Boobies, Ta-tas, and Cha-Chas, Oh My! The Sexy-fication of Cancer

By Sayantani DasGupta

“Save the Boobies!  I  ♥ Ta-tas! Save Second Base!”

Like the ubiquitousness of Lance Armstrong’s Live Strong armbands and Susan G. Komen Foundation’s pink ribbon festooned campaigns, “I heart the boobie” bracelets seem to be everywhere these days. Such as on the arms of young women showing their breast cancer awareness — and potentially getting kicked out of school for doing so. (Luckily, we have a little thing called the first amendment that applies, shockingly, even to high schoolers.)

Okay, we get it. We all heart the cha-chas. From Victoria’s Secret push-ups to plastic surgery obsessions and Girls Gone Wild type television, mainstream culture is hugely obsessed with breasts. (Unless you’re a mother trying to breastfeed your hungry infant with them, but that’s another blog post.)

Just recently, I read a fantastic critique of this sort of cutsie ‘Save the Ta-Ta’ campaign by Peggy Orenstein, who says,

Kittenish cancer campaigns… [are] simultaneously pathologizing and fetishizing women’s breasts at the expense of the bodies, hearts and minds attached to them. In that way, they actually suppress discussion of real cancer, rendering its sufferers — those of us whom all this is supposed to be for — invisible. I mean, really, forget “Save the Ta-Tas.” How about save the woman? How about “I ♥ My 72-Year-Old One-Boobied Granny?” After all, statistically, that’s whose rack is truly at risk.

Cancer campaigns have come a long way baby, from the decades when we whispered about “The C Word,” when physicians consulted husbands but left wives in the dark, when women entered operating rooms for simple biopsies and woke up without breasts. These were days when prostheses (and later, reconstructive surgeries) were framed as important, not for a woman’s self concept regarding her own body, but her desirability to her partner, as well as the general comfort of a society who did not want to be reminded of its own vulnerability to disease and disability by the presence of one-breasted (or no-breasted) women.

But women pushed back against these silencing forces by speaking up, and in that speaking, collectivizing.

Audre Lorde’s 1980 The Cancer Journals, not only gave voice to the “Black lesbian feminist” experience of breast cancer, but challenged women to “[transform] silence into language and action.”

In 1993, model and photographer Matuschka made the cover of New York Times Magazine. Her self-referential work, Beauty Out of Damage, placed her one breasted body in the public gaze and challenged us to see it as beautiful.

In 1998, a collection called Art, Rage, Us: Art and Writing By Women With Breast Cancer made space not only for creativity but for protest and anger in documenting the cancer experience.

Yet, such formulations have been replaced with a modern-day sex kittenish sensibility around cancer. A sensibility which is, yes, irreverent, fun, and accessible – but is also disturbingly connected to consumption. Forget marching, protesting, or lobbying – now a-days, we can “shop for the cure.”

In her critique of “cancer culture,” with its ubiquitous products, including pink-ribboned teddy bears, Barbara Ehrenreich writes,

If you can’t run, bike, or climb a mountain for the cure – all of which endeavors are routine beneficiaries of corporate sponsorship – you can always purchase one of the many products… The ultrafeminine theme of the breast-cancer “marketplace” – the prominence, for example, of cosmetics and jewelry – could be understood as a response to the treatments’ disastrous effects on one’s looks. But the infantilizing trope is a little harder to account for, and teddy bears are not its only manifestation… Certainly men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars.

“Sexy cancer” stories such as Kris Carr’s documentary and book Crazy Sexy Cancer or Marissa Acocella Marcetto’s Manolo Blahnik-filled graphic memoir, Cancer Vixen create space for younger women and inject some much needed humor into cancer advocacy. Yet, like the Lance Armstrong’s Live Strong campaign, they potentially embody what writer Chimamanda Adiche has called “the danger of the singular story;” a story which promotes one sort of feel good, non-threatening-to-the-status quo narrative while silencing another.

Recently, an adult graduate student of mine wept as she recalled her experience with the “Look good, feel better” campaign as she was undergoing breast cancer treatment. The experience of walking into a room filled with garish, donated, “last season’s leftover” cosmetics and being condescendingly instructed how to use them only reinforced the notion that the way she looked and felt were socially unacceptable. This is not to say that such campaigns aren’t a source of support for some people. However, the danger is when such stories negate other messier and less socially palatable narratives of anger, such as frustration with the medical system, or people who are in fact dying from, rather than “winning the war against” cancer.

Sex-kitten narratives of consumption and cutsie-ness diminish the power of women’s activism around illness as much as historical silences. This is not to say that posting our bra color as our Facebook status or buying a bracelet for breast cancer is bad, rather, that it’s energy (and money) that could potentially be used more effectively – from organizing (as Orenstein suggests) dinners or childcare for women in one’s community undergoing cancer treatment, to investigating the links between environmental pollutants and the very corporations which sponsor pink-ribboned races for the cure.

Let’s not blindly shop and adorn ourselves to support corporate agendas. Let’s not allow a bracelet, or a dress, or a teddy bear, to silence the voices of women collecting in protest and social critique.

Ta-tas are sexy, sure. But sexier still are women’s voices and bodies in all their strength and diversity.

Related Content:

Save Your Boobs, Unless They’re Saggy

Conversations About Body Image: A Place At The Table For Me?




8 thoughts on “Boobies, Ta-tas, and Cha-Chas, Oh My! The Sexy-fication of Cancer

  1. That last line says it all. These bracelets and things have always disturbed me but I could never quite put a finger on why. The fact that my 12 year old niece wears one of them bothered me, but I could not address it with her because I could not come up with a viable argument.

    Though, I will say that the corporate agenda is clear when it comes to beauty products containing known carcinogens being pink-washed to make women feel better about their purchase. The endless cycle continues.

  2. Thanks for your comment Amber! I agree – I think the question must be “who are we serving?” in other words, whose agenda does it serve to “sexify” cancer – and more importantly, whose experience/story does it NOT serve, does it silence?

  3. Having more than one cancer surviving friend, I’ve often wondered about the “sexifying” breast cancer has gone through.

    I think the point you make is exactly the one I’ve been trying to put my finger on – “not to say that posting our bra color as our Facebook status or buying a bracelet for breast cancer is bad, rather, that it’s energy (and money) that could potentially be used more effectively”.

    I also have to admit, that I don’t know that seeing a Vargas style pin up on a poster telling me to “Grab a feel” would make me feel good about myself if I’m in the midst of treatment. Empowering images of women who don’t let their breasts define them seem like they would be more encouraging.

    But that might just be me.

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