Breast Cancer Awareness Month: All boobs, no brains

2012-10-23 20:24

When I started seeing breasts on the covers of media publications I knew - it's Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Not that most of these pictures of breasts raise awareness about anything except 'Oh hey, boobs.'

The old adage still rings true: sex sells. And there is no sexier disease than breast cancer.

Public awareness of breast cancer seems to revolve around the image of breasts. Women take off their clothes in order to raise breast cancer awareness. Many campaigns depict close-ups of breasts. They take a disease which ravages the lives of women (and some men) and make it 'sexy'.

Much of the campaigning focuses on prevention - and images which euphemise the loss of a breast (a popped balloon, a bra with one cup) are often used to somehow get the message across.

What they say

'Check your breasts - because you may lose one.'

'Never mind your life - you could lose your breast.'

'Beware because...boobs.'

This is what the magazine covers, nude shots and posters say to me. But where are the women behind the breasts? Where are the survivors?

When we campaign against leukaemia, we have the image of a child undergoing chemotherapy. When we imagine lung cancer, there are the images of breathing tubes and black, tarred lungs. Cancer is identified as a killer.

But why does breast cancer awareness reduce a multi-faceted issue to the image of breasts?

The reason

Because it's a disease which targets, according to patriarchy, the most outward sign of what makes us women. And when women are continually objectified and reduced to a misogynistic 'check list' of what a female is, is it any wonder that public discourse is reduced to the image of breasts?

Many survivors who  undergo a mastectomy or double mastectomy battle with their body image. But campaigns which are supposed to help them use breasts as a symbol and hide the reality of what women with breast cancer go through.  Victim blaming is created when the focus is so heavily directed towards prevention.

Cancer doesn't target the woman who forgot to do a self examination. Cancer isn't some sort of karma bestowed on irresponsible individuals.

HIV positive individuals who lead active lives are admired for showing that diagnosis is not a death sentence. Yet survivors and individuals with breast cancer are hidden behind images of nude women who have never had the disease.

Women's media plays its part

In fact, when I was reading a Health Intelligence article (Edition 17 , 'Breast Cancer - not for the faint-hearted')  on various treatment options, a phrase jumped out and offended me so much that its message ingrained in my mind to this day. The writer spoke about women with breast cancer who had the "courage to hold steady and not opt for a life-saving (albeit disfiguring) mastectomy" and instead tried other methods which would save the breast.

Women who were brave enough to value their lives over a breast are reduced to cowards by this article. How can you somehow rank women's bravery according to which treatment they get? When did losing a breast become cowardly or weak? Many of these women  now have to endure stares and whispered discussions regarding what their partner thinks and if they could still be considered sexy. Instead of questioning the norms which lead to this women feeling less feminine, she highlights the importance of breasts as they "define the female form".

The fight against breast cancer should not be about saving breasts, it should be about saving women's lives. Because losing a breast is not the worst case scenario when it comes to breast cancer. A slow, painful death is.

Tracey Derrick's One in Nine exhibition shows her struggle with breast cancer - from her chemotherapy and hair loss to her portrait where she defiantly shows the tattoo along her mastectomy scar. It is an image of strength and a struggle - and speaks volumes more than any pink poster I've seen in magazines or on websites.

The discussion about breast cancer should move away from patriarchal norms for female beauty. It should embrace ALL women who have battled the disease. Whether you have breast cancer or not, whether you have both breasts or none, victim blaming and 'ranking' survivors according to the number of breasts they have should be tossed out.

The struggle against this disease should not be trivialised.

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