Earlier today, while walking in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park with my family, I passed a man wearing a black tee shirt with “I love ta-tas” emblazoned in pink across his chest. This wasn’t totally random. The park was hosting the 12th annual Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk.
“Gross,” my wife whispered.
“That’s how it goes now— guys can objectify women’s breasts as long as they do it in the name of breast cancer awareness,” I told her. “Haven’t you heard about those guys who offered to donate $20 bucks for breast cancer research for every women they motor boated?”
My wife, having good sense as to what she spends her time reading online, hadn’t seen this, and wasn’t quite clear what motor boating meant either. For the sake of clarity: the guys placed their faces between a woman’s cleavage and went “blrb-blrb-blrb” while shaking their heads and salivating. They copped a feel while doing it as well. But hey! They raised over $2000 for charity!
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and in recent years that has meant combining good intentions with sex and consumerism. Shock jock Howard Stern gave breast cancer exams to models on his show. A porn site said it would donate a cent for every thirty videos viewed. A variety of products are colored pink or bear a pink ribbon sticker and we’re encouraged to buy them and feel good about ourselves. (Not even Babble is immune from this trend.)
As Jessica S. Holmes so smartly wrote on The Huffington Post a couple of years ago (“Save the Ta-Tas, Save Women?”), breast cancer ranks a distant third behind heart disease and lung cancer as a killer of women, and October is also domestic violence awareness month—something 1 in 4 women experience in their lifetime, compared to a 1 in 8 chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer. But boobs are sexier than hearts and lungs, and no one likes to talk about domestic violence — it’s one of those dark undercurrents in polite society, like racism, that people are uncomfortable to confront head-on.
Proponents of the “save the ta-tas” trend argue that more young people than ever are aware of and concerned about breast cancer. For example, the Keep a Breast Foundation printed their slogan – “I heart boobies” — on bracelets that have become popular with some teens. (If that doesn’t appeal, you’ve got options: there are also “Save Second Base,” “Save the Ta-Tas,” “Jingle Jugs” and “Feel Your Boobies” bracelets.) A school district in Pennsylvania tried to ban students from bringing these bracelets to school, citing them as lewd and offensive, but in August a federal court struck the district down, ruling that school officials were limiting the students’ right to free speech about a socially relevant topic.
But how helpful is it to buy these bracelets, or other pink ribbon products? According to a report on the reproductive health and justice site RH Reality Check, in 2012 only $69 million of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s near $423 million budget went to cancer research, while the majority of the foundation’s spending was on public education. Ok, great, we all know about breast cancer, but that doesn’t mean scientists are getting the money they need to figure out how to fight and prevent it.
I agree with Holmes’ assessment that breast cancer has become such a popular cause because it aligns with how we as a culture value femininity. We like women with breasts, especially big, beautiful ones. Girls and young women embrace the “heart boobies” messages because they sync with their blossoming sexual self-image. Just like Miley Cyrus wants us all to know that she has sex and loves it, so these bracelets say, I have breasts now, and I LOVE them! In other words: I’m a woman. While the sexualized slogans give men a free space to express their love of mammaries, a “get out of jail free” card to say “nice rack.”
It seems like a win-win, and yet what’s lost is the image of a woman suffering from breast cancer, or the toll that survival can take — a removed breast, the inability to have children because of chemotherapy, a radically different metabolism post-treatment, a regimen of heavy medications that affect your lifestyle — or the death of a loved one.
When my mom underwent treatment for breast cancer, she suffered for a week with an open wound, a procedure that enabled her chemo treatment to be locally delivered, direct to the cancerous body on her breast. To me, breast cancer conjures the tense squinting of her eyes when she recalls that pain. While I’m of course happy my mother is still here and celebrating eight years cancer free, this is far from a funny image, or a sexy one. And I’ll be damned if I’d ever use cancer as an excuse to ogle or objectify a woman’s body. That’s just sick.