Save the women, not just the boobs
Breast cancer awareness campaigns often diminish real issue
On Wednesdays, we wear pink, and in October, we wear pink every day. Pink ribbons, pink banners, pink balloons — the annual wave of pink is a reminder that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an international campaign by charity organizations to boost awareness of the disease and raise funding for cancer research. Breast cancer was once a topic burdened by stigma and taboo, but thanks to these efforts, it is now a topic of conversation across the country and the globe.
But for all the positive effects of this widespread attention, there’s also a very serious problem that comes with it: the sexualization and commodification of breast cancer.
Breast cancer awareness is one of the most popular charity bandwagons to jump on because of the marketing strategy it has undertaken, one of a sexual nature with a stress on the “breasts.” All you need to do it buy an “I Heart Boobies” bracelet, bake and sell pink-frosted cupcakes or wear a T-shirt boasting a suggestive slogan (such as the popular “save second base” with two predictably placed baseballs on it). You’re killing two birds with one stone by being in on the latest fad while also feeling good about where your money is going. The campaign has become so much more about the trend and less about the disease itself.
Breast cancer is not the leading cause of death in women — heart disease is. The second leading cause of death in women is lung cancer. Breast cancer is the third leading killer of women, yet it receives 15 times more funding than heart disease. In 2010, the National Cancer Institute spent $631.2 million in tax dollars on breast cancer research compared to $281.9 million on lung cancer.
Why is there such a discrepancy? How is spending exponentially more effort, money and resources on the No. 3 killer of women justified? When you consider the culture surrounding breast cancer awareness, it’s unfortunately not that surprising. The focus of breast cancer campaigns isn’t about saving women — it’s about “saving the boobs.”
Breast cancer is marketable because sex sells. Breast cancer is perceived as the absolute worst kind of cancer because of its implications. The possibility that a woman might lose her breasts, which in our society is tied to a woman’s value, naturally garners more attention. Obviously, all the money being generated isn’t a bad thing because there’s always going to be a need for funding. But this has gone so far beyond the research funding — breast cancer is being exploited by companies to “pinkwash” practically every product under the sun.
Even when it comes to one of the most heartbreaking and difficult diseases, women are still being objectified. Several years ago, the Breast Cancer Fund was set to run an ad campaign in San Francisco bus shelters that featured an image of a woman’s chest, scarred by a mastectomy. It read, “It’s no secret. Society is obsessed with breasts. But what are we doing about breast cancer?” Ironically, the ad was pulled because it was considered too disturbing for commuters. And yet, we’re completely fine with the intensely sexual, borderline-pornographic images that are often being used instead. It’s a gross exploitation of women’s bodies and of a terrible and painful cancer that is not being understood for what it really is.