NY Times Magazine’s, “Think About Pink”

Peggy Orenstein, author of forthcoming book Cindarella Ate My Daughter, wrote a compelling article for The New York Times Magazine (Nov. 12, 2010) addressing contemporary efforts to make breast cancer “sexy” for an upbeat and stylized cancer marketplace. In Think About Pink, Orenstein critiques the “I ❤ Boobies” and “Save the Ta-tas” campaigns that detract from the truth about breast cancer and fetishize breasts “at the expense of the bodies, hearts, and minds attached to them.”

Gemma Tarlach of Breast Cancer Action wrote in a newsletter several years ago that, “Nowhere, perhaps aside from Hooters, is this equation more ingrained than in the breast cancer industry, a monolith marketed by corporate America that reinforces stereotypes about what it means to be a woman. Woman = breast = pink.” The awareness/fundraising t-shirt “Keep M Lookin’ Hooter-rific” makes Tarlach’s point clearly. But, this slogan is in no way an outlier. Pink cause marketing and promotional campaigns are rife with examples.

In addition to Save the ta-tas” and “I ❤ boobs,” Men’s versions (complete with pink ribbons) read: “Tatas are awesome;” and, “If loving tatas is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.”

These phrases confuse support for the cause and appreciation of the totality of women’s bodies with the objectification of women and men’s rights to their breasts. A poster for “Bowling for Boobs” places two perfectly round pink bowling balls into a purple brasier, literally objectifying breasts and reducing them to sport. The catch phrases, “Don’t Let Breast Cancer Steal Second Base” and “Save Second Base” further separate women into their most prized body parts while emphasizing women’s roles as sexual trophies. With the words “second base” hovering over her breasts, we are reminded that breasts are phase two in a heterosexual game of intercourse in which men are supposed to attempt to steal home. It’s all in good fun though and for a good cause. At least, that’s what we’re supposed to believe.

Even Project Boobies — a campaign that raises funds and promotes Breast Self Exam (BSE) — uses slang terminology while objectifying and sexualizing women. Using the phrase, “I grab a feel” accompanied with two hot pink groping hands, the t-shirts place those hands directly over the breast area. Instead of facing inward, replicating the hand position for BSE, the hands are facing outward. In a society where women are routinely the gatekeepers of their bodies, someone else’s hands are “grabbing that feel.”

Although BSE has not been found to have any survival benefit for breast cancer, it is thought to be empowering for women. Simply knowing our bodies helps us to keep track of what is normal for us. In the scheme of things, however, BSE is not going to save us from breast cancer. Instead, these kinds of campaigns promote a brand of awareness that dilutes understanding of the disease while objectifying and sexualizing women in the name of the cause.

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6 comments to NY Times Magazine’s, “Think About Pink”

  • How do [we] know for sure that breast cancer itself has just become another part of ridiculous pop culture? When the Supreme Court is going to hear a case debating the merits of the term “boobies” all in the name of freedom of speech and “breast cancer awareness”. What a crock. Does anyone even care that the correct term is “breast”? Read more here: (http://cancerculturenow.blogspot.com/2010/11/boobies-vs-breasts-coming-to-supreme.html).

  • So, the democracy is going to debate the merits of the term “boobies”…When I was on the Dr. Laura Berman Show on Oprah Radio, I received specific instructions that slang terms for women’s body parts were not appropriate for the show. I was so happy to see that! Dr. Berman knows that to do so would trivialize important issues surrounding women’s bodies and sexuality. Is this really news to the supreme court, or to the public? I guess we’ll see.

  • Renee

    I applaud you, Dr. Sulik, for your work. I work in the medical research industry and have become more and more disturbed by the profiteering. It seems medicine has been slyly overtaken by market forces over the years. I have done what I can to speak up about it, but we need more people in medicine to speak out. Retired doctors I know speak cynically about it, but younger doctors are invested in the mythology and know they will be discredited if they criticize big pharma or their institutions. I think it will be a community-based movement to expose the issues, much like “big oil” and “big tobacco” backlashes that may bring change. In the meantime, patient beware.

  • Thank you for your comment. It is very hard to critique any system when you are in it, especially when careers are at stake. I applaud YOU for speaking up. I agree that we need more people from within the system who are concerned about these issues to have a voice. Developing networks across our disciplinary boundaries and within our communities is sure to help. Keep me posted, and let me know if I can help.

  • Tru

    It is such a relief to see other people out there as bothered by this as I am. I have the same problems outlined by Dr. Sulik here with the Twitter tradition of Boobie Wednesday, celebrated with the hashtag #boobiewed. The perpetrators of that tradition attempt to get people to change their Twitter avatars to pictures of their chests (men too) to help “raise funds,” “create awareness” and promote self-exams and “early detection.” If you so much as question the appropriateness of it all, or whether it does any good, they circle the wagons and accuse you of being a horrible human being, because you don’t realize how many lives have probably been saved and you’re trying to tear down the accomplishments of its selfless creators…

    I think it goes to show exactly how well we’ve been sold by the media on the messages about “self-exam” and “get your mammogram” and “early detection saves lives” that one dare not question the wisdom of these “facts everyone knows.” Try to bring a different voice into the conversation–especially one that objects to the exploitation of women’s breasts and objectification of their bodies as being more important than their lives–and you’re not just accused of being a spoilsport, you’re shamed.

  • Excellent point. The idea of ‘shaming’ also brings up that instead of looking at the consequences of specific messages and behaviors, the focus in the culture becomes people’s “intentions.” Surely, a pink ribbon promotion must suggest ‘good’ intentions. By default, anyone questioning the mechanisms of those promotions must have ‘bad’ intentions. This creates a non-productive cycle that removes all critical thinking and enables the us/them scenario that is so prevalent in the pink mainstream these days. Creating the stigma that someone should feel like a ‘shamed spoilsport’ for asking questions, looking for answers, being thorough, or wanting to avoid the exploitation of women in the name of the cause? THIS is what is shameful. Taking a deep look at what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and what is being accomplished (or not) is actually in the interest of women and is in the interest of the breast cancer movement. It is not, however, in the interest of pink bandwagons, revenue streams, and sexist trivialization. Herein lies the problem. Thanks for your comment.

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