Obviously, because I am a crotchety old harpy, I hate the “I ♥ Boobies” bracelets that seem to be adorning wrists left and right these days. No big surprise, given my general dislike of stunty crap pulled in the name of “breast cancer awareness.”
The thing is that I really hate breast cancer. Like, a lot. I think breast cancer is totally the pits, and it claims the lives of far too many people (mostly women) annually in addition to causing considerable pain and suffering. Which means that I am all for improving access to preventative care, early diagnosis, and treatment. I'd like it even better if breast cancer became something that was routine and easy to manage, something curable; take a course of pills and bam, you're done.
I want to see funds going into cancer research and development in general, and I want to see current cancer patients getting the support they need to make it through treatment. But I also know that with breast cancer in particular, navigating the illness can be difficult.
Breasts are a really loaded and significant body part. It's not like liver cancer. Most people know what a liver is and what it does, but it kind of just hangs out inside your body doing its work. Your liver isn't an integral part of how you present yourself to the world, it's not an erogenous zone, it's not a potential source of food for a newborn (how cool is it that breasts can DO THAT?!), it's not something that you associate with your gender, sexuality, and identity. It's just a liver, dude. You still don't want liver cancer, mind, but it's not at all like cancer of the breast, which attacks a very intimate part of you.
A lot of breast cancer patients experience loss and psychological trauma, starting from diagnosis. They're worried about losing their breasts, they're worried about what people will think of them when the topography of their chests changes, and they're worried about dying. Because cancer kills, especially if it's a treatment-resistant form or it's significantly advanced by the time it's identified.
Breast cancer, in other words, attacks the breasts, but it's not just about breasts. It's about identity, it's about the whole body, and it's about staying alive.
I am deeply uncomfortable and angry with campaigns that objectify patients with breast cancer, turning them into a pair of “ta-tas” or “boobies.” Making it seem like the only thing people should be worried about when it comes to breast cancer is the breasts themselves, rather than the whole patient behind them.
Screw long-term outcomes or psychological stress or patient wellbeing: BOOBIES, YOU GUYS. BOOBZ!
A lot of breast cancer patients and their loved ones have expressed similar distaste for such campaigns, as have people at increased risk for breast cancer, like me. Others feel just the opposite: they think these campaigns add a note of fun, making cancer less scary and encouraging people to engage with it as a social issue. We spend a lot of time arguing back and forth about whether the ends justify the means, and how far is too far.
But these “I ♥ Boobies” bracelets, man, they make my blood boil. They've become the new trendy accessory in schools across the United States, and consequently, school districts have been cracking down on them in their dress code, trying to bar students from wearing them. That, of course, has resulted in a flood of First Amendment cases defending student rights to free speech, arguing that the justifications provided by the school districts aren't sufficient to ban wearing them.
The battle over “I ♥ Boobies” highlights some interesting tensions for me personally. If I had my way, I'd personally burn every single one of those goddamn bracelets along with all the save the ta-tas shirts and the other objectifying junk that turns women with a serious disease into a pair of tits for someone to ogle at.
But you know what? I don't rule the world, and that's not a choice I get to make. I can rail against these kinds of materials and talk about why I find them both personally offensive and harmful to the cause, but I ultimately am not so into infringing upon other people's free speech. My goal is to be persuasive enough on my own to get people to stop doing things that I think are gross, not to force them to stop doing those things by sheer force of will.
Free speech includes the right to poor taste, and the right to criticize that taste. It's a big world out there, people.
These school districts are claiming that the bracelets are lewd and distracting and that's why they want to ban them, and it's pretty obvious that a lot of students are wearing them as a kind of envelope-pushing thing because they want to see how far they can go with it. And because many middle schoolers (a frequent boobie-saving demographic, apparently) are in fact at that stage of development where they find both body parts and defying adults totally great. But some of those people wearing these bracelets are also doing it because they genuinely believe they're fighting breast cancer somehow, like wearing a crappy piece of rubber (that contains carcinogens) will somehow contribute to the cause.
I'm on the side of groups like the ACLU defending student rights here. As much as it pains me to admit, though I loathe I ♥ Boobies bracelets, I will defend to the death the right of others to wear them. And then I'll argue with them to see if I can convince them to stop wearing them. Not because they're being forced to stop by a dress code, but because they genuinely understand the problems with this kind of “advocacy” work and they decide to stop on their own.
Districts angry about the proliferation of this kind of breast cancer gear have some hard questions to ask themselves. Many school environments contribute to the objectification of women and girls, and this just feeds into that -- what about the campus culture is maybe encouraging people to engage in this kind of behavior? Have students critically thought about breast cancer and living with cancer?
This is actually a great opportunity for discussion and debate. Students could actually talk about breast cancer, argue the pros and cons of this kind of gear, and maybe talk about alternatives. Maybe kids who really do care about breast cancer just don't know how else to show it, because the breast cancer “awareness” industry has drowned everything in a tide of corporate sexualized pinkification, and that's all they can see.
The problem here, in other words, runs far deeper than some potentially immature students wearing some obnoxious bracelets.