Empowering as these campaigns may be for some women, have we taken the focus off of the cancer itself?
A physically fit, presumably young woman sits perched on the edge of a wooden chair, her back to us, naked save for a pair of black underwear. Her arms reach for the sky; strung between her hands is a sexy little black bra.
Is she selling lingerie? Perfume? That sleek new sports car you’d love to replace your old clunker with? Nope; she’s selling breast cancer awareness.
Autumn leaves aren’t the only changing colors in October. Since its inception in 1985, National Breast Cancer Awareness month has produced waves of pink that wash over our landscape like overturned bottles of Pepto Bismol. It’s on our yogurt, our fashion accessories and home decor, even the NFL gridiron. All of this pink passion (identified by some as “breast cancer culture”) has also generated its fair share of controversy and criticism—the 2011 documentary Pink Ribbons Inc. raises the issue of big name organizations like Susan G. Komen and Avon exploiting the disease for profit and packaging breast cancer as a “warm and fuzzy” feminine cause to visibly healthy women or “survivors.”
But the sexualization of breast cancer is a relatively recent phenomenon, so recent that it was barely touched on in Pink Ribbons, Inc. Save the Ta-Tas, Feel Your Boobies, and Save 2nd Base are just a few of the breast cancer awareness campaigns that rely on sex to sell—for a mere $25, you too can own one of Save 2nd Base’s fitted t-shirts featuring two baseballs covering your breasts. During the first few years these campaigns formed and gained momentum, my mom bought me some Save the Ta-Tas merchandise—a tank top that read, appropriately for my body type, “I Love My Little Ta-Tas.” And yes, I wore the shirt, but more on that later.
Is this wave of sexual campaigns a great or terrible trend? Either way, the picture of the topless woman in support of “No Bra Day” is decidedly problematic for two reasons. One: There is no organization or campaign attached to the ad—it’s simply another piece of sourceless trash (note the omission of “awareness” in the ad’s title) circulating around the wild and wonderful Web. And two: What does not wearing a bra on an arbitrary day do to fund breast cancer research? Nothing. Awareness is not the same thing as action.
One of the chief complaints of women who criticize breast cancer’s sexy and frivolous new turn is that, like the mainstream pink ribbon movement, it packages a serious issue into a happy-go-lucky (Look! Pink pom poms!) commercialized commodity. The reality is that cancer is a vicious, exhausting, and ugly disease, and fresh, hip movements like “Save 2nd Base” neglect the women for whom cancer is anything but a teenage baseball metaphor.
In Pink Ribbons, Inc., a support group of Stage IV breast cancer patients express feeling ostracized by the pink and sparkly side of breast cancer marketing. “They’re learning to live,” one woman says of the self-proclaimed survivors happily marching with their pink water bottles. “And you’re learning to die.”
All of this boobies and ta-tas talk also alienates women who have undergone mastectomies to treat or prevent breast cancer. Angelina Jolie, whose highly publicized double preventative mastectomy garnered praise from women around the world, also became the target for a storm of ignorant comments mourning the “death” of her breasts. If we teach that female sexuality is tied exclusively to the breasts, how should women like Jolie feel post-surgery? Unfeminine? No longer sexual?
On the other hand, when it comes to a cancer that will affect 1 in every 8 women, maybe all press is good press. It looks as though sex in our mass media is here to stay, and if this is so, should we strive to turn the once-taboo topic of breasts into sex positivism? Are these more provocative campaigns truly objectifying if women are comfortable seeing and presenting themselves in this way, and if they are embracing their bodies in conjunction with a worthy cause?
We’ve been seeing quite a bit lately on The Great Objectification Debate, thanks largely to Miley Cyrus’ MTV performance and a certain slut-shaming letter from Mrs. Hall. Part of being comfortable with our female bodies means recognizing that the burden of objectification lies with our viewers, not ourselves, and that just as it is every woman’s right to don a bikini or miniskirt if that’s what she feels comfortable wearing, it is her right to go braless in support of breast cancer awareness or to donate her bra to a cause like Bras Across the River. Snide or crude comments (“Some women probably should not do this lmao,” as one commenter advised in response to the “No Bra Day” ad) are the problem of the person making them.
Body image continues to be a raging problem for women of all ages who are held to impossible standards, and euphemisms like “boobies” and “ta tas,” however silly they may be, allow women who may feel embarrassed about their bodies to embrace sexuality in a playful way. These campaigns could mark a reclaiming of body parts that have historically been taboo, “othered,” or belonged to men, as well as an open discussion of breasts that was previously discouraged or outright off-limits. Of course, with all this talk of body image and acceptance, the question then becomes: Empowering as these campaigns may be for some women, have we taken the focus off of the cancer itself?
The declaration on my “I Love My Little Ta-Tas” shirt? It’s true, because I had a sex positive mom who taught me not to feel ashamed of my female body. I love my little ta-tas so much that I dress them up in pretty bras, take them to the gynecologist once a year, and even give them self-exams.
What will the future of breast cancer campaigning look like? I haven’t a clue. But whether “sexy” awareness is a passing fad or here to stay, I hope that the decision will lie in the hands of the women—and men—who live with breast cancer daily.
Chelsea Cristene is a community college professor of English and communications living in central Maryland. She writes Gender on the Rocks, a blog about gender, relationships, culture, education, and the media. Find her on Twitter.