STOP The Sexualization of Breast Cancer

Before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I put together a team each year to raise funds and walk in fundraisers for breast cancer. Our team was called “The Legal Eagles for Healthy Hooters.” We thought ourselves quite clever. The walks were extremely meaningful to me in light of the fact that my mother and quite a few other relatives are breast cancer survivors. I confess to getting teary eyed most years as I contemplated how grateful I was and am that my mom is still alive and healthy.

So much changed when I was diagnosed with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer in 2017. I now look at so many things differently. I definitely no longer think we were so clever in naming our team. You see, I’ve realized that most of the public views breast cancer as the “easy cancer.” The smiling women covered in sparkly pink marching and cheering and celebrating takes the focus off of those of us who are dying. The focus on cutsy slogans and boobs as a fun and sexy distraction is just that, a DISTRACTION.

In other words, the sexualization of breast cancer minimizes the seriousness of the disease.

I know there are those of you who are shaking your head right now; I get it, everyone is so socialized to see the pink and cutsy slogans as normal, not sexualization. I literally had a conversation with an early stage survivor just the other day who posited that she believes “making light of Stage IV” and being “lighthearted about the disease in general” helps. My head nearly exploded and I found myself wondering why it is that women undermine other women in this way. Women buy into this dangerous way of minimizing ourselves, of discounting our power and who we are as people. So much so that when another woman points out how negative it is, a disagreement results!

I do understand the need for catchy phrases, for marketing needs the right/best way, for raising awareness of the need for women to be vigilant. I am 100% on board for all of these things; however, not in a way that minimizes the seriousness of a disease that will cause my death; not in a way that makes it seem like breast cancer is easy; not in a way that takes the public’s eye off of the 116 men and women who will be murdered by metastatic breast cancer (MBC) in the US every single day. Not in a way that undermines women in general and sidelines us yet again to be only about our sexuality, only about our breasts or other body parts admired by men.

Recently, I came across this wonderful slide show/deck by Breast Cancer Action explaining step by step why the sexualization of breast cancer hurts women; it hurts the women with breast cancer; it hurts women overall and it undermines and hurts the strides we’ve made towards overall equality; it hurts and undermines all the efforts of those women who came before us to get us the vote, to be able to own property, to be able to choose our path. Think about that — doesn’t sound so cutsy now, right?

Here are some of the key concepts to think about from Breast Cancer Action’s excellent slides:

Starting with the definition is a good place.

The definition of sexualization is when the parts of one’s body that are typically viewed as sexual are the only parts that are elevated or celebrated. This is what the pink movement does; this is what the Komen’s of the world elevate, the idea that the only parts of women to be celebrated are the parts that men like to look at. Women are so much more than their sexual parts (or sexualized parts), so much more than what society or men like to look or elevate.

This is the next step, once sexualization occurs, objectification is next.

I’ve never met a woman who didn’t have a story about being objectified. Try walking down the street and you’ll inevitably hear a whistle or cat call. It doesn’t happen to me as much now as it did when I was younger, but I’ve always hated it. To be viewed that way, to have men you don’t know simply looking at you as a sexual object, I can’t articulate how awful it feels, how dirty, how put down. To participate in the sexualization of breasts in any context leading to objectification is only putting our mothers, sisters, daughters, and granddaughters in uncomfortable and often dangerous situations. It’s that serious.

Not just often, women are almost never portrayed in their entirety when the focus is on the sexualization of breast cancer and breasts in general.

I’m sure the people who made the ad shown in the above slide thought they were being as clever as we thought we were so many years ago with our slogan. It’s not clever, it’s not cute, and it’s worse than I originally thought.

Now I understand — the sexualization and objectification of women and breast cancer is a method of control. The powers that be have realized and understood that if women don’t trust their native power, if they don’t trust their bodies, if they accept the boxes that the world wants us to live in, we can be controlled. When women accept this narrative, when women try to impose this narrative on others, women in general are set back. Back to a world when we were property, back to a world when we couldn’t own anything and had no power.

I don’t accept that.

I can’t accept that.

This — it’s a DISTRACTION!!

If we allow the world to be distracted by making light of a terminal disease, if we allow the people who make funding decisions and research decisions to be lulled into a belief that breast cancer is the easy cancer, if we allow the narrative to become about sexiness and sexualization; that’s the end of the ability to truly fund and find a cure. This narrative will literally ensure that I will die sooner.

The pink ribbon and those proponents of the pink ribbon are doing this — covering up and silencing the men and women who are attempting to raise awareness about a devastating disease. The disease itself and all of the side effucks we in the MBC community deal with every day are overwhelming, life altering, all consuming. We don’t whine, we don’t complain, we suck it up and we pack a lot of living into the time we have.

And then …. each person who touts the pink ribbon, who devalues my experiences and those of my friends, who want to sexualize a horrible disease that has destroyed the life I’d built, that person and whoever listens to that person are contributing to a culture that oppresses women. When that culture can get women to oppress other women, they win and women everywhere lose.

I’ll leave you with this quote …


33 thoughts on “STOP The Sexualization of Breast Cancer

  1. That aspect of minimizing the level of seriousness is something I’ve noticed with campaigns for other conditions, but the sexualization of breast cancer really speaks volumes about the society we live in.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Think Before You Pink” – love it. I can’t stand some of the pink antics that happen this time of year. Don’t mind the wearing a ribbons, or a pin on a blouse, but taking bras and dressing them up, displaying them in the mall so people remember someone who’s died?! No.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. So true. And don’t forget, for many, breast cancer is a short cut to a boob job. Been guilty of saying that myself, except my boobs ended up living in different hemispheres on my body. I have a tee shirt, not with a pink ribbon, but an MBC ribbon. Nobody even knows what it means.

    I have received advice from the get go from women with stage 1 breast cancer, and that 99 percent survival rate. I wish I wasn’t, but I am angry.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. BCAN rocks. They have a ton of great info on pink washing as well -the companies that use breast cancer to gain a valuable spending market women 35-65 and to not give but a mere few dollars to say they’ve given. But to whom and why? And how much?

    Last year Jamba Juice had a breast cancer campaign but not one single employee knew what The ends and outs of the program. I asked to see the manager and she had no clue either. I told her she might want to find out just in case breast cancer patients like me ask the question. And I guarantee that she would get more as more women are aware of pink washing and what that really means to breast cancer research and development as well as organizations that give directly to women with breast cancer to help them with their co-pays and their daily bills. October isn’t my favorite month, it appropriately ends on Halloween – I thought about dressing like a witch all month because it rhymes with the word a lot of people will call me when I call these Companies on their tactics.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good for you!! I totally agree and stand with you in solidarity. I’m doing my best to focus on empowerment and education about MBC this month rather than fussing at companies for the pinkwashing. It gets so exhausting.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you SO much for writing this, Abigail. Campaigns like these are both offensive and utterly thoughtless. If the people who organize these campaigns truly wanted to do some good, they’d support Breast Cancer Action…


  6. A powerful post – well said. It is so easy to be swept up in all the pinkness and not think about what’s really behind it. Not so much of a spotlight on ovarian cancer, so neatly hidden from view.

    Liked by 1 person

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