Why Do Women's Health Causes Get the #CamelToeChallenge and Men Get Sexy-Lady Prostate Cancer Awareness Videos?

Sexism is everywhere, including in advocacy about health causes, apparently.
Publish date:
April 22, 2015
sexism, misogyny, awareness campaigns, awareness

Every now and then I spot a hashtag that rivets me with a sense of horrified fascination, drawing me ever closer even as I know that it's going to repulse me. And every time, I seem genuinely surprised that my prediction was 100 percent accurate. You'd think I'd know better by now.

Such was true of this weekend's #CamelToeChallenge, a resurgence of a hashtag —the variant is the #PussyLipsChallenge — that's cropped up now and then to, uh, "raise cervical cancer awareness."

Say what?

As with all the apocrypha of the Internet, it's kind of hard to trace this meme to its origins, but it probably started with some people messing around with graphic cameltoe shots, and then someone tagged it with the all important "cancer awareness" meme. This, of course, legitimizes it and turns it into something that can be gleefully spread on Twitter, though it's unclear how big the hashtag really got. Thankfully, it appears to have dropped back under the hashtag seas, but that doesn't mean it's not lurking to reappear when it smells blood in the water.

It joins a long list of "awareness" memes for cis women's health causes that are pointless, actively sexist, and ridiculous. Like the bra color meme that periodically appears on Facebook, or the slew of breast cancer-related gear that clogs the Internet every October — threats of "check them [your breasts] or I will" and pleas to "save the boobies." Health issues that primarily affect cis women are subject to a special and bizarre brand of sexism that's infuriating both because it's a reflection of misogyny in society and because it doesn't actually do anything for women's health, making it a double shot of frustration.

Many of these memes turn women's bodies into component parts rather than entire entities, suggesting that women are more important for their genitals or breasts than they are for their humanity. Cervical cancer is a potentially serious disease not because it might affect sex appeal or, er, "pussy lips," but because it can be fatal if not diagnosed in a timely fashion and it can be very aggressive. Likewise, breast cancer is a huge problem because it's a killer, not because some women need to treat it with mastectomies.

These kinds of memes treat women and their bodies like objects and as public property, and there's something very disconcerting about "awareness" campaigns, even slapdash made-up ones, that incite participants to objectify themselves for the cause. But more than that is going on.

It's unclear how posting a cameltoe pic is going to raise awareness for, let alone address, cervical cancer. If women want to post those pics, they're more than welcome to, especially given the popularity of snide remarks about cameltoe, particularly those that surround larger women and those who have bigger labia. It doesn't matter if your labia show in some clothes: What matters is that you're comfortable in your own body.

Uploading your labia to social media, though, doesn't offer much for cervical cancer prevention, treatment, and research. If it did, I'd throw up a pic myself, trust.

Without context, it offers no real information. The same is true of things like the Facebook bra color meme — how does a cryptic post with the word "orange" help anyone learn more about breast cancer? Even charities found the bra color thing weird when it was popular. These challenges are meaningless because they don't come with links to resources, like recommendations for charities to donate to, information about risk factors, or advice on how to seek screening and treatment. They don't offer access to information about care resources for low-income people who may feel that they have no options, or information about advocacy work to increase funding for research, prevention, screening, and care.

We don't see the same kind of thing with campaigns aimed at cis men to address their health issues. Instead, they get serious informational briefs — or titillating sexist "awareness" campaigns that still manage to actually be informational. Testicular cancer awareness provides a number of examples, including two notable vids revolving around sexy women showing men how to perform self-checks and discussing risk factors and the need to be screened.

Sure, these vids can be read as incredibly misogynistic. But at the same time, they manage to serve the goal of connecting cis men with information. Even Movember, another event where people engage in a stunt and call it "awareness," doesn't involve objectifying participants and does in fact connect people with real health resources. It's a totally bizarre contrast from how cis women's health is approached.

Cis women get "awareness" and cagy campaigns that admit a vague medical condition probably exists, with no real information about the scope of the condition and how to address it. Cis men get concrete campaigns identifying medical conditions, encouraging them to talk to their doctors, and providing information they can act upon to be proactive about early screening and treatment. It's functionally impossible to miss the sexism here.

Cis men matter because they're human beings and we don't want them to die of potentially serious but also readily treatable illnesses. Cis women...uh...something something mumble cancer boobs ha ha. Is that really how we want to be conducting health awareness campaigns?