If you’re anything like me, you dread the month of October. It’s not the cooler weather (we didn’t even have that in Oklahoma this year), the problematic halloween costumes (though those are always icing on the cake of my October-hate), it’s not even the start of the exhausting holiday season. No, my October-hate can be summed up in four simple, seemingly harmless words: breast cancer awareness month.
Talking about breast cancer, of course, is important. It is a disease that effects over 200,000 lives every year, and that’s just counting the ones that are diagnosed with it. All cancers and serious diseases effect not only the patient, but their care communities, families, workplaces and really, any other social grouping they are capable of being a part of. Cancer and its diagnosis effect entire communities, so it would make sense that there are community events, organizations and campaigns to bring breast cancer to the forefront of community discourse for a month. These happenings are more than well-meaning; they attempt to bring light to the struggles of patients and survivors and provide them a public venue to talk about their stigmatized experiences while raising funds that, hopefully, aid them in the economic crises that almost always accompany any serious medical diagnosis.
The intent of these programs does not give them free reign to say whatever they want for the sake of the cause. I hate Breast Cancer Awareness Month because it is offensive. It is sexist, belittling, hurtful to myself and survivors, family members, patients and countless other people who have been effected by the illness. I’m talking primarily about the “Save the Tatas” and “Save Second Base” campaigns, but that doesn’t mean that Susan G. Komen’s Walk for a Cure or any of the other feel-good October events are in the clear. These boob-centric campaigns are simply the worst offenders. Let’s turn our critical thinking brain-parts on and dissect the messages of these campaigns, shall we?
“Save the Tatas”–but whose?
Did you know men can get breast cancer? All kinds of men–trans men, bio men, queer men, straight men, young men, old men, men who wear tuxedos and men who wear sweater vests. But most men don’t identify with the possession of “tatas” (some do, by the way, and that is awesome!). The language of these campaigns immediately gives the impression that breast cancer is a women’s only disease, which definitely contributes to the projected 450 men who have died or will die of breast cancer this year. Yes, women are significantly more diagnosed and more women die from breast cancer, but that’s still 450 people who died from a disease they probably had no idea they could even have until it was too late, and that’s 450 deaths that make me uncomfortable with the way we talk about breast cancer. Young and old women can get it too! But most pre-pubescent (and even post-pubescent) young girls don’t identify with the possession of “tatas” (heck, I’m 19, and I definitely don’t think that word describes anything that I am in possession of). This language is similarly exclusionary of older women, whose breasts don’t fit into the world’s ideas of what we “want” tatas to look like.
More than that, when we talk about “saving the tatas” and breast cancer awareness in general, we’re talking about an extremely whitewashed movement. When you google image search “save the tatas” (note: doing that is probably enough to put you in a rage all day), the people present are almost all young, white women, when breast cancer disproportionately effects women of color. More than that, women of color, in particular black women, are more likely to be diagnosed late and die from breast cancer than their white counterparts. You would think that would make “awareness” campaigns more likely to address women of color, but it’s clear that their representation in these programs is marginal at best. How can you even have an awareness campaign that doesn’t address the most effected individuals?
“Save the tatas”–but at what cost?
This idea that breast cancer prevention and treatment will “save the tatas” is, to me, the most insulting, sexist and belittling part of the whole campaign. Not only are these programs sexist and subtley racist, but they sexualize and trivialize the experiences of breast cancer patients and survivors. This phrase signifies that the most important part of a woman is her breasts and that those are the most important thing to save when they are put into life-threatening situations. I mean, really, in what other situation where a woman’s life is at stake do we find it appropriate to say to her and the world, “please, dear god, have mercy and SAVE HER BREASTS.” None. And it should be even less acceptable to say it to women whose treatment plans can and do include masectomies. Are those survivors no longer worth saving once their breasts are gone? I’d like to think that’s not what the general consensus is, but judging from these atrocious slogans, it just might be the case.
Which “tatas” are we saving–and why?
The money raised by these campaigns is generally thought to go to research or more awareness campaigns, and occasionally funding support or possibly some specific people’s medical costs. However, they never discuss the economic burden of being diagnosed and treated with breast cancer. It’s clear that these campaigns are committed to saving almost exclusively white, bio and self-identified “women”, but it seems to me that they are also only concerned with, frankly, rich boobs. The “save the tatas” campaign is kinda racist, pretty sexist, extremely cis-sexist and almost definitely classist as well.
There’s so much more to talk about here. The commodification of breast cancer (sometimes with products that are known to contain carcinogens), the price we put on cures, the overwhelming statistics offered with little to no actual information (for all of the events and programs I’ve been a part of, I personally still have no idea what a tumor in my breast could even feel like) and the godawful gender essentialism tied into the fact that everything having anything to do with breast cancer awareness must be coated in a layer of cotton candy pink. The breast cancer awareness movement is so wrong, for so many reasons, so why do we keep giving its machine our money? It’s time to stop. The means here do not and cannot justify the ends, especially when these ends have little to nothing to do with finding an actual cure or helping actual survivors. It’s time for us to put down the pink, put down the t-shirts and bracelets and pink celophane-wrapped nonsense and start caring for the survivors in our own lives. The fact is, if we really care about breast cancer, we need to start doing just that–caring, caring for survivors and caring about how the way we frame and commodify their disease effects their lives. These campaigns are supposed to be about them, and it’s time to make that the reality, rather than encouraging the opposite.
Elly is really tired of saying the word tatas and will probably get breast cancer in her lifetime. She may or may not have flipped off someone trying to sell her a “save second base” shirt during the horrible, horrible month of October.
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