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Sep 6, 2010

Sexualised breast cancer campaign sending the wrong message

Breast cancer awareness is a worthy and honorable goal ... but we should not give carte blanch to sexist rhetoric, even if well-intended, writes Melinda Tankard Reist, a Canberra author and blogger.

“Help The Hooters”, “Save The Jugs”, “Don’t Let Cancer Steal Second Base”, “Cop a Feel”, “Save The Tattas”, “Save The Boobies”, “Save The Headlights”: these are just some of the slogans which have been used to promote breast cancer awareness and fundraising around the world.

There’s a new slogan appearing on twitter at the moment. It’s “Feel Them Up Friday” (#feelthemupFriday).

EllyMc (@Ellymc) took issue with this slogan, believing it sexualised breast cancer awareness. She expressed her thoughts in a piece titled “On Public Health, Prudes and Hashtags“,  which she then circulated through twitter last Thursday. I agreed with her, so re-tweeted another tweet about it by @daiskmeliadorn.

Well, didn’t that cause a flurry of responses? I was making a big deal out of nothing, picking a fight,  it was just a “fun hashtag”.  I was even accused of saying women touching their own breasts was “sexual”.

Now, I really don’t mind anyone disagreeing with my arguments. I’m kind of used to that. But I’d prefer an argument about what I said, not about what I didn’t say.

I have no issue at all with women touching their breasts and support self-examination. I’ve done it myself and found something suspicious, which was checked out (there’s some family history of the disease, so I try to be vigilant). Fortunately, it wasn’t cause for concern.

But I do have an issue with the kind of language used in these campaigns because it emphasises the sexual desirability of breasts, especially as objects for male sexual gratification — and not a woman’s health and wellbeing.  “Feel Them Up” is associated with the sexual behaviour of some men. The phrase is linked with and suggestive of adolescent males groping girls. (You would never hear the sentence “She felt him up in the back of the car”).


Even if the phrase is appropriated, and it is women doing the “feeling”, these connotations remain. The language contributes to the broader cultural s-xualisation of the br-ast regardless of whatever arguments are employed to justify its use. Using these words in mainstream breast cancer awarenss campaigns normalises them and makes them OK — just a bit of “fun”.  This wider commodified sexualisation of the breasts contributes to many negative outcomes, not least mixed feelings about breast feeding. The sexification of the breast is mentioned in this journal article. (Thanks Dr Samantha Thomas for directing me to it. Samantha also has a piece on problematic breast cancer promotion on her blog which is worth reading ).

Many of the slogans used in breast awareness campaigns are about saving boobies/hooters/jugs. But many breast cancer survivors lose their breasts. What do these campaigns say about them? They survived, their breasts did not. Perhaps this is why survivors who have had mastectomies don’t feature much in breast cancer advertising — like this public service announcement for “Saving The Boobies” (note also the apparent jealousy of the smaller-breasted women towards the woman with the larger breasts who is attracting all the attention).

And don’t tell me this nude modelling site — billed as a “Breast appreciation gallery” —  is really about “Helping defeat breast cancer”. The fundraising angle can be used as a nice cover for displaying women’s n-ked bodies — their  “assets” as described here — all in the name of  a “great cause”.

“Nude models wanted. Share your beauty with us and help Q’BellaT with a great cause… If you’re outgoing, fun, daring, over 18, female; and you think your assets belong here…then…contact us with your information. Tell your friends to join us!!!”

Is it any wonder that the less “sexy” cancer causes find it more of a struggle to attract funding and donations?

“The sexism of breast cancer awareness normalises the view that women are sexual objects rather than subjects with agency and dignity”.

Here’s a great article that expresses my thoughts on this. It’s by Beth Mendenhall, a senior in political science and philosophy at Kansas State College, published in February.

Without the appropriate context, one might interpret slogans such as “I < 3 boobs,” “Help the Hooters” and “Save the Jugs” as lubricious frat-boy appeals to more cleavage shots in the next American Pie movie.

In reality, these slogans and others like them are the new vanguard in breest cancer awareness campaigns. Despite its good intentions, the focus on saving breasts because they are objects of sexual desire is an insidious reinforcement of sexist norms and explicitly excludes most br-ast cancer survivors from the campaign.

The new culture of br-ast cancer awareness can be characterised by two features: appeals to saving the breasts, rather than the women, and slogans couched in vernacular terms such as “boobs” and “hooters”. These campaigns treat women’s bodies as objects whose central purpose is the sexual gratification of the male libido.


See the wave of “Don’t Let Cancer Steal Second Base” T-shirts. When a campaign to raise awareness and funds to fight a deadly disease appeals to the potential loss of a s-xual object, rather than the potential loss of a human life, it sends a powerful message about what our society values. The sexism of breast cancer awareness normalises the view that women are sexual objects rather than subjects with agency and dignity.

The impacts of sexism aren’t limited to discomfort and irritation. Thousands of violent acts against women, including battery, rape and murder, are committed because the perpetrator views his victim as nothing more than an object created for his pleasure.

Anxiety and loss of confidence, eating disorders and even suicide are symptoms of women viewing themselves as imperfect if their bodies don’t reflect the perceived norm. If we valued women as subjects with agency, rather than passive objects with “boobs” attached, many of these social ills would be greatly reduced.

It’s undeniable that breast cancer awareness campaigns have been effective — despite being less fatal than other types of cancer, breast cancer receives, by far, the most funding. It works because it reflects and reinforces sexist culture, forcing women to assume the position of passive objects of male desire to be considered effective activists. This pragmatist blackmail ignores the violence and self-deprecation women experience as a result of the norms it reifies. Slogans like “We’ll Go a Long Way for a Good Rack” imply that a woman with less-than-optimal breasts doesn’t deserve as much effort.

One of the most ironic effects of boob-centric breast cancer campaigns is their complete exclusion of breast cancer survivors who have had mastectomies. The new culture of breast cancer awareness is perversely inhospitable to those it ought to support by emphasising the link between female sexuality and healthy breasts.

This might explain awareness T-shirts with mock street signs saying “Pardon Our Appearance While We are Under Reconstruction”. A recent manifestation of this exclusion was the bra-color-in-status trend, which explicitly excluded survivors with mastectomies and was a painful reminder of their deviance from social norms of sexuality.

Br-ast cancer awareness is a worthy and honorable goal, but off and especially on-campus campaigns should critically examine the messages they send and refuse complicity with a pervasive culture of sexism. We should not give carte blanch to sexist rhetoric, even if well-intended. When we place women’s value in the maintenance of their sexualised body parts, rather than their subjectivity, we license insidious forms of physical, structural and mental violence.

Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, speaker, commentator, blogger and advocate for women and girls. This article first appeared on her blog.


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31 thoughts on “Sexualised breast cancer campaign sending the wrong message

  1. Jenny Morris

    Bravo, Melinda!

  2. Liz45

    Thanks Melinda for exposing this reality – I had no idea! I find it repugnant, for all the reasons that you’ve mentioned. I’ve known at least 5 women who’ve died from breast cancer – all of them lost at least one breast. As a feminist and interested in a just and equal society, I find this sexualisation of breast cancer offensive. I’ll certainly be more aware in future. I’m involved with a women’s health centre, and shall raise this at my earliest opportunity. Thank you for speaking out!

  3. Meski

    As a guy, I think some (most?) of the slogans are fairly tasteless.

  4. Cath

    My mother and 2 aunties had breast cancer so I’m a candidate as well and clearly the marketers behind this campaign have ZERO consideration for how vulnerable you are.

    A woman’s breasts have some key functions, and no one is denying that her sexuality is a big part of those. But when it comes to having your life threatened, saving these should not be the priority. If we continue to make the saving of the breast, as opposed to the saving of the life the priority we will lose many more women to cancer.

    There are enough issues with reconstructive surgery to not make that a viable option for everyone either.

    So – thank you Melinda for presenting these campaigns for what they are – cruel, repugnant and non-creative.

  5. Tom

    Melinda – In a perfect world I’d have no agument. Trouble is, the world in which we live is far from perfect and ‘the message’ has to get out. My mother died of brea$t cancer 10 years ago. Remembering her as a feminist I wonder what she would have made of the notion of the s_xualisation of that which was killing her.
    I agree with Meski that the slogans are pretty tasteless but if in an imperfect world they get the attention, get the tins rattling and advance a possible cure, should we be anything other than disappointed that this is what it’s come to?

  6. Scott

    Isn’t this just niche marketing? “Save the Boobies” was created by a Canadian not for profit called “Rethink Breast Cancer” (who raised about 1.4 million last year for Breast Cancer programs). They deliberately target younger women (as breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer for women between 18 and 40, roughly 5% of all breast cancer sufferers) and believe they get greater penetration by making their marketing “sexy” to appeal to this demographic. Another aim of the campaign is to take the “scariness” out of breast cancer, to normalise it and encourage women to talk about it, both to each other and their partners. The head of Rethink, MJ DeCoteau lost her mother to breast cancer so I don’t think her aim was to objectify anyone.
    Are women objectified by the campaign? I don’t believe so, but it’s up to each individual to decide for themselves. Even if a few people are offended, there is no reason to stop this marketing. I have no doubt this strategy will raise awareness among the young (we are talking about it after all) and increase fund raising (if only through Tshirt sales). The “Save the Ta-ta’s” T-shirt company raised $340,000 US for breast cancer research over the last 6 years. Can only be a good thing.

  7. Emma

    I agree with this article, and have a big problem with this sort of campaigning. I don’t think the sexual objectification of women is ever a good thing, but in this context it’s particularly horrible. There are other non-objectionable ways to increase awareness for breast cancer, or to fundraise to cancer research.

    The assumption that an issue, even cancer, needs to be sexualised in order to grab the attention of young people is patronising. It’s also lazy and as Cath says, lacks creativity.

  8. Scott

    @Emma. You might say that it’s patronising, but the reason why marketers use sexy or shock advertising when targeting the young is because it’s effective. Lots of academic research out there that says that shock advertising works better than fear focused or informational advertising when dealing with the under 30’s. Check out one such paper below.

  9. Eric Brodrick

    I get the impression here that Melinda is hijacking a cause to spread her own agenda. Such “party line” phrases as “treat women’s bodies as objects whose central purpose is the sexual gratification of the male libido”, “The sexism of breast cancer awareness normalises the view that women are sexual objects rather than subjects with agency and dignity”, “they are objects of sexual desire is an insidious reinforcement of sexist norms” and “it emphasises the sexual desirability of breasts, especially as objects for male sexual gratification” have even less to do with breast cancer detection than the corny slogans she is protesting about. She writes as if women are totally passive creatures with no sexuality or desire of their own (providing its by someone she desires, does any woman mind being “felt up”) and then goes on to link these slogans to assault, rape and murder which is stretching the point a bit far.

    I could write an entire essay in reply to this article, but when it comes to the crunch, if one woman’s life is saved by an awareness campaign. Does it really matter how cheesy or politically incorrect the slogan is ?

  10. Gibbot

    I respect your opinion on this issue, Melinda, and as both a fan and a friend of @ellymc, the last thing I wish to do is incur her considerable and well documented wrath* by appearing antagonistic. I can’t help but feel however, that your position actually does more harm to the cause of cancer awareness than the real or perceived sexualisation of it.

    I was one of many who ‘pinked up’ their avatar for #feelthemupfriday. Though I concede I had reservations about the choice of hashtag as I have more than one friend who has suffered sexual assault, the whole campaign was spontaneous, heartfelt and utterly without malice. The lady who brought it into being had no thought of objectifying women. She wasn’t even concerned with raising donations (although I believe many happened as a result), her goal was merely to raise awareness, and I have to seriously question how that can be construed as a bad thing.

    What I got out of #feelthemupfriday is that if everybody plays an active part, detection rates increase and less women die or lose breasts. Of course women aren’t their breasts, but tell men their partner could lose their breasts if cancer is not detected early and they take a personal interest.

    The best advice I could imagine giving loving partners (the kind Fred Nile approves of, of course – not the ones he ‘researches’ on the taxpayers’ dime,) is to shower together and get to know your partner’s body intimately. If that leads to a little more intimacy in your relationship then all the better. Why take the sexuality out of an act that can save lives? Why take the fun out of anything if you don’t have to?

    More men die every year of prostate cancer than women die of breast cancer. The main reason is not funding, although that’s sadly lacking in comparison to breast cancer. It’s discussion. It’s the fact that men don’t go to the doctor with their health concerns because that’s not what we do. We don’t talk about it, and society is just fine with that.

    I’m more than happy to feel my partner’s breasts for lumps, but neither me or my partner is comfortable with the idea of sticking a finger up my arse to check my prostate, though when I think about it, I would much prefer it to be my partner than a male doctor I may or may not know.

    Breast examination happens more regularly than prostate examination because it’s been made acceptable through public discourse. I’m all for it. What we now need is #manicuremonday and #twinstuesday. We need to make cancer detection a part of our daily lives, male and female.

    There’s no ‘brown ribbon day’, and until you’re willing to stick a manicured finger up my arse, I don’t see how you have a right to complain about the fact that men are getting on board the breast cancer cause. Less women are dying. Those that lose breasts are better loved and supported. Nobody with a brain thinks women are their breasts, but us blokes are getting involved. What are you doing for us?

    *This is a total lie. Elly has not a wrathful bone in her body. She scarcely has a cranky muscle, and her derma is Christ-like. I really live in fear that she’ll stop baking for me.

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