Handbags, Bras, and Breast Cancer

Breast cancer awareness campaigns unnecessarily sexualize the disease

A couple of weeks ago, I logged onto Facebook to find my news feed littered with provocative statuses. One read, “I like it on the floor!” Another declared, “I like it on the kitchen table!” As I soon learned from my inbox, this was an unofficial, Facebook-based movement to raise awareness about the dangers of breast cancer—“the game has to do with where we put our handbag the moment we get home. Let’s see how powerful we women really are!!!”

I forgot about the phenomenon until a little later, when I encountered a display of hot pink bras in front of the science center commemorating Breast Cancer Awareness Week. Nearby, a table run by the Harvard Cancer Society was selling pink shirts that read “Save Second Base.”

Putting the two together, I realized why Facebook statuses declaring “I like it on the table!” bother me so much. Breast cancer is not a sexual issue. It has nothing to do with femininity or female sexuality. In fact, around one percent of breast cancer patients are male. Raising awareness about breast cancer by displaying hot pink bras and joking about where we place our handbags not only demeans the experience of males and non-gender-identified people suffering from breast cancer but also equates breast cancer with sexual activity or sexual allure. This association could make many women uncomfortable, especially those enduring cancer themselves.


Furthermore, a campaign to “Save Second Base” may be a humorous and provocative way to generate discussion about breast cancer among college students. However, it does so at the cost of dignity and accuracy. Breasts do not exist for the purpose of providing sexual pleasure to men or to women, and it is not appropriate to depict them as primarily sexual in function. In fact, this is not only inaccurate but also propagates the objectification of the female body already pervading college culture.

Harvard culture would never allow a Safe Darfur campaign to be advertised with the slogan, “Save hot black women!” While many women suffer as a result of genocide, Darfur relief efforts need no sexualizing. A movement to save “second base” is no different.


Similarly, an analogous campaign for testicular cancer awareness that sold shirts advocating “Save Home Plate!” would be considered offensive and distasteful. Why, then, should there be a double standard allowing women to sexualize their bodies for the sake of gaining attention to an otherwise “unattractive” cause?

I am sure that the organizers of the Facebook campaign and the women and men of the Harvard Cancer Society did not intend for this type of discomfort, and they certainly found an effective way raise discussion about breast cancer among college students. However, displaying bras or posting suggestive Facebook statuses fails to support breast cancer victims and instead subtly hints at the sexual availability of Harvard’s women.

There are undoubtedly similarly effective and less objectionable ways to generate awareness and support. For example, national breast cancer awareness and prevention groups also employ traditionally “feminine” imagery by distributing light pink ribbons and emphasizing female solidarity. However, they do not present breast cancer as a solely female issue—for example, the Susan G. Komen homepage features photographs of both men and women—and there is no sexuality implicit in pink ribbons or in smiling groups of people. Perhaps we college students could learn a lesson from these successful national breast cancer prevention movements.

The sexualization of breast cancer is inappropriate and insensitive, and it promotes gender-normative ideals. The Harvard Cancer Society should reconsider its marketing strategy for future breast cancer campaigns, and intelligent college students should think more critically before advocating “sexy” causes that might nonetheless be offensive or demeaning.

Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial comper, lives in Matthews Hall.


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