This Is My Body That You Are Talking About

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, in case you’ve been wondering why the world around you suddenly went pink. Now, I happen to think that breast cancer awareness is a very good thing, and that educating people about breast cancer and numerous other health issues is a terrific idea. I hate breast cancer. And cancer in general. Cancer, in my opinion, can go take a long walk off a short pier, and anything which improves prevention and treatment of cancer is awesome, in my opinion.

But I hate Breast Cancer Awareness Month, or, as Laura aptly puts it, “Objectify Women’s Bodies Month.”

There are a lot of reasons why. Let’s start with the obvious, which is that most breast cancer awareness campaigns focus on using exploitative images of women’s breasts. Many include sexist language in their very campaign names, like “Save the Ta-Tas.” Women of all walks of life, including prominent celebrities, participate in ads which focus on breasts. And by focus on breasts, I mean “do not address the whole body,” as in ads with floating, disembodied breasts, tight camera cuts onto women’s chests, etc.

You know what I think when I see disembodied body parts? I do not think “oh, what a great way to raise awareness.” I think “oh my Pete, this is incredibly fucking triggering and I am flashing on centuries of violence against women right now.” I think of the centuries of torture techniques which involve cutting or ripping off women’s breasts. I think about the fact that purses made from women’s breasts were popular keepsakes among some Latin American death squads. I think about the time that I was on a BART train and a drunk man groped my breast so fucking hard that I had a purple bruise for weeks. I think about the fact that human society has thought that it owns women’s breasts for hundreds and hundreds of years.

When these ads go on to say things like “grope for the cause” and to use language about how we need to protect women from breast cancer so that they can keep their breasts, it makes me want to vomit. Literally, it makes me physically ill. The focus isn’t on the fact that breast cancer kills people, it is a focus on the fact that breast cancer makes breasts go away. And what’s life without the funbags?

Note that I said “kills people,” above. That’s because breast cancer kills people, not women, which brings me to another problem with breast cancer awareness month, which is that it is cissexist all to hell. Not everyone in this world has breasts, but everyone in this world can get breast cancer. And the focus on breasts, specifically, means that breast cancer goes untreated in people who are not cis women. Those people? They die.

Something else, which I am editing to add, is that I don’t heart breasts. My position on breasts? Is actually pretty neutral. I feel the same way about breasts that I do about arms, legs, noses, ears, toes. I don’t attach any special value or importance to them. In fact, I would probably have a prophylactic double mastectomy if I could afford one. Without reconstruction. That is how much I do not care about breasts.

You know what I do care about? I care about health. I care about the health of all people. I care about the fact that cancer kills people. Cancer does not confine itself to specific areas of the body. Cancer likes to metastasize. Cancer likes to sprawl its little cancer tentacles all over the body. As a result, I care about brain cancer. Stomach cancer. Throat cancer. Colon cancer. Skin cancer. Pancreatic cancer. Liver cancer. Etc. I don’t see any awareness-raising shirts shirts that say “save the esophagi” or “I heart colons.” If breast cancer awareness ads which use sexualized and disembodied breasts aren’t exploitative and sexist, then why don’t we see awareness campaigns for, say, cancer of the bile duct featuring cutesy little pictures of bile ducts? (end edit, original resumes after this)

I’m also not a huge fan of the cause marketing, in which every corporation slathers their crap in pink (also sexist) in the hopes of appealing to people who want to make a difference. The proceeds from sale of pink-branded crap? Don’t necessarily go to breast cancer research. When they do, they often go to organizations which do not use funds in efficient ways. And they also go to funds with nebulous connections to breast cancer, like “women’s health initiatives” which focus on scaremongering about abortion.

You want to make a difference? Donate directly to organizations which research breast cancer and which have high ratings from third party organizations which rate charities. Donate to funds which provide mammograms, education, and other intervention for low income women.

There’s something else that I want to say about the tone of breast cancer awareness campaigns, which is that it’s my body they’re talking about. I have multiple family members who are breast cancer survivors and I have variant BRCA1 & 2. So, when I talk about how much these campaigns offend and upset me, I am speaking from a personal place. Because it is my fucking body that is being exploited by these campaigns, it is my fucking health that is at risk from breast cancer.

So when people tell me that I should “lighten up” and “not be so offended” and that these campaigns aren’t problematic or sexist or, ok, maybe they are a little but it’s for a good cause, I want to scream. You do not get to tell me how to feel. You do not get to tell me that I should not be offended, furious, and upset by campaigns which exploit women’s bodies. Which reduce women to disembodied sexualized body parts.

(Incidentally, this post is part of a larger conversation which started at Adventures of a Young Feminist and moved to Small Strokes Fell Big Oaks, so you may want to check out the posts/comments there as well.)

29 Replies to “This Is My Body That You Are Talking About”

  1. Not everyone in this world has breasts, but everyone in this world can get breast cancer.

    Because breast cancer grows in breast tissue, which every human has. Not all cancers are estrogen-responsive. Not that you’d know that from the advertising.

  2. Well said indeed. My mother died a slow and hideous death from breast cancer, so it’s personal for me, too. And I loathe those ad campaigns.

  3. Thank you, Suzy, for bringing up the fact that these campaigns are also triggering and upsetting for people with family members who did not survive breast cancer. I can’t imagine what it must feel like for you to see the disease that killed your mother being reduced to a pair of breasts and language like “I heart boobs” and “tits are awesome.”

  4. I had a strange experience about an hour ago in the Safeway. They are chipping into Breast Cancer Awareness, and want me to donate money. Only I don’t trust them. Not only did the little machine I slide my card through ask me to donate, but so did the checker. When I said no, she actually very visibly glared at me.

    Which pissed me off. So I said, “look, I think cancer research is important, and I wouldn’t mind donating to it, but I don’t trust your employer to ethically donate the money for me. I feel like I’d pretty much be giving it to Safeway.” She was very taken aback and stammered a whole bunch before shoving my groceries at me.

    Thinking over it, maybe she has a family member fighting cancer, and wants to see people donate. Maybe she had an employee training session in which they instructed her to be pushy and disapproving. I don’t know.

    But there is a lot about this whole campaign that makes me uneasy.

  5. Yes, I dislike campaigns in which people are asked to give money to corporate third parties and trust that it ends up with researchers and nonprofits. Like I say, if you care about [insert your cause here] that much, why not just donate directly? And if the argument is “well, it’s part of the purchase price of something I need anyway,” why not buy something which is not branded with cause marketing, and is therefore cheaper, and send the difference in price to the cause? I’m willing to bet that the cause actually gets more money when you do that.

  6. It’s personal for me, too. And the ads make me tear up.

    Only, I don’t care if they use the words ta-tas, breasts, or knockers to get their point across. (of course, I’m biased, as I do that myself…)

    These words don’t offend me. Why should they? Are there people out there being offended when penises (peni?) are referred to as dicks, schlongs or johnsons? How is one more demeaning than the other?

    I agree with you that there should be more info spread to *men* on breast cancer, since they have the nec. tissue as well, albeit not as much.

    [commenter handle edited because it contained ableist language]

  7. It’s not the words which are offensive, persay, although I will admit that they irritate me, but the framing of many breast cancer awareness campaigns; you should check out Ashley’s post and the comments on Small Strokes Fell Big Oaks for a larger expansion of the discussion.

  8. Does your not taking offense at the breast-centering, woman-erasing language make it globally inoffensive, the*babble? Is that it? If there were people of color who said they didn’t mind when white people used racial slurs, would that make all the people who were offended wrong? It is certainly a tactic used to silence those who speak up about offense and othering and oppression.

    In case you haven’t noticed, penises are privileged. Men are privileged. It changes the context when slang terms are used to refer to them. Men aren’t often reduced to disembodied parts; women are constantly in cultural imagery. That’s what makes one more demeaning than the other. Focusing advertising campaigns on saving breasts and not women is especially demeaning.

    As for me, I’m unfond of the way all these campaigns, even the better ones that make efforts to be less offensive than most, are all striving to find a cure for breast cancer. While finding cures (it’s not even a disease but a number of diseases which have different prognoses, treatments, and survival rates at various time periods post-diagnosis) is a worthy goal, it’s hardly the only thing around breast cancer that needs funding. Poor people need access to what treatment options are available now — and need long-term access to health care. Tumors often return and post-treatment screening becomes vital to continued survival. Poor women who are mothers or provide care for other persons need help with that while they are receiving care themselves; someone needs to pick up the cooking and cleaning and all the other women’s work. People who take time off work to receive treatment and to just plain be sick need income assistance. The families and loved ones of those who don’t survive breast cancer need funerals; treatment often drains familial resources and drives them into debt and funerals can be costly. I have not seen one Race For The Cure or Buy Our Goddamn Pink Shit campaign that even hints that there might be needs like these — everything is focused solely on making breast cancer go away. Very little in the way of resources and attention of the Awareness Campaign stuff is given to dealing with breast cancer as it exists now and helping the people who have it now.

    So to hell with it. As long as these organizations don’t address the issues I think are important they won’t get my support. If anyone wants to say that makes me pro-breast cancer, well. Let’s just say I respond poorly to attempts to manipulate me with shame and guilt.

  9. To be fair, our local Cancer Resource Center is pretty freaking awesome in terms of providing support to patients, with a focus on low income patients (although they help people of all socioeconomic classes). We have a very high breast cancer rate, so they deal with a lot of BC patients, although they obviously handle other cancers as well. It’s just that most organizations like this are small and grass roots, don’t get the attention and the big funds, in part because they are providing broad spectrum support for all cancers, instead of focusing on just one cancer.

    Lung cancer kills far more people than breast cancer. Yet we don’t have a month dedicated to raising awareness about it. Why is that? It’s because breast cancer is something which is very easy to brand, as a cause, and, yes, I’m saying it, something which is very easy to make money off of. This is not to say that all breast cancer awareness campaigns are inherently bad, or inherently out to make money, but any campaign which triggers me, exploits women, and uses cissexist framing in the name of “raising awareness” or “shocking people into action” is not one I am going to support. That doesn’t mean I’m pro breast cancer, it just means that I am pro inclusive framing and causes which do not alienate me. As I said on Ashley’s post, the Avon Foundation is an example of how to do breast cancer right, with a welcome page which is inclusive, covering all genders, although unfortunately it is heavily slanted toward the pink, and awareness which focuses on whole bodies instead of disembodied cis female breasts, and programs which provide support through treatment NOW, rather than focusing on trying to find a cure.

    I really loathe this “well it doesn’t offend me/my best friend” thing people use to justify things like racism, classism, ableism, sexism, cissexism. You know what? It offends me. And I matter. I am a person, and I am offended. Do I not count because I rain on the parade and refuse to support an organization promoting a good cause in a horrific way? Because I choose to put my money and energy into organizations which are inclusive, respectful, and caring?

  10. Right, there are groups which are addressing issues that aren’t just The Cure and do an impressive amount of good with very limited resources. (And getting even more limited in this economy, ouch.) But a lot of the big national campaigns — I’m looking at you, Komen — don’t. And all of the “buy our stuff! It’s branded with pink ribbons and part of the proceeds will totes go to help find a cure for breast cancer!” stuff that is everywhere is purely awful.

    And you’re right; lung cancer kills more people. There isn’t a Lung Cancer Awareness Month because of American Calvinist beliefs about health. The perceived link between lung cancer and cigarette smoking is very strong so there’s a lot of assumption that people who have lung cancer deserve it. While it’s true that smoking tobacco over a lifetime increases one’s risk of lung cancer the causality isn’t nearly so direct; only a small fraction of people who smoke get lung cancer. Only some (I don’t actually know how many and it’s late and I feel lousy and don’t feel like looking it up) people who have lung cancer smoked or lived with someone who smoked. And no one deserves to die horribly no matter what they’ve done. So filthy smokers who did this to themselves don’t deserve help. Even if they’re people who never smoked in their lives but got lung cancer from being exposed to industrial solvents at their job where they didn’t get the breathing protection they were supposed to.

    But breasts! We love breasts! (We love perky round tanned but white breasts, not flat triangular brown National Geographic breasts we giggle over in school and not veiny big-nippled pale breasts with babies attached and not hairy man-breasts and not wrinkled sagging age-spotted breasts and not…) We put breasts up on billboards and all over movies and magazines and books and buses and taxis and airplanes and everywhere. So breasts are sympathetic. We have to save them — without them, women wouldn’t be women.

    But hey, the choir, I am preaching to y’all. You know this. (It’s late, I’m raving, I should try to sleep.) And we’ve all been on the receiving end of Calvinist attitudes about illness and disability. We must’ve done/not done something, right?

  11. Lung cancer kills far more people than breast cancer. Yet we don’t have a month dedicated to raising awareness about it. Why is that? It’s because breast cancer is something which is very easy to brand, as a cause, and, yes, I’m saying it, something which is very easy to make money off of.

    I don’t think that’s why.

    Women fought very hard to get breast cancer awareness out there in the first place. There were protests in the street, with coffins, to get the information out there. Women pushed very hard, and this has been the result.

    There isn’t the concentrated effort to get information out there about lung cancer, or thyroid cancer, or skin cancer and that’s why I don’t think there’s an awareness month.

    IIRC, Australia has a testicular cancer awareness movement building, as does Canada. I know in Canada it’s being led by men.

  12. It’s unfortunate that the early days of breast cancer awareness, which focused on the fact that people were dying, have degenerated into this.

    But, as was pointed out to me this morning, October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month. And I don’t see domestic violence-branded stuff in my grocery store, or huge organizations promoting domestic violence awareness. Most of what I see is low level and grassroots. So I actually am going to stand by my original assertion that opportunistic companies saw an opportunity to make a profit; while they might not have started breast cancer awareness month, they certainly coopted it for their own uses.

    And, for me, the fact that breast cancer awareness has become highly commercialized and extremely exclusionary is a serious problem. One which may well go against the original intents of folks who were angry about the fact that people were dying from lack of information.

  13. No, my not being offended doesn’t make it universally non-offensive. I don’t think I said that it did. I was just offering a point of view that was different. My view. Personally.

    By the same token, the fact that *you* are offended does not automatically make it degrading of all women, or mean that every ad campaign should be yanked.

    I do think some good points were raised about corporate cash-ins. (I admit I will buy “pink” products, if they are products I would normally buy anyway)I agree that it’s better to donate money directly to whichever org. you think matches your ideals best.

    [commenter handle edited because it contained ableist language]

  14. Have you checked out the comments on Ashley’s post? Because I don’t want to repeat myself if you have. The key point that kaninchenzero, Laura, and I are trying to make is that when something offends people, it is not as effective. We aren’t telling people how to think or how to respond, but we are pointing out that if the goal of breast cancer awareness campaigns is to reach people, having a tone which is exclusionary and offensive means that less people are going to be reached, which is a net bad.

    There are lots of things which don’t offend me personally which do offend other people, so I don’t use them as rhetorical tactics, because I want to reach more people. Again, if the goal of awareness campaigns is to get information out, you need to do it in a way which will reach the most people. Alienating people? Not a great way to disseminate information.

    Take the Autism Speaks campaign. Some people with autism did not find it offensive at all. Does that mean that it was an effective and appropriate campaign, even though it happened to offend some (many) people?

  15. While the breast cancer campaigns may offend a few women like yourself and the women mentioned above, they do not offend enough women to force the organizations to change. I understand and respect your position, but think that the vast majority of people do not agree.

  16. The reason breast cancer is something we are aware of is, as Anna pointed out, a consequence of women fighting very very hard to get the rest of society to pay attention. Much like how hard we’ve fought to get quality reproductive care & have it covered by insurance, or how hard we have fought to get girls into math and science. Sometimes, now that these things have some degree of success, they get taken for granted.

    However, the way breast cancer awareness is marketed is hardly beneficial to the people affected. While people are still organizing campaigns to offer support to the people affected, for t he most part when you see a corporation saying anything about breast cancer, you can assume it isn’t going to do a damn bit of good to actual people with actual breast cancer. What it means is that they can cash in on it. They offer to donate some measly percentage of proceeds, in the name of “awareness” which… what? What about actually donating $5 to a research-focused organization? What about donating $5 to a cancer center that cares for actual patients and their loved ones? Usually the proceeds end up going to an organization that prints t-shirts and rubber bracelets.

    That is my problem with “breast cancer awareness” — it has been coopted. And no, you don’t see nearly the same “awareness” for domestic violence, and there is a reason for that: there are people at fault for it. With breast cancer, everyone can be on board because breast cancer isn’t a person. But domestic violence IS one person assaulting another. Which means personal implication. Which means it will never get the widespread support breast cancer awareness does.

    The public prefers “awareness” campaigns because “aware” is something they can do. That way they feel good for “doing something.” But “aware” only cures cancers and saves lives and makes lives better if “aware” is something that precedes something else (pressure on govt to fund better research, patient care, etc.), not something in and of itself.

    And that is where corporations are doing the most harm, IMO: in divorcing “awareness” so that it is a goal in and of itself.

  17. You know, Bettina, your argument reminds me a lot of the rhetoric seen from ethically questionable multinational corporations: “but we do good things! Those outweigh the bad!”

    Do they?

  18. Right, I want to keep people focused on the core of the discussion here.

    The question is not: “do you, gentle reader, think that some breast cancer awareness campaigns are offensive?”

    The question is: “do you, gentle reader, recognizing that some people find some breast cancer awareness campaigns offensive, think that the tone of breast cancer awareness should be changed to be more inclusive?”

    We’re operating on the assumption here that everyone thinks breast cancer (and cancer in general) is a bad thing and that everyone thinks that there should be better prevention, early diagnosis, treatment, and support available to people with cancer. We aren’t questioning whether or not awareness, research, and support are necessary, at all. We’re asking about how to approach the framing of breast cancer awareness.

    I also want to remind people to read all comments before commenting, in keeping with the comments policy (take special note of this comment please), and I want to direct people to the conversations at Small Strokes Fell Big Oaks and Adventures of a Young Feminist.

  19. Furthermore, want to see an example of the kind of “awareness” campaigns we are talking about? Take a look at Kynn’s post on “boobiethon.”

  20. Hum. A million years ago (approximately) I ran an anti-rape campaign on a college campus, which included an evening shuttle service. Make a reservation, a shuttle takes you back to the dorm from class.

    One of the problems, as I saw it, with our program, was that most sexual violence on campus was in the form of domestic violence, date rape, etc., so shortening a student’s evening walk to forestall the stranger-jumping-out-of-bushes problem was, at best, tangential, and at worst, outright deceptive. Still, it was an acknowledgement that there WAS a problem, which was better than conditions previously.

    Similarly with Breast Cancer. As Anna pointed out, breast cancer activism was an accomplishment of our foremothers in feminism. I don’t participate in any pink ribbon business, and maybe it’s worse in certain environments than in mine, and I do NOT share any faith that targeting money to “non-profits” or “research” or “patient care” is likely to make a more significant difference in the lives of any single woman, or group of woman than the current strategy does. And, see? I’m only caring about the lives of women as apply to this, because that’s how I roll. YMMD

    But if we’re going to talk about “I take offense” as the basis for inclusion, we’re on a really slippery slope. Because that’s when you get messy battles among the underclass, while privilege continues happily along. I don’t think being concerned about breast cancer renders invalid being concerned about stomach cancer, anymore than I think fighting for curb cuts is telling people with hearing impairments they’re unimportant. We need to do it all. Takes time.

    There are people who find gay marriage offensive. And they’re wrong, and I’m not toning it down to protect their feelings. Outrage, in and of itself, isn’t a basis for determining policy. I won’t tell you how to feel. You don’t tell me, either. It’s important to exchange how we feel about stuff, but, after that, we weigh all the factors, and, hopefully, find something that works.

  21. Outrage by itself isn’t the basis for action and social justice, as the example you gave shows. But I think we’re justified in distinguishing between outrage generated by the outraged person’s bigotry — wanting to keep queer people second-class citizens, the propaganda designed to undermine the legitimacy of the Obama presidency (and to raise support for violent action against the lawfully elected government), disapproval of interracial relationships — and outrage at the bigotry proper — noting that a person who says the things Kevin Smith did in his hideous boobiethon Twitter feed is speaking from misogyny.* Conflating the two and asserting moral equivalence are derailing, silencing tactics. Not that this is what you’re doing, Brooke, but it is explicitly what people who say “You’re just intolerant of Christians/white people/the wealthy!” are doing.

    * Criminy, what a sentence.

  22. Kevin Smith is kind of an extreme example, don’t you think?
    I mean, I don’t watch a ton of tv, but I don’t recall seeing any ads(on tv or in print) that said anything along the lines of, “If you like to tittyf*** the little woman, tell her to get a mammogram!”

    Yeah, you’re right, that is offensive. That goes way beyond “attention getting” or using everyday slang. And it was compounded by his reaction to a polite, disapproving tweet.

    That is also now where near the average awareness campaign that I’ve seen.

    Anyway, I’m getting off topic somewhat, sorry ’bout that.

    meloukhia, you posed the question of whether or not breast cancer awareness campaigns should be more inclusive.

    Okay, I recognize where some people might be offended.
    And I wouldn’t mind seeing more survivor stories, or “In Memory of” instead of “You **need** breasts to be a woman”

    At the same time, I don’t think any campaign is ever going to all inclusive. There will always be a group out there that is offended. At what point do you decide that you’ve politically corrected it far enough?

    [commenter handle edited because it contained ableist language]

  23. Oh, I was waiting to see how long it would take for someone to drag out the old “politically correct” argument.

    Here’s the short version of my response to that: That’s a really fallacious argument, and it gets used to marginalize people all the time. Rather than addressing exclusivity, we should just ignore it, because it takes too long to make something “politically correct” and it will lead us down an endless spiral of revision? We should just ignore people who are marginalized, othered, and ignored because actually respecting them requires too much time? “You can’t make everyone happy,” so we should therefore continue to actively hurt people who are speaking up about the fact that they are being hurt? We should ignore the fact that there already are advocacy campaigns which manage to accomplish their goals without being exclusionary in nature?

    Yeah, you know what, F that.

    Smith’s example is extreme. And it’s supposed to be. But it’s rooted in the same kind of attitude that all of these “save second base,” “save the ta-tas,” etc campaigns come from. That attitude is: a. only cis women get breast cancer b. breasts are the only thing about a woman’s body which matters c. breast cancer isn’t bad because it kills people, it is bad because it makes breasts go away. Smith’s campaign simply puts that argument right there in the open so that you have to look at it.

    If you don’t find “save the ta-tas” offensive, you should have no problem with Smith’s comments. Because they are rooted in the same attitude, and they are the same thing, it’s just that one has a cutesy veneer and the other one does not.

  24. Just because it was absolutely perfect for the topic and the comments, let’s have some satire:

    “Hay guise. Let’s save the whales. But we have to use this rescue boat that runs on whale blood. I don’t see a problem, do you?”

    “Seriously guise, yes the whale rescue boat runs on whale blood. But it’s cool, okay? It’s for a good cause. Now bleed that bastard.”

    “Hay guise… maybe this whale blood powered boat is a bad idea. I mean we could always use fossil fuels… right?”

    “Listen, if we get rid of the whale blood boat, where does it end? Next you’ll want us to wear pants made out fibers that absorb CO2.”

    “Look dude, whale blood fuel isn’t a big deal. It’s a lot easier to do & everyone else is cool with it. Stop being so politically correct.”

    (And From Meloukhia)

    “Surely, if we kill a few whales to power this boat, it doesn’t matter, because think of how many whales we will be saving!”

    And that is your weekly dose of wonderful satire. I hoped you all enjoyed it. <3

  25. Just wandered over from Feministe.

    Melhoukia, great post. I’m bookmarking this page just so I can refer people back to your defense of political correctness when they try to give me shit for it. Thank you.

    I agree that there needs to be a different focus in the marketing of cancer then just ‘the cure.’ My aunt had breast cancer a few years back, and I remember her saying how frustrated she was about being bombarded with advertisements that implied that she got cancer because she did something wrong. It made her feel blamed rather than supported by all of the organizations that talk about cancer prevention.

    There’s a great image at my workplace of a cancer survivor who’s had a mastectomy. She has a tattoo next to the scar, and her arms are flung wide and she looks genuinely happy just to be. Yes, her other intact breast is visible, but because the main feature of the poster is her joyful facial expression, it doesn’t objectify or whittle her down to a single feature. I love it, I want a copy. I hope I’d have the same self-lovin’ attitude about just being alive at the end of that kind of struggle.

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