October is breast cancer month, as you may have noticed at this point from the vast proliferation of pink ribbons, pink shirts, pink bracelets, and pink everything appearing all across campus and across the internet. And along with this pinkness comes the extremely sexualized rhetoric around breast cancer, which is often an integral part of the aforementioned products. Bracelets emblazoned with the phrase “I Heart Boobies” and shirts that say “Save Second Base,” are widely sold and widely worn, and embody the pervasive societal trend of equating breasts with sexuality and femininity—something that should not have a place in shaping our discourse about breast cancer.
There are two overall problems with the general rhetoric around breast cancer that I wish to address: the first is the issue of the sexualization of this type of cancer, and the second is the corporatization of the same.
Using phrases like “Save Second Base,” or “Save the Ta-Tas,” on t-shirts that are supposed to be supporting breast cancer research completely devalues the lives of the women who are affected with this disease, as these messages shift the emphasis of the goal of a cure from ensuring that women live healthy lives to ensuring that men are provided with a vehicle for sexual pleasure. Evidently, these slogans are not meant to be taken in earnest. No one is seriously suggesting that the only reason that breast cancer should be cured is so that men can “score” with women. In fact, these shirts are meant to be silly. But in a culture that routinely stresses that the main purpose of the women’s bodies is to provide pleasure to men, this attempt at humor simply becomes insulting.
There is nothing sexual about someone dying of breast cancer. There is only horror and sickness, and to suggest that the purpose of finding a cure for this disease is to restore the body’s ability to please someone else, even facetiously, reduces the dying person to a body and makes a cruel joke of their pain. And what message does this send when a woman’s “boobies” have been removed in a double mastectomy? Is there nothing left to save? And is she somehow less of a woman?
Instead of reminding people of the horror of contracting and enduring this disease, these products seek to “lighten up” a discourse that arguably should not be “lightened up.” This upbeat banter takes the place of the real, serious conversations that people could be having about this disease, and that are the norm around other diseases that have similar mortality rates and health effects. No one would suggest having upbeat, silly banter about lung cancer, or about AIDS. But once breasts are involved, the conversation changes.
Many of the organizations that are either selling these products or asking for donations for breast cancer research have questionable commitments to women’s health. This was brought to light most recently when Susan J. Komen for the Cure stopped providing breast cancer exams in Planned Parenthood clinics for political reasons, thereby making questionable its true commitment to its own cause: saving women from breast cancer. Surely political worries are not more important than providing breast cancer screening to as many women as possible, especially for an organization whose goal runs along those lines. Furthermore, many companies have realized that breast cancer awareness sells, and little pink ribbons can be found almost anywhere where products are sold, from supermarkets to clothing stores. People are arguably more likely to buy bright pink yogurts that promise a one cent donation to breast cancer research because they feel that they are doing good, but what they are really doing is contributing to the profits of a for-profit company that has seized on breast cancer as a good business ploy. Whether or not the company in question is run by people who truly care about finding a cure for cancer, the use of this disease to sell products is disturbing.
All in all, I am not suggesting that people pay less attention to breast cancer or donate less money to breast cancer research. It is a terrible, terrible disease that causes close to 40,000 women every year to die a slow and painful death, and certainly deserves a great deal of attention. However, fostering a public discourse that equates breast cancer awareness with femininity and sexual objectification is not productive and is actually detrimental to women everywhere. It sends the message that the suffering of women is more relevant when it somehow threatens the pleasure of men, and this, in a way, reduces the value of the women who are affected with the ailment to their bodies rather than empowering women everywhere and creating an honest and thoughtful dialogue about this awful disease.
Reed E. McConnell ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Quincy House.