Without the appropriate context, one might interpret slogans such as “I < 3 boobs,” “Help the Hooters” and “Save the Jugs” as lubricious frat-boy appeals to more cleavage shots in the next “American Pie” movie.
In reality, these slogans and others like them are the new vanguard in breast cancer awareness campaigns. Despite its good intentions, the focus on saving breasts because they are objects of sexual desire is an insidious reinforcement of sexist norms and explicitly excludes most breast cancer survivors from the campaign.
The new culture of breast cancer awareness can be characterized by two features: appeals to saving the breasts, rather than the women, and slogans couched in vernacular terms like “boobs” and “hooters.” These campaigns treat women’s bodies as objects whose central purpose is the sexual gratification of the male libido.
See the wave of “Don’t Let Cancer Steal Second Base” T-shirts. When a campaign to raise awareness and funds to fight a deadly disease appeals to the potential loss of a sexual object, rather than the potential loss of a human life, it sends a powerful message about what our society values. The sexism of breast cancer awareness normalizes the view that women are sexual objects rather than subjects with agency and dignity.
The impacts of sexism aren’t limited to discomfort and irritation. Thousands of violent acts against women, including battery, rape and murder, are committed because the perpetrator views his victim as nothing more than an object created for his pleasure.
Anxiety and loss of confidence, eating disorders and even suicide are symptoms of women viewing themselves as imperfect if their bodies don’t reflect the perceived norm. If we valued women as subjects with agency, rather than passive objects with “boobs” attached, many of these social ills would be greatly reduced.
It’s undeniable that breast cancer awareness campaigns have been effective – despite being less fatal than other types of cancer, breast cancer receives, by far, the most funding. It works because it reflects and reinforces sexist culture, forcing women to assume the position of passive objects of male desire to be considered effective activists. This pragmatist blackmail ignores the violence and self-deprecation women experience as a result of the norms it reifies. Slogans like “We’ll Go a Long Way for a Good Rack” imply that a woman with less-than-optimal breasts doesn’t deserve as much effort.
One of the most ironic effects of boob-centric breast cancer campaigns is their complete exclusion of breast cancer survivors who have had mastectomies. The new culture of breast cancer awareness is perversely inhospitable to those it ought to support by emphasizing the link between female sexuality and healthy breasts.
This might explain awareness T-shirts with mock street signs saying “Pardon Our Appearance While We are Under Reconstruction.” A recent manifestation of this exclusion was the Facebook.com bra-color-in-status trend, which explicitly excluded survivors with mastectomies and was a painful reminder of their deviance from social norms of sexuality.
Breast cancer awareness is a worthy and honorable goal, but off and especially on-campus campaigns should critically examine the messages they send and refuse complicity with a pervasive culture of sexism. We should not give carte blanch to sexist rhetoric, even if well-intended. When we place women’s value in the maintenance of their sexualized body parts, rather than their subjectivity, we license insidious forms of physical, structural and mental violence.
– Beth Mendenhall is a senior in political science and philosophy. She would like to credit Edmund Zagorin for his assistance in writing this article. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.