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Save the Boobies!

October 10, 2007

As a lesbian, I have a pretty good appreciation for breasts, what I don’t appreciate though, is the crop of breast cancer fundraisers that always seem to happen at this time of year which focus more on saving boobies than saving lives. Breast cancer is not a sexy illness and we shouldn’t care about ending it because it affects sexy parts, but because it affects real people.

But breast cancer must be sexy, or else why would we lavish more attention on it than on heart disease (which kills 8 times more women), stroke (which kills more than twice as many women) or any number of illnesses and diseases which pose a far more serious threat to women’s lives? As Suzanne Reisman says:

The sick truth is that breast cancer is a sexy illness to exploit for fun and profit. Do women want to look at pictures of fatty hearts and clogged arteries when they shop for soup, yogurt, make-up, umbrellas, BMWs, Cartier watches, gym shoes, umbrellas or any other of the many fine products that donate during October to breast cancer causes if you buy it? Does anyone? Not so much. Is it easy to fit “Help fight chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the #3 illness killing women every year” into a marketing campaign? Not so much. However, the words “breast” and “cancer” sure catch the eye quickly, especially when marketers can add a curvy silhouette next to it. (Subliminal message: “Don’t let hot women die!”)

Breast cancer is a marketing ploy, allowing companies to rake in profits while making you feel good about buying the chocolate bar with the pink ribbon on it. From I Blame The Patriarchy:

Corporations secure, with impunity, free publicity and a means to expand their market share via enlogoed “awareness” campaigns. Politicians support virtually unopposable “bipartisan” breast cancer funding initiatives as directed by behemoths like the massively influential and reactionary Komen Foundation and come out smelling like a rose. The rank and file, conditioned by now to believe that there’s no problem shopping can’t solve, are invited to feel virtuous and altruistic whenever they buy a Yoplait yogurt or a pink KitchenAid mixer.

What exactly does awareness do? The money from these sales often goes to bigger, better, breast cancer awareness campaigns, and a search for a cure, rather than prevention. If we got rid of breast cancer all together (by learning what causes it and stopping it before it occurred) there would be no money to be made! Better focus efforts on post hoc solutions and make feel-good ads about survivorship, valourizing the women who learned so much from their experiences with cancer (never mind the ones who didn’t make it).

In the book Pink Ribbons Inc:

Samantha King traces how breast cancer has been transformed from a stigmatized disease and individual tragedy to a market-driven industry of survivorship. In an unprecedented outpouring of philanthropy, corporations turn their formidable promotion machines on the curing of the disease while dwarfing public health prevention efforts and stifling the calls for investigation into why and how breast cancer affects such a vast number of people.

So to the group who is sponsoring the “Babes for Boobies” event at my university: I know that you have the best of intentions, but you need to be a bit more critical about whose interests you are really serving, here. You are sexualizing a terrible disease, obfuscating the fact that men get breast cancer too, perpetuating the idea that the victims of breast cancer are breasts, and urging people to feel like they are doing something by buying consumer goods. As said on I Blame the Patriarchy:

If you were to ask any space alien—who happened to be dropping by on its way to the Delta Quadrant—about breast cancer, it would undoubtedly tell you that, according to its personal observations, the primary symptom of the disease is a dramatically increased propensity to sprout pink teddy bears, pink visors, and pink rhinestone jewelry. Of course you and I know that infantilizing misogynist teddybear rhinestone pinkness, cancer-o-normative though it may seem, is actually just one of the most successful campaigns in the history of marketing gimmicks. Thanks to unprecedented support in terms of cash and selfless volunterrorism, breast cancer is currently the most popular disease in America.

One more link – if you care about this at all, please read Barbara Ehrenreich’s talk on the culture of breast cancer:

How to define breast cancer culture?

It’s very pink and femme and frilly – all about pink ribbons, pink rhinestone pins, pink t-shirts and of course a lot about cosmetics. The American Cancer Society offers a program called “Look Good…Feel Better” which gives out free cosmetics to women undergoing breast cancer treatment. The Libby Ross Foundation gives breast cancer patients a free tote bag containing Estee Lauder body crème, a pink satin pillowcase, a set of Japanese cosmetics, and 2 rhinestone bracelets. And no one, so far as I could determine, was complaining about the strange idea that you can fight a potentially fatal disease with eyeliner and blush. […]

To me, the most disturbing product, though, was the breast cancer teddy bears. […] Now I don’t own a teddy bear—haven’t had much use for one in 50 years. Why would anyone assume that, faced with the most serious medical challenge of my life, I would need one now? And that wasn’t all: The Libby Ross tote bag that I just mentioned also contained a package of crayons—something else I haven’t needed in many a decade. I began to get the feeling that this breast cancer culture is not only about being pretty and femme—it’s also about regressing back to being a little girl—a very good little girl in fact.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Dr. Jim permalink
    October 10, 2007 8:50 pm

    As a guy who does happen to own a teddybear I have also noticed how the commodification of women’s health issues is very pronounced. I always wondered about stores with a “health and beauty” section. Sure,there is some overlap, i.e., soap might fit in both categories,but that could be said of other products too, like food. The connection is not so much that if a woman is healthy she will look good, but rather, if she looks good she must be healthy.
    Something else I’ve noticed on countless TV shows: when a young woman killed killed some character–and it is often a woman–will say something like “she was very beautiful”. Why does that make the death more tragic? What is striking is that on some shows, like the CSI franchise, it is often a female character sayin it.

    Anyway, this is off topic for your breast cancer post. Sorry ’bout that. I don’t recall any fundraising for ovarian cancer, and that damn near killed my mom some 15 years ago.


  2. October 10, 2007 9:22 pm

    I hadn’t thought of that connection between health and beauty, but I think you are right.

    I think they have female characters say stuff like that because they figure it won’t be sexist that way. They’re wrong, of course.

    Duh, ovaries aren’t sexy! You expect us to put pictures of ovaries on our M&Ms? No way. Plus, it’s not important if a woman loses her ovaries, but what are we supposed to look at if she loses her boobs?

  3. October 11, 2007 5:53 am

    I read Pink Ribbons Inc. last year, and I think it was dead right. That said, how do you slay this juggernaut? Most people won’t hear any of this sort of argument (to be “anti-breast cancer awareness month TM” means that you are… pro breast cancer?)

    Good post, and I am happy to have found your blog!

  4. kytii permalink
    October 12, 2007 4:02 am

    I need to get this updating on my LJ friends list >.>

    I thought this post was just……absolutely fascinating. I’ve never associated breast cancer as a “sexay disease” (EXACTLY the opposite, frankly I’m surprised they are managing to pull of the sexay). With this mass media hype…my god just walk into the wash of pink in home outfitters…it’s becoming so, and rapidly out of hand.

    Give me a pink ribbon, focus on lives rather then boobies, and get over it. Lots of diseases kill people. Let’s go fix it, not shop it to death.


  1. But What if the Juggernaut is Pink and Sparkly? « Homo Academicus

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