Save the People, Not the Boobies: The Ethics of Breast Cancer Awareness

Few ad campaigns make me as misanthropic as the breast cancer awareness ones I’ve been seeing at an especially high volume for the past month:

There’s also this video (NSFW).

I hate these campaigns for many reasons. First of all, they make breast cancer all about boobs. Yes, it has “breast” in the name, but reducing an illness as complex and life-shattering as breast cancer into a cutesy “save the boobies!” campaign seems callous and inappropriate.

I’m not sure everyone would even agree that the prospect of losing your breasts is the worst thing about breast cancer, and yet that’s what these campaigns almost universally target. It’s not the “boobies” or “ta-tas” that need to be saved–it’s the human beings who have breast cancer.

It’s even worse when the campaigns are created by and/or targeted at men and involve that hint-hint-nudge-nudge assumption that men should care about breast cancer because men love tits. Never mind that men can get breast cancer too, and never mind that men care about breast cancer not (just) because they care about boobs, but also because they care about their friends, girlfriends, wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, and etc. who might get breast cancer, or who already have.

Campaigns like these also completely ignore women who have chosen (or been forced to) undergo mastectomies. If breast cancer research and awareness is all about “saving the boobies,” does losing your breasts mean you’ve lost the fight?

This preoccupation with breasts is probably what inspires awful ads like this one by the Cancer Patients Aid Association, an Indian NGO:

The text at the bottom reads, “One out of every eight women develops breast cancer in her lifetime. Early detection helps recovery. Get yourself examined before it’s too late.” So there you have it. If you get a mastectomy, you’re “making yourself ugly.”

This is all to say nothing of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the hypocrisy and reactionism of which should by now be well-known. (Incidentally, the former Komen executive who was responsible for that move was not content with merely that; she just had to write a book-length screed against Planned Parenthood, as well.) This unethical organization seems to be the beneficiary of most (if not all) of the sexualized ads I’ve seen. I still refuse to give them a single cent, which is difficult given how easy it is to accidentally pick up one of those pink-ribbon-branded products at the grocery store.

On the bright side, this is a great opportunity to explain what feminists mean when we prattle on about “objectification” and “sexualization,” which are closely related concepts that often (but not always) occur together. Objectification is the reduction of a person to their body parts (usually the sexual ones; hence the frequent co-occurence of objectification and sexualization). An advertisement that objectifies women might show, for instance, a single female leg in front of a flashy car, or a woman lying in a martini glass–literally like an object to be consumed. Sometimes men are objectified too, but that seems to be rarer. Ads that objectify people often don’t show their faces (or eyes), thus making them seem less like people and more like bodies.

Sexualization, meanwhile, is when a person (again, usually a woman) is represented in such a way as to arouse the viewer or otherwise connote sex when the actual purpose of the representation has nothing to do with sex at all. You wouldn’t call pornography “sexualization” because the purpose of pornography is to depict sexual acts and to be arousing. But when an advertisement designed to sell cars or alcohol–or solicit donations for breast cancer research–portrays women in a sexual way, that’s sexualization.

The objectification and sexualization of women in the media has a great deal of negative effects, both on an individual level–for the people who view them–and on a cultural level. Check out the work of Jean Kilbourne if that interests you.

However, I am not a marketing expert. If I were, and if I were charged with designing an ad campaign that elicits as much attention and donations for breast cancer research as possible, there’s a good chance I would feel compelled to create an ad like this, because there’s a good chance that this is the kind of ad that works best.

Hence the misanthropy I mentioned earlier. Marketing people know what they’re doing. If this is really the best way to get people to pay attention to this important cause, I would say that not using ads like these is even more unethical than using them–at least until we shift our culture enough that we don’t need them anymore. But that still means that we’re choosing the lesser of two evils. I would rather more money went to breast cancer research than less, but I would also rather we stopped reducing women to their erogenous zones in our media.

After all, I don’t agree with this rubbish that men are “programmed” or “hardwired” by biology to be obsessed with breasts, at least not to the level that our society seems to think they are. As I already discussed when I wrote about public breastfeeding, the sexualization of breasts is not universal to all cultures and time periods. Even if “sex sells,” breasts don’t necessarily have to always be part of “sex,” and I think it would be beneficial to our society if they were not.

For the record, whether straight men’s love of boobs is entirely biological or not, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, as long as it doesn’t infringe upon public policy or trivialize serious illnesses. Besides, you can totally be an awesome (male) feminist and a boob enthusiast at the same time.

Edit: Here’s a great article that basically makes my point for me.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Breast Cancer Awareness

If you have ever seen a bunch of women posting Facebook statuses with a random color, or a location where they “like it,” and felt a mix of confusion and frustration, you are not alone.

These memes are part of an effort for breast cancer “awareness,” a word that I use cynically here and only in quotation marks. The color meme referred to women’s bra color, and the location one referred to where they like to put their purses. Of course, they made it sound sexual to attract more attention: “X likes it by the bed”, “Y likes it in the closet,” etc.

Now, an acquiantance of mine (who also happens to be the Director of Health Promotion and Wellness at Northwestern University, and therefore isn’t entirely ignorant about these things) has reported that this stupid trend still has not died.

Perhaps even less sensically, the latest iteration of this meme is people posting stuff like “is going to New York for five months” or “is going to Las Vegas for twelve months,” and this, too, is supposed to elicit friends’ queries and be met with the response that it’s for breast cancer “awareness.”

As anyone with even a modicum of critical thinking skills can tell you, such a status, when finally deciphered, tells you exactly one thing: “There is a thing called breast cancer and you should know about it.”

Yes, yes there is. But could we finally get beyond that?

For instance, here are some actual facts about breast cancer:

If you’d like to do some actual good, why not spread this information around?

Besides that, here are some other ways you can help:

  • Volunteer to provide support for people battling breast cancer. (This is even easier if you know of such a person. You can help by driving them to doctor’s appointments, making them meals if they’re too tired, babysitting their kids, or just being there to listen.)
  • Donate to charities that provide such support, or to organizations that fund research on breast cancer. Here are some to get your started: Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the National Breast Cancer Foundation, and the National Breast Cancer Coalition. With a quick Google search, you could find local charities, charities that cater towards a particular demographic that you belong to, and so on.
  • If you want to go beyond simply giving money, participate in charities’ fundraising events, such as Susan G. Komen’s Race for the Cure. That way you get to raise money while meeting other people who care and physically showing your support for survivors and people battling breast cancer.
  • If you’re politically liberal, be an activist for government initiatives that fund cancer research, education initiatives, support for cancer patients, expanded insurance coverage, etc. One good place to start: ask your representative to support H.R. 3067, the Accelerating the End of Breast Cancer Act of 2011, which proposes an initiative to end breast cancer by 2020.
  • If you’re studying medicine or biomedical engineering, consider making cancer research your focus. Or work as a research assistant in a lab that studies cancer.
  • Buy products from companies that donate to breast cancer research (but beware of pinkwashing).
  • Similarly, if you happen to own a business or want to start one (and I know many of you Northwestern students do), consider donating a percentage of your profits to breast cancer research.
  • If you’re going into journalism and you’re interested in health, consider writing about breast cancer. Not everyone has enough knowledge to decipher academic articles; you can be the one who makes that information accessible to those who need it.

As you can see, some of these require your time and money. Others do not. The few seconds that it takes you to type your stupid status could be better spent posting a link to an important recent article about breast cancer.

And now, I get it. Cancer is a terrifying thing. The amount of information available about it could fill books upon books, and some of it is constantly going obsolete or being revised. Even I felt a bit overwhelmed just looking at the few websites I looked at to research this article.
I also get that when your friends are posting oh-so-funny things on Facebook, you want to join in the fun. Trust me, I was in middle school once, I know.

But I have some unfortunate news for some of you: neither I, nor breast cancer survivors, nor families of breast cancer victims give a flying fuck what color your bra is or where you like to put your purse, cutesy sexual innuendo notwithstanding.

If you’re old enough to make sexual innuendo, you’re old enough to educate yourself and others about breast cancer (and, for that matter, anything else you think people should be educated about). Let’s stop selling ourselves short here.

*edit* Another reason I just thought of to hate these memes–they are generally restricted to women only, and women aren’t “supposed” to tell men what they mean, thus constructing breast cancer as a “girl thing.” Not only do men witness their friends, girlfriends, wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, etc. fighting breast cancer, but some men actually get breast cancer, so it’s not only a women’s problem.

Anyway, there is enough of a stigma placed on men who get breast cancer without its promotion through this meme.

Update (2/2/2012): In case anyone’s going through my archives and reading old posts, let it be known that I officially withdraw my support for the Susan G. Komen Foundation in light of its defunding of Planned Parenthood.