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Tennis ’14: Let’s get real about breast cancer

Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, October 31, 2012

October just recently came to a close – with a hurricane of epic proportions. It is the month that signifies the beginning of fall, pumpkin lattes, Halloween and rich, autumnal hues. But October is also a pink month because it is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Just a few weeks ago, the bright pink Gloria Gemma Hope Bus spent a day parked on the Main Green distributing goodies and information.

Breast cancer awareness is everywhere and serves its purpose well. As a nation, we should be well aware of this tragic disease. But some recent developments in breast cancer campaigns are worrisome and indicate a fixation on sex and women’s bodies.

I’ll tell you a secret about breast cancer. It involves women’s breasts. Also known as their boobs. Or a variety of other nicknames, some landing very close to offensive on the degradation spectrum. And increasingly, breast cancer awareness campaigns focus on the breast part of breast cancer. This focus is so intense that it essentially sexualizes breast cancer.

Take for example the campaign from Keep A Breast. It is titled “I Love Boobies.” The organization sells clothing and jewelry with this logo to encourage youth to, and I quote, “start talking about a subject that is scary and taboo” in order to make it “positive and upbeat.”

I’ll tell you another secret about breast cancer. It involves cancer. You know, that horrifying, all-encompassing, need-I-remind-you deadly disease? Cancer is not positive. It is not upbeat. Just because we as a society are only comfortable talking about breasts when we call them by a nickname does not mean that we are allowed to forget that breast cancer is scary, strikes hard and often and kills. Of course it shouldn’t be taboo to talk about breast cancer, but the only taboo results from our collective immaturity regarding the female breast. Cara Newlon ‘14.5 recently commented on a prime example: American University Assistant Professor of Anthropology Adrienne Pine ’94 was excoriated simply for nursing her daughter in class (“Lectures and lactating,” Oct. 15).

Breast cancer awareness campaigns, like much of the media, can’t seem to treat breasts and breast cancer as a serious thing. So they make it a sexually provocative one. That way, breast cancer will harness more attention, and promoting breast cancer awareness can be cool. People can justify parading around in shirts that proclaim a love of boobies. After all, they’re helping women with cancer! But is this the right kind of attention for breast cancer? Should we be advocating cancer research so we can preserve the sexiness, the provocative nature, of the female breast?

Not all “pinkwashing” – a term referring to the inundation of pink product that generates money for breast cancer research – is positive. For one, there’s the issue of companies profiting from these awareness campaigns, and thus breast cancer’s very existence. And in many respects, the focus on products and pink and boobs removes attention from the actual problem at hand.

In the documentary “Pink Ribbons, Inc.,” which exposed many questionable partnerships between Komen for the Cure and powerful corporations, survivor Barbara Ehrenreich observed how “the effect of the whole pink-ribbon culture was to drain and deflect the kind of militancy we had, as women were appalled to have a disease that is epidemic.”

Breast cancer is not just about the breast of the afflicted woman or man. It is about life – and death. Many breast cancer patients lose their breasts but keep the cancer. So framing breast cancer awareness in terms of “saving women’s breasts” is problematic. We should be focused on saving women’s lives. Breast cancer research is important for this reason, and that should be reflected in awareness campaigns, even if pinkwashing continues.

I’m sick of seeing logos like “boobylicious” and “show me your boobs” and “if you love ‘um, rub ‘um.” It’s plain to see that we are unhealthily obsessed with breasts. But this type of promotion is an objectification and not just of breasts or women in general. It is the objectification of women with cancer.

People may say that I should just be happy that at least some portion of sales is funding research that could actually make a difference. I am. They will argue that “sex sells” – that any publicity is good publicity. I think we can do better. We can find new ways to support those with breast cancer that don’t rely on sexualizing them and their breasts.

Somewhere along the way breast cancer awareness became cool. That’s great. It should be cool to provide assistance and encouragement to victims and survivors. But in the back of our minds we should remember that cancer is not cool, positive or upbeat. It is the antithesis of everything that is good. And it is most definitely not sexy.



Maggie Tennis ’14 encourages you to support those affected by breast cancer, any and all months.

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  1. Totally agree with the offensiveness and absurdity of slogans like “I Love Boobies.” I’ve always cringed at this approach. Thanks for writing about it.
    Baltimore, MD

  2. I completely agree; I’ve always been very put off by the commercialism and sexualized “trendivism” that surround breast cancer awareness. Thanks for bringing this up!

  3. very thoughtful commentary. Reminds me of a breakthrough 90s documentary plus a book on Breasts by my amazing colleague Meema Spadola. I have been told by others those works still resonate. And I know Meema will appreciate the words of Maggie Tennis.
    Washington, DC

  4. This is all very true – I personally think all those slogans are silly and trivializing, but would you feel the same way if it turned out that this money was the tipping point that cured breast cancer? You’d probably argue that there’s other ways of garnering public support which are more respectful to everybody, but what if it were the case that no other method of public rallying could get this much financial and mental clout? That is arguably plausible, since no other cancer has enjoyed such widespread popularity and enthusiasm (though, of course, there might be and probably are other reasons I haven’t mentioned/thought about why breast cancer has been more popular).

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