Sexualising breast cancer awareness campaigns

"We don’t need the kind of awareness that involves people simply pressing a button on the internet and revelling in the ...

"We don’t need the kind of awareness that involves people simply pressing a button on the internet and revelling in the sexual mystery they feel it invokes." Photo: Getty Images

Ladies of Facebook, it’s that time of the year again! You know the one I’m talking about. The one where your inbox and feeds become clogged with memes that implore you to write cryptic status updates about what you like to do with your purse of an evening and for how long, or hint at what kind of package deal you might like to introduce to your centre of business. And to what aim? Well, social scientists have proven beyond a doubt that crowdsourcing enterprises like this result in a 175% increase in breast cancer awareness!

But shhhh! Don’t tell the boys! Breast cancer is our little secret.

For those people annoyed by the futility of such gestures, you’ll be pleased to know there’s a new one making the rounds. With no advertised links to any official organisations or even a group, the meme calls for women to ‘Support Breast cancer’ by setting the ‘tatas’ free on Oct 13. Apparently, giving up your bra for a day is the quickest path to eradicating the second biggest cause of cancer related deaths in Australian women - who knew it was so easy?

The 'No Bra Day' meme that has been surfacing on social media.

The 'No Bra Day' meme that has been surfacing on social media.

Leaving aside for a moment the question of grammatical error (for surely nobody supports breast cancer, only the eradication of it), slacktivist memes like this are well past their use-by date. By now, everyone’s pretty much aware of the devastating impact of a disease that will affect 1 in 8 women by the age of 85 and 1 in 724 men. We don’t need the kind of awareness that involves people simply pressing a button on the internet and revelling in the sexual mystery they feel it invokes. We need health and funding based solutions (just as we need them for prostate cancer - rest easy young MRA warriors, I haven’t forgotten your social oppression).


While memes like this aren’t especially destructive, they do create a disturbingly sexualised framework in which to discuss a serious and entirely non-sexual disease. Breast cancer awareness isn’t about ‘celebrating’ your tatas, boobs, tits, funbags, joy balloons, pillow princesses or whatever other pet name you want to give to them, particularly not when many of the survivors of breast cancer are conspicuously absent of at least one of these things. And targeting breast cancer certainly isn’t about preserving these things for the enjoyment of others. Breast cancer awareness and activism has one goal and one goal only - to prevent the unnecessary deaths of the thousands of women and handful of men around the world who are unfairly struck down by it.

That doesn’t mean that awareness raising activities and projects can’t be fun. But they have to have a purpose that exists beyond sexualising the breasts of women who haven’t been afflicted by cancer while studiously ignoring the reality of those who have.

Ironically, it’s the tendency to sexualise breasts at every turn that’s beginning to pose obstacles for legitimately helpful awareness campaigns. The NZ Breast Cancer Foundation was recently stymied in its attempts to emulate a Scottish ad campaign which featured photographs of breasts with cancer symptoms. Typically, women are taught to look for lumps as a sign of cancerous tumours - but as the Scottish NHS ad educated, changes in skin appearance such as puckering or dimpling are also to be observed, as are nipples becoming inverted.

And yet, when the NZ Breast Cancer Foundation sought to screen the ad in New Zealand, they were advised by the Commercial Approvals Bureau (CAB) that attempts would likely fail because - wait for it - there were nipples on display.


breast cancer

Instead, should they pursue it, the ad would probably be given an Adults Only rating and would only be allowed to screen after 8:30pm. (Even in Scotland, the ad can only screen after 9pm.)

But what’s the problem with that! I hear you ask. It’s not like they banned it - they just wanted to put it in an appropriate time slot!

Yes. Because when it comes to effective cancer awareness, our primary concern should be whether or not the timing is appropriate.

As a result, the NZ Breast Cancer Foundation modified the concept and instead featured women with deliberately placed objects masking their Devil’s Dumplings. And while I appreciate the predicament faced by the foundation, I think we need to all sit down and take a good long look at our priorities.

Inanimate breasts, just sitting there, are not sexual. It isn’t going to irrevocably scar an innocent member of the public if they turn on their television at 7:30 expecting Midsomer Murders and instead cop an eyeful of ten different sets of nipples whose owners also happen to be, not coincidentally, battling cancer.

I understand that some people ‘don’t want to see that’ while they’re eating their dinner or catching up on The Voice, but to be frank, I couldn’t care less about their selfish proclivities. I say we parade naked bodies all over our screens if it will help save lives and prevent the gut wrenching grief of saying goodbye to a loved one too soon. Show us tits, prostate exams, skin cancer examinations! The delicate sensibilities of a conservative classification board and associated public are not more important than the lives of women and men.

Because what happened after the good people of Scotland were exposed to those nasty, shameful nipples? The NHS clocked a 50% increase of women seeking breast cancer screenings.

Now that’s effective awareness.