The XX Factor

Mastectomies Aren’t Very Sexy, No

“Forget Save the Ta-Tas: how about save the woman?” Peggy Orenstein begs in her thoughtful New York Times critique of the pink ribbon cancer awareness trend, and the unfortunate tone it’s taken as of late. The trend has been under fire in more radical feminist circles for a long time now, but it’s an issue that should concern everyone who thinks of women as something more than the operating systems for extremely elaborate sex toys for men. It’s that “breast cancer awareness” efforts so often fall into the trap of making it seem like the worst thing about breast cancer is that it can leave you an unsexy uni-boobed lady, as opposed to the more alarming possibility that it leaves you a completely dead lady. While few really cherish the possibility of having a mastectomy, having no part of your body alive at all should be the more worrying concern.

On its surface, it seems shallow to critique campaigns like the “I *heart* boobies” campaign for focusing too much on women’s sexual attractiveness over their other qualities, like their minds or their will to live. If you save the boobies, then you save the woman, right? Win/win. But the more I see this trend of boobie worship as the focus of “breast cancer awareness” efforts, the more concerned I get. Focusing on the fact that breast cancer can leave you less sexy than you were before makes the disease seem less important, and that could hurt funding and prevention efforts in the long run. If your focus is on “save the boobies,” what do you do with the woman whose boobies are unsalvageable?

But I have concerns even beyond that. Discussions of breast cancer are one of the few occasions where ordinary people in mainstream venues talk extensively of valuing women as women . Since the disease rarely strikes men, to demand attention and funding for it is to say that we value women’s lives and health as much as we value men’s lives and health. That message is dramatically undermined when you focus on women’s contributions as sex objects above all other considerations. As Orenstein implies, it also distorts people’s understanding of the disease. If breast cancer is tragic because it deprives the world of breasts, does that mean it’s less tragic if the breasts under attack are droopy and attached to an elderly body? Do we only care if supple young women get the disease? It’s easy to feel that way if you look too long at the world of pink ribbon activism, which is often aimed more at younger women who are the least likely to get the disease anyway.

Meanwhile, prevention efforts aimed at a that cancer is preventable (unlike breast cancer) are falling incredibly short . Cervical cancer doesn’t mar your silhouette, so it languishes as a second-tier concern. There’s no way to get a cheap, titillating thrill disguised as “cervical cancer awareness.” No “save the cervixes” bracelets. No one posting the condition of their cervix that day (“mine has an OB tampon lodged near it!”) on Facebook in order to raise awareness so that young girls get the HPV shot.

Photograph by Ashley Reed from Wikimedia Commons.