Breast cancer awareness shouldn’t sexualize the disease

Sonali Kalvala

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and last October, millions of  dollars in donations flooded through various cancer awareness organizations for the purpose of raising public interest in the detection, treatment and research of breast cancer. Unfortunately, not all those efforts at raising awareness were necessarily productive.

In many cases, contemporary breast cancer awareness strategies instead create a problematic, overtly sexualized rhetoric of women’s health. Slogans for breast cancer awareness campaigns such as “Save Second Base” and “Save the Ta-Tas” sexualize the third-leading cause of death among women. In doing so, they alienate the thousands of patients who have experienced first-hand the ruthless and exhausting consequences of breast cancer. This October, we should be careful to encourage only those awareness campaigns that avoid this dangerous and limiting trap.

Equating patients’ breasts with sexuality and femininity has serious implications for the discourse on women’s health. Breast cancer awareness ploys that sexualize the disease refocus awareness efforts on preserving femininity, instead of saving the lives of the actual women themselves.

Moreover, sexualizing this disease does not provide support for a woman who has had one or both of her breasts surgically removed. It does not offer sympathy to a woman whose chances of having children dwindle with every chemotherapy session. And it certainly does not provide compassion for a patient whose life is facing a potential end.

The recent online video, “Motorboat for Breast Cancer Awareness,” in which men motorboat women for $20 donations to breast cancer research, is a perfect example of an effort that unnecessarily equates this disease with sexuality and femininity. Such movements assert that the female body serves as a mere means of sexual utility. Not once do the creators of the video discuss the lives of cancer victims or gauge dialogue about cancer research. Ultimately, when they attempted to donate the $7,000 earned through the event to The Breast Cancer Research Foundation, its executive director responded by willfully refunding their contribution.

Several of my college peers defended similar campaigns on the basis that the inherent humor of the campaign helps to generate awareness. Common arguments included, “It’s for the greater good of cancer research. Why complain?” or “They are just spreading awareness in a creative way.”

Despite the vast viral viewership these campaigns gain, these sources of cancer cognizance do so in a way that perpetuates the objectification of the female body and gender-based stereotypes. Diseases that affect a majority of the male population, such as prostate cancer, do not elicit nearly as much sexual rhetoric — a clear double standard.

There are several less offensive means of spotlighting Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For example, directly contributing to research-based institutions like the Breast Cancer Research Foundation eliminates these offensive middleman organizations.

Additionally, cancer campaigns that focus on the interpersonal challenges and livelihood of survivors provide a deeper understanding of what it means to be a victim of breast cancer.

The SCAR Project: Breast Cancer is Not a Pink Ribbon” is a recent undertaking that provides hundreds of autobiographies in which breast cancer survivors describe their experiences without reinforcing unrealistic stereotypes of femininity. The SCAR Project enables public awareness through empowering images of young breast cancer survivors. The national campaign helps women reclaim their identity and power after a tortuous time in their lives.

Yes, it is laudable that breast cancer is no longer hidden in the dark, but at what cost do we value a woman’s “ta-tas” over her actual life? Since the inception of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, society has de-stigmatized the disease and women are no longer compelled to seek treatment in silence behind closed doors. This new recognition of women’s health has its merits, but demands a serious reexamination of its discourse.

Kalvala is an economics and government senior from Coppell, Texas.