So Sunday was apparently “Go Braless for Breast Cancer” day. I’m going to hazard a guess that the organizers really meant “for breast cancer awareness,” rather than breast cancer itself, as this pernicious and awful disease doesn’t really need any public support.
Sunday also happened to be the day I was sitting in PDX waiting for a flight home and happened to notice that the sportsball players on the screen above me were wearing pink accessories. Their gloves and shinguards were pink, and some were sporting splashes of pink elsewhere on their uniforms, a clearly league-approved thing given that much of the field was dotted in the color.
My first reaction was: “How fantastic! Members of a sport viewed as traditionally highly masculine are wearing pink, illustrating that it’s not degrading for men to wear it.”
My second reaction was: “Oh, right, it’s October.”
Or, as I like to call it, National Pinkwashing Month.
October is the month where pink products are crammed down the throats of consumers with the promise that somehow buying yoghurt with pink lids or purchasing special pink-branded purses will “support breast cancer research.” It’s the month when everything turns a nauseating sea of pink, when you are ushered into Cancerland, as Barbara Ehrenreich memorably put it.
This pinkification and commodification of breast cancer is rarely interrogated very thoroughly in the mass media. People don’t talk about what percentage of sales (including sales of items linked with cancer) actually goes to breast-cancer related causes, and how that’s broken up: research? Treatment assistance? Counseling for patients? Support for people dealing with lost income? Grief support for family members in morning? Preventative measures? How efficient are the organizations accepting these donations? Does the bulk of their money go into the cause, or into paying administrators? How well-regarded are they by charity rating organizations?
And it’s the month when a myriad of breast cancer memes spring up.
There was the bizarre Facebook meme a few years ago where people were instructed to post the color of their bra, as though this would somehow increase “awareness” of breast cancer. It’s a bit unclear whether we actually need an awareness campaign for this very high-profile disease at this point, and the point of posting bra colors is even less clear. Does it help patients in some way that escapes my grasp? Does it provide access to preventative care services for low-income people? Does it cook meals for families struggling with breast cancer?
This “Go Braless for Breast Cancer” meme has come up a few times. Premise: Take off your bra.
That appears to be it. There’s no kind of action beyond that associated with it. No suggestion on how to turn bralessness for breast cancer into meaningful action that would actually combat breast cancer. Like so many other “breast cancer awareness” stunts, it appears to be more about objectifying people and, as one of my roommates at the conference I just returned from sharply pointed out, creating a socially acceptable reason to talk about breasts and giggle over boobies.
This is a society that in many ways is deeply afraid of bodies, especially when it comes to sick bodies. Breasts are both highly gendered and highly sexualized: Many people think of them specifically as female sexual parts.
While it’s true that breasts are an erogenous zone for many people (of many genders), they are also, critically, also kind of an amazing feat of evolution. These sacs of tissue contain modified sweat glands that, when stimulated by the proper hormones, produce nutritious milk capable of sustaining a human infant. Which is pretty amazing, if you ask me.
But breasts don’t exist in isolation. They are part of a larger whole, that of an entire body, a complete biological system. When malignancies develop in the breast, they may start there, but they can spread through the surrounding lymph nodes, into the bones, into other organs, into the brain. Breast cancer eats away at the patient until nothing is left, sometimes even with the most aggressive, high-end, extensive treatment.
Breast cancer is a killer, not just a potential taker of breasts, and most breast cancer memes seem to be about an opportunity to titillate people with breasts in isolation; they’re about how tragic it is when patients lose their breasts. Not when they lose their lives, or develop significant cancer-related disabilities. Not about how horrible it is to spend your days bent over the toilet retching from chemo, not about how awful it is to develop cognitive disabilities as tumors march into your brain.
Not about how lonely cancer can make people; how at first people rally around to provide support, and then, one by one, they drift away. How cancer can split relationships and families as it becomes too much for people to handle. Cancer is a killer in more ways than one.
So what does going braless for cancer accomplish, exactly? It provides little more than yet another opportunity to fetishize breasts and giggle about them. And that opportunity is considered marginally acceptable because it’s for cancer, and because many people believe that “anything for a cause” is an excuse for a wide variety of behavior.
Even if people with cancer, people at risk for cancer, people working on cancer research, and others associated with the cause say they are not fans of this kind of “activism,” people merrily carry on with campaigns about “saving the ta-tas” and “groping for the cause” and “if you don’t check them, I will.” (A rather menacing comment, don't you think?)
I found a charming thread on a male-dominated forum discussing this meme, which basically consisted of a bunch of men leering at the idea of people going about without bras. They, of course, were quick to point out that the meme wasn’t complete without pictures. My favorite comment may be this one: “I will turn the AC to a colder temperature and silently observe it. and yes...there will be a wad of dollar bills in my pocket.”
It's a circle of hooting men crying, “show us your titties for cancer.” Degrading. Objectifying. Gross.
But there’s also “a bunch of angry dykes with their sagging play-doh boobs pressing against their flannel shirts as they despise all men for not having to worry about breast cancer.”
That comment speaks to a larger point, actually, which is that the breast cancer awareness movement, back when awareness of breast cancer actually was necessary, basically arose amongst “a bunch of angry dykes” (and straights!). Feminists and those working in solidarity with them were infuriated about this silent killer disease stalking through the community, a disease so taboo that it couldn’t be discussed.
People didn’t know anything about preventative measures and early screening, were afraid to talk to their doctors, and hid in their homes during treatment. Those who had breast cancer, and those who had recovered from it, never talked about it. It was a forbidden subject, one relegated to the shadows along with the ghosts of other things that terrified society.
That changed when activists stormed culture and society, demanding attention for breast cancer. They refused to remain silent in the face of a killer longer, and made it clear that they were no longer afraid of the social repercussions of talking openly about breast cancer. They worked during an era when awareness was necessary, when many people didn’t know about breast cancer and didn’t understand it well and the results were fatal.
Today, we know about breast cancer. The question isn’t how we can make people “aware” that this disease exists, but what we can do about the disease itself.
How can we address the huge class disparities when it comes to quality of care? How can we resolve the fact that women of color, especially Black women, are diagnosed later and receive worse quality of care (including less aggressive treatment) than white women? How can we combat the stigma endured by mastectomy patients who have not opted for reconstructive surgery? How can we better support patients and families living with breast cancer?
Tell me, please, how taking off my bra for a day would address any of these issues. Because I’d cheerfully go braless for life if I thought it would directly benefit people with breast cancer in any meaningful way.