NY Magazine, summed up the controversy quite nicely by stating “because even when women face life-threatening illnesses, they’re still foremost an animated assemblage of sex toys”.
But Gayle Sulik, author of the book Pink Ribbon Blues, does not let the campaigns like “Feel Your Boobies” off the hook, she argues that the campaign “sexually objectifies women, trivializes breast cancer . . . and uses the objectified woman as window dressing for the profit-making machine”.
On her website, the Accidental Amazon, Kathi Kolb took a poster advertising a pink October breast cancer awareness special where women could come in with a pink bathing suit and receive access to an open bar, and edited the woman to more realistic standards including a prosthesis, lymphedema sleeve, and a portacath calling her an “anonymous” and “unlikely breast cancer patient”.
The result of the over-sexualized nature of these campaigns is worst of all. Just as the increase of Photoshopped models causes an average woman’s self-worth to plummet and the diagnoses of eating disorders to rise, over-sexualized breast cancer campaigns rob a woman of her self-worth and portray her as only as good as her breasts.
Think about it. If the consumer thinks that he is helping by “saving the boobies” of the sexy, perky model on television by buying pink, what if she no longer has breasts? What if her hair falls out from chemotherapy? What if she looks sickly, thin and pale? What if she is older, larger or asymmetrical?
She no longer fits the image of the woman consumers are attempting to save and is deemed worthless. Well, that seems a bit harsh does it not? Not to Peggy Orenstein of the NY Times who states “fetishizing of breasts comes at the expense of the bodies, hearts and minds attached to them… sexy cancer suppresses discussion of real cancer…[and] reinforces the idea that breasts are the fundamental, defining aspect of femininity”.
Breast cancer is not sexy.
It is not something to be cheered. It is not only to be feared because a woman can lose her biggest sexual trait. It is heartbreaking. It is emasculating for men and destroying to a woman’s femininity. It is something that statistically women in their 40s, 50s, and 60s are three to ten times more likely to get than a sexy twenty-something model.
It is something that despite best efforts to bring awareness has continued to alienate and kill off daughters, sisters, mothers, and grandmothers.
2. Misrepresentation of Issues
The argument in favor of sexualized content of most breast cancer campaigns is that it is the only way to get the less conservative youth of today involved. One breast cancer survivor I spoke with even commented that “whatever helps bring awareness to the issue of breast cancer is great whether it appeals to me or not”.
While it may be true that the message of breast cancer is reaching youth and young adults, it is not effective in the slightest. In its over-sexualization, breast cancer campaigns run the risk of misrepresenting the very issues on which they are attempting to shed light.
With all of the young women pasted across billboards, one might never guess that only 2.6% of all breast cancer cases occur to women under the age of 40. In fact, most breast cancer related deaths occur in women over the age of 50. This is indeed contrary to the story that advertisers have been telling.
After watching any pink commercial for breast cancer, buying any pink product for breast cancer, or even reading information on a pink website for a foundation for breast cancer research, it is hard to know men, too, suffer from breast cancer.
In fact, 2,000 men in 2010 were diagnosed with breast cancer and while that number pales in comparison to the 200,000 women diagnosed also with breast cancer, about a fourth of those men died from breast cancer that year.
In a pink world of breast cancer, men clearly have a disadvantage. The shame and embarrassment of merely bringing the issue to one’s doctor is enough to dissuade a man from being diagnosed. Further, little if any clinical trials have been done for male breast cancer victims. Doctors have little access to treatment outside information that could (but rarely does) trickle over from female breast cancer research.
Because so few have been diagnosed with male breast cancer, there is not significant awareness nor are there enough male volunteers to create an accurate patient pool for further research. Breast Cancer Awareness Month might bring awareness to some sort of breast cancer, but it clearly is not doing enough.
Even if these campaigns were doing their job of accurately portraying the plight of those afflicted with breast cancer, they are still falling short. While statistics do indeed show that awareness does rise during October (the studies were conducted based on the frequency of a Google search for anything pertaining to Breast Cancer Awareness Month), it does little for the plight of men and women for a person to only be aware of their pain but not reacting to it.
Many companies obviously combat this by promising a portion of their sales to breast cancer research, and, by purchasing their products, the consumer is essentially donating to the cause. This should mean more money to breast cancer research, right? Actually, studies have shown that when people purchase something small related to a charity, they feel good about themselves and do not feel the need to donate anything else.
By purchasing something that donates 25¢ to a foundation, a consumer is less likely to donate his $25 to the same foundation because he feels that he has already done his part. This means that although more dollars were promised through advertising campaigns and companies to go to breast cancer research, less money inevitably makes it there.
On his website, Stuff White People Like, Christian Lander offers up his satirical interpretation of raising awareness by stating that people “get all the benefits of helping (self satisfaction [sic], telling other people) but no need for difficult decisions or the ensuing criticism (how do you criticize awareness?)”.
Katja Grace, in her article “I Am Anti-Awareness and You Should Be, Too,” argues that Breast Cancer Awareness has become more of an identity than a movement. She states that:
[P]eople tend to identify with their moral concerns. People identify with moral concerns much more than they do with their personal, practical concerns for instance. Those who think the environment is being removed too fast are proudly environmentalists while those who think the bushes on their property are withering too fast do not bother to advertise themselves with any particular term, even if they spend much more time trying to correct the problem. It’s not part of their identity.
People are focused more on sharing their identities than they are fixing the problem. Additionally, with that desire to share their identity, people create an unfair dichotomy of either being good and supporting breast cancer awareness or being evil and not purchasing enough, not speaking out enough, and not doing enough.
The focus is then taken off of breast cancer research itself and more on the identity of being pink. So instead of purchasing more items, fighting for more funding, and working harder at eradicating breast cancer, many are still too focused on outdoing each other in terms of who wears the most pink during the month of October.
Stop the Madness
America has a serious problem. It is as if grandma is being thrown a party for her health, but she has to hide out in the basement where no one will see her, and she will not kill anyone’s good time.
Are people fighting to save the mother who wants to see her granddaughter’s graduation but after being cancer free for more than ten years just found a lump on her breast? Are people fighting for the woman who worries that her daughter might be hit with the same breast cancer she, her mother, and her aunt all had? Are people fighting for lives of hard working women (and men) who want to be accepted by society but feel too embarrassed to come forward or too afraid to get tested?
To solve this issue, awareness campaigns need to do more to connect to actual people. They need to show real victims of breast cancer and provide next steps once consumers are aware of the issues. Once this happens, and research is truly funded, maybe then, Mary, from the beginning of this article, will not fear losing her breasts because a cure is just around the corner, and she has a whole community standing behind her, boobies or not.
This article was adapted from a previously written essay by Taylor Zimmerman entitled “Why Breast Cancer Campaigns Need To Change”.