Contextualizing Boobies

Though it is (to my delight) purple this evening, the Empire State Building has been periodically pink this October in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month (BCAM). I am currently working on a long academic research project concerning the interacting social structures which bring breast cancer into the foreground of the public consciousness, but I’d like to take a look more simply at the contextualization of breasts within the BCAM discourse.

The Keep A Breast Campaign has manufactured and popularized these fashion accessories over the past few years. These “I Love Boobies” bracelets are problematic to me in a myriad of ways. They have become a trend with younger and younger kids– mostly among the early teenaged crowd. That alone is not call for concern, however, I wonder how many of them understand why they are wearing them. It is perhaps hopeful that these “activist bracelets,” popularized by earlier yellow Livestrong bands, promote awareness and public consciousness about a cause, but to what extent does it lull people of all ages into a false sense of helpfulness?

Many campaigns during BCAM include these small actions of charity– donating a dollar for a pink ribbon, purchasing these bracelets, or simply buying things that one would normally buy year round that are now relabeled with “pink for breast cancer”. These interactions are troublesome on both ends. First, the consumer believes that he or she has done a good deed in supporting a cause–which is not inherently negative, but again, what usefulness is there in supporting a campaign or cause that one does not understand? Secondly, the corporations which market through this rhetoric of “pink for breast cancer” often donate very small amounts of profit to various research and awareness agencies… but is this money really going to help people with breast cancer? The answer is, mostly, no.

I take serious issue with the rhetoric “we’re raising money/awareness for cancer/genocide/the poor”. Think about how often you may have heard the phrase, “We’re raising money for breast cancer!” You’re what? 

Exhibit A: an ad I found while doing research for this very post. “Donate your car to breast cancer.” Does anybody know what that means? Are you giving your car to breast cancer so it can get around town? Are they going to sell your car and donate a tiny bit of money from it to breast cancer research?

Even if the activist remembers to include the word “research” in there, there is still a lack of understanding. Despite years of fundraising, research has not helped those diagnosed with breast cancer. In fact, for many years, “awareness” centered on promoting early detection through mammograms and teaching self-examinations. Since then, self-examinations have been deemed useless in early detection of breast cancer, and this is no longer suggested by the American Congress of OB/GYNS. Furthermore, data shows that an emphasis on mammograms has led to more women being treated unnecessarily for tumors that were in fact benign, or creating abnormalities where they didn’t exist before. Breast Cancer Awareness has created fears within American women which simply did not exist before we had a month devoted to thinking about the potential mutations that lie in our breasts.

Returning to our lovely “I Love Boobies” bracelets: despite this immensely commercialized month dedicated to talking about breast health, many schools in America have banned the bracelets among their students. (Take note of the photo in that article which shows a woman wearing a “Save the Ta-ta’s” shirt. More on that later). So, we have young men and women wearing these fashionable bracelets, many in honor or support of family members who have been affected by the disease, and a school board telling them that they cannot wear them because they are in bad taste. I will emphasize right now that I do not support the rhetoric of the “I Love Boobies” bracelets either, but for completely different reasons. To schools, the word “boobies” (and I assume professing your love for them,) is obscene because it references sexuality. I argue that the precise problem with Breast Cancer Awareness Month rhetoric is the sexualization of a health issue. Though the bracelets are problematic, schools banning them based on society’s cultural fear of adolescent sexuality is sending a confusing message to young people about activism and about health.

I understand the need for BCAM to provide a community of support for breast cancer survivors, those who have lost family and friends, and those who have been diagnosed. I think that turning the issue into something that women can now easily talk about with their doctors and with each other is fantastic. However, Breast Cancer Awareness Month has taken a health issue and turned it into something that everybody in our society is supposed to be worried about. And I would argue that it is rooted very firmly in our stringent rules about gender identity and the sexualization of the female body.

The “I Love Boobies” and “Save the Ta-ta’s” slogans turn cancer into simply loss of boobs, which are an essential symbol of womanhood. We neglect to mention that cancer, though it may originate in mammary tissue, affects the whole body, especially when chemotherapy and drug treatments are involved. BCAM also completely neglects the small but existing number of men who are suffering from the stigmatizing diagnosis of breast cancer. Women with breast cancer do not simply have ill breasts, but that is how we express our concern for this particular strain of mutations within the female body. Statistics create fear– even though this CDC website shows that breast cancer is the most common form of cancer found in women, it may be very important to note that this is measured by the percentage of women diagnosed. As I previously said, many women are incorrectly diagnosed during mammograms, as breast tissue is very dense and there is a high rate of false positive diagnoses. I am not trying to downplay an epidemic. I am only trying to show how our concept of women highly influences our fears and obsessions about breast cancer.

Think about it–why don’t we have a thoroughly baby blue Prostate Cancer Awareness Month? Prostate cancer is the male equivalent of breast cancer in terms of statistics. It is found primarily in male bodies and affects them in large numbers. Most people have heard of it, but we don’t feel the need to create a culture around it. I wonder if penile cancer was prevalent if we would have “I Love Cock” bracelets and “Save the Weiners” campaigns. It is funny to imagine this world, but we are currently living in it for women. Why do we allow the “Save the Boobies” rhetoric within a framework of activism and charity, but create laws which forbid mothers to breastfeed in public places? Movie posters, music videos, and television ads show us everything but the nipple daily without notice. Boobies are allowed to exist to be looked at. We become concerned when their existence is threatened, in the case of breast cancer. However, when a baby needs to be fed, many women face stigmatizing looks or even outright disgust by discreetly trying to nurse their children.

As a society, we only know how to feel about breasts when they are placed in a context. They can be simultaneously offensive and vulnerable, obscene and useful, medicalized and sexualized. Within Breast Cancer Awareness Month, their sexualized meanings are exploited in order to support a campaign that is medical on the surface, but which is grounded in deeper meanings about gender and sexuality.

I hope you’ll keep this in mind during the remainder of our month of pink.

Thoughtful links–

Ms. Magazine Blog: The Problem with Pink 

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1 Comment

Filed under cultural anthropology, feminism, gender, medical anthropology, privilege

One response to “Contextualizing Boobies

  1. I want to express gratitude for the phrase prostate cancer found primarily in male bodies. I still have a prostate, and I have a female body. Thank you.

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