At some point last month, I saw a meme that got me thinking. It was a piece saying that breast cancer awareness ads are excessive and that the overemphasis can cause people with other types of cancer to be overlooked. The author expressed concern about breast cancer being awarded the status of “rock star cancer.” I think the meme touches on an important topic, but there is also a lot more to it. I think that awareness campaigns are helpful and important, but that they’re being executed in a way that’s not quite so positive.
Breast cancer awareness ads featuring Playboy-esque models in shirts that say “Save second base” (with two baseballs strategically drawn on the chest) and bracelets reading “Save the boobies” seem to be the most popular. It’s easy to see why: they’re using sex to spread awareness. I understand that sex sells for better or worse, and those who promote these ads will say they’re taking advantage of that fact in order to do something positive. Some may be sincere in their motives, but I don’t believe for a minute that everyone in the business of making these ads is doing it out of concern for cancer patients. Profit plays a huge part because of all the “pink” merchandise, along with the companies that make mammogram machines. Breasts have been marketable for as long as they have existed. Awareness campaigns for colon cancer wouldn’t be nearly as successful. “Save the buttholes” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
That being said, people have to make money, so what’s wrong with this? The answer lies in the method, as well as the reasoning behind it.
Obviously, we can’t discuss breast cancer without talking about boobs. The aforementioned breast cancer awareness ads (“Save the tatas,” “I Heart Boobies,” etc) could just be cute, playful slogans–if they weren’t the predominant ones being peddled by the media and, in turn, by consumers. The problem with these slogans and images making up the majority of ads is not that they mention female anatomy; it’s that they do it in a way that is objectifying. They don’t show concern for the real people who are suffering; they only focus on the breasts. These ads don’t even contain information about symptoms, prevention and treatment. They just recite a suggestive slogan, shove a pair in your face, and call it “awareness.” They seem to cater to the lowest common denominator, to those who don’t care about cancer unless it means a hot model might lose her boobs. That’s why breast cancer is presented as the most devastating kind. Society seems to believe that a mastectomy is the worst possible thing that could happen to a woman, since her bra size is seen as a major factor of her attractiveness–and thus her worth.
Clearly no woman wants a mastectomy, and nobody wants to be afflicted with any type of cancer. Other forms of the disease absolutely need to be recognized and discussed. “No-Shave November” is meant to bring attention to testicular cancer, which is a good start, but it unfortunately seems to focus a lot more on beards than the disease. People with less commercialized kinds of cancer should never be made to feel invisible or dismissed, and they need just as much support as breast cancer survivors. But in order for that to happen, our society needs to rethink its priorities and stop measuring women’s worth by their literal measurements.
Only then will such a serious issue stop being exploited.