By Gayle Sulik
A blogger who goes by the name of The Accidental Amazon recently asked: “When did breast cancer awareness become more focused on our breasts than on cancer? Is it because our culture is so obsessed with breasts that it slides right past the C word?”
The Amazon’s questions are important — but they are inconvenient; blasphemous to the pink consumption machine, disruptive to the strong societal focus on pink entertainment, and anti-climactic for the feel-good festivities that have swallowed up popularized versions of breast cancer awareness and advocacy. Her questions are sobering — but sobriety is the last thing that a society drunk on pink wants. We’ve been binging on boobies campaigns and pink M&Ms for too long, and we’ve grown accustomed to the buzz.
After a federal judge in Pennsylvania declared that the “I ♥ Boobies!” bracelets worn in schools represented free speech protected under the 1st Amendment, an interesting debate broke out about language as well as the legitimacy and usefulness of the boobies campaigns. The judicial system, focusing on the former, upheld the tradition that people are free to express themselves unless what they communicate is lewd or vulgar. To them, “boobies” did not fit this category because they were worn in the context of breast cancer “awareness.”
Much of the ongoing debate, and I use this term loosely, has been about discerning whether the Pennsylvania judgment was sound. Is “boobies” an offensive word when used on bracelets or t-shirts in schools? For the most part the discussion has been a polarized virtual shouting match about prudishness versus progressiveness. The commentary quickly “slid right past the C word” to focus on the B word. Boobies is far more titillating to the public than CANCER.
And why not? Sex sells. Playboy, Hooters, Pin-Up girls, pink-up girls. What’s the difference? Women’s sexiness is for sale to the highest bidder, or for $4.99. We’re not too fussy. It’s all about “the girls” getting attention from the boys. Of course, the undercurrent remains that all this nonsense really is about breast cancer. Boys wrote on facebook pages and in editorial posts that they “LOVE BOOBIES” and – in the spirit of breast exam – they’d love to “feel your boobies for you.” Some snickered at anyone who expressed concern about the accuracy of the campaigns, the fact that they diverted money from more useful endeavors such as research, or that they focused on women’s breasts to the exclusion of women’s lives. “Get a life,” one boy said. “Don’t be so angry,” chimed another. Women and men alike chided those who felt differently. After all, who are we to rain on the happy boobies parades?
Peggy Orenstein has tried to place the issue in a larger context, that these “ubiquitous rubber bracelets” are part of a new trend called “sexy breast cancer” that “tends to focus on the youth market, but beyond that, its agenda is, at best, mushy.”
“Rather than being playful, which is what these campaigns are after, sexy cancer suppresses discussion of real cancer, rendering its sufferers — the ones whom all this is supposed to be for — invisible. It also reinforces the idea that breasts are the fundamental, defining aspect of femininity.”
It was clear in the dialogue surrounding the boobies bracelets that it was difficult for many people to hear from diagnosed women who felt offended, unsettled, or angry that they were being forgotten in the pink fanfare. How dare a woman with stage 4 breast cancer, no breasts, no ovaries, and tumors pressing on key nerves and organs suggest that she is not amused with boobies brigades or pink parties that claim to promote awareness but do nothing portray the realities of the disease? Why should anyone consider the perspective of a one-breasted woman with scar tissue on her lungs from radiation treatment who asks why the breast is given more attention than the people who are diagnosed? What about the previously diagnosed women who cannot bear to hear that another woman’s cancer came back, that what she believed was early detection wasn’t? What about the men diagnosed with breast cancer?
In a recent editorial on “The Trouble with Those Boobies Bracelets” in the LA Times, Peggy Orenstein also commented that,
“There is “breast cancer awareness” of course, but given that each October everything from toilet paper to buckets of fried chicken to the chin straps of NFL players look as if they have been steeped in Pepto-Bismol, I think that goal has long since been met.”
I agree. People are “aware” that breast cancer exists. Beyond that, the level of awareness is pretty sketchy. There are more than 1400 not-for-profit organizations in the country dedicated to breast cancer compared to 139 for ovarian cancer, 151 for lung cancer, and 231 for prostate cancer. The number of nonprofits using corporate partnerships and cause-marketing campaigns to spread the message of “awareness” through considerable advertising of products and services (beginning in the 1990s) is also responsible for heightened visibility and attention to breast cancer compared to other illnesses. Breast cancer has been popularized not only through the nonprofits but also through the products. Many, many products. Pink ribbons are plastered on goods in grocery stores, malls, billboards, and there is no real equivalent for the other cancers or diseases.
Billions of dollars spent every year in the name of breast cancer. No cure. Insufficient diagnostic tools. Little understanding of how to prevent the disease or prevent it from recurring. 40,000 deaths per year. Yet the sexy pink consumption machine drones on with breast cancer awareness stores, paint the town pink campaigns, and charity bikini contests.
Sobriety is difficult. Uncomfortable. Strenuous. It may even leave us suffering from withdrawal. But pink culture has taken a toll. The social body can no longer handle this abuse without self-destructing. Pink culture needs an intervention. It won’t be pretty. But it is necessary.
As a start, consider some of these fun new slogans from the blog, I Hate Breast Cancer.
-Let Me Tell You About My Side Effects
-Neuropathy: It’s Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be
-What Part of Incurable Disease Don’t You Understand?
-Thank Goodnesss I Have Chemo Brain, Because You Look Pretty Forgettable
-Screw Research, I’d Rather Buy Pink Crap from a Shallow & Useless Group
-Wear Black & Save the Rack!
Then, check out Breast Cancer Action, Breast Cancer Fund, National Breast Cancer Coalition, Metavivor, Dr. Susan Love’s Army of Women, and other organizations working toward fundamental efforts to identify the causes of breast cancer and the evidence-based knowledge about how to find it and treat it successfully. There are other ways to learn about breast cancer, motivate people to take action, support the diagnosed, change the conversation, and get money to projects and research that will have a chance of making a difference.
— For more information on the boobies campaigns, see my previous essay: “Boobies.” I said it. Now, May I have Your Attention Please?
Gayle A. Sulik, Ph.D. is a medical sociologist and was a 2008 Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities for her research on breast cancer culture. She is author of Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health. You can read her previous OUPblog posts here and learn more on her website, where this article originally appeared.