Boobies, for Fun & Profit!

Note: This essay was also published on the Oxford University Press Blog on April 28, 2011.

A blogger who goes by the name of The Accidental Amazon recently asked: “When did breast cancer awareness become more focused on our breasts than on cancer? Is it because our culture is so obsessed with breasts that it slides right past the C word?”

The Amazon’s questions are important — but they are inconvenient; blasphemous to the pink consumption machine, disruptive to the strong societal focus on pink entertainment, and anti-climactic for the feel-good festivities that have swallowed up popularized versions of breast cancer awareness and advocacy. Her questions are sobering — but sobriety is the last thing that a society drunk on pink wants. We’ve been binging on boobies campaigns and pink M&Ms for too long, and we’ve grown accustomed to the buzz.

After a federal judge in Pennsylvania declared that the “I ♥ Boobies!” bracelets worn in schools represented free speech protected under the 1st Amendment, an interesting debate broke out about language as well as the legitimacy and usefulness of the boobies campaigns. The judicial system, focusing on the former, upheld the tradition that people are free to express themselves unless what they communicate is lewd or vulgar. To them, “boobies” did not fit this category because they were worn in the context of breast cancer “awareness.”

Much of the ongoing debate, and I use this term loosely, has been about discerning whether the Pennsylvania judgment was sound. Is “boobies” an offensive word when used on bracelets or t-shirts in schools? For the most part the discussion has been a polarized virtual shouting match about prudishness versus progressiveness. The commentary quickly “slid right past the C word” to focus on the B word. Boobies is far more titillating to the public than CANCER.

And why not? Sex sells. Playboy, Hooters, Pin-Up girls, pink-up girls. What’s the difference? Women’s sexiness is for sale to the highest bidder, or for $4.99. We’re not too fussy. It’s all about “the girls” getting attention from the boys. Of course, the undercurrent remains that all this nonsense really is about breast cancer. Boys wrote on facebook pages and in editorial posts that they “LOVE BOOBIES” and – in the spirit of breast exam – they’d love to “feel your boobies for you.” Some snickered at anyone who expressed concern about the accuracy of the campaigns, the fact that they diverted money from more useful endeavors such as research, or that they focused on women’s breasts to the exclusion of women’s lives. “Get a life,” one boy said. “Don’t be so angry,” chimed another. Women and men alike chided those who felt differently. After all, who are we to rain on the happy boobies parades?

Peggy Orenstein has tried to place the issue in a larger context, that these “ubiquitous rubber bracelets” are part of a new trend called “sexy breast cancer” that “tends to focus on the youth market, but beyond that, its agenda is, at best, mushy.”

“Rather than being playful, which is what these campaigns are after, sexy cancer suppresses discussion of real cancer, rendering its sufferers — the ones whom all this is supposed to be for — invisible. It also reinforces the idea that breasts are the fundamental, defining aspect of femininity.”

It was clear in the dialogue surrounding the boobies bracelets that it was difficult for many people to hear from diagnosed women who felt offended, unsettled, or angry that they were being forgotten in the pink fanfare. How dare a woman with stage 4 breast cancer, no breasts, no ovaries, and tumors pressing on key nerves and organs suggest that she is not amused with boobies brigades or pink parties that claim to promote awareness but do nothing portray the realities of the disease? Why should anyone consider the perspective of a one-breasted woman with scar tissue on her lungs from radiation treatment who asks why the breast is given more attention than the people who are diagnosed? What about the previously diagnosed women who cannot bear to hear that another woman’s cancer came back, that what she believed was early detection wasn’t? What about the men diagnosed with breast cancer?

In a recent editorial on “The Trouble with Those Boobies Bracelets” in the LA Times, Peggy Orenstein also commented that,

“There is “breast cancer awareness” of course, but given that each October everything from toilet paper to buckets of fried chicken to the chin straps of NFL players look as if they have been steeped in Pepto-Bismol, I think that goal has long since been met.”

I agree. People are “aware” that breast cancer exists. Beyond that, the level of awareness is pretty sketchy. There are more than 1400 not-for-profit organizations in the country dedicated to breast cancer compared to 139 for ovarian cancer, 151 for lung cancer, and 231 for prostate cancer. The number of nonprofits using corporate partnerships and cause-marketing campaigns to spread the message of “awareness” through considerable advertising of products and services (beginning in the 1990s) is also responsible for heightened visibility and attention to breast cancer compared to other illnesses. Breast cancer has been popularized not only through the nonprofits but also through the products. Many, many products. Pink ribbons are plastered on goods in grocery stores, malls, billboards, and there is no real equivalent for the other cancers or diseases.

Billions of dollars spent every year in the name of breast cancer. No cure. Insufficient diagnostic tools. Little understanding of how to prevent the disease or prevent it from recurring. 40,000 deaths per year. Yet the sexy pink consumption machine drones on with breast cancer awareness stores, paint the town pink campaigns, and charity bikini contests.

Sobriety is difficult. Uncomfortable. Strenuous. It may even leave us suffering from withdrawal. But pink culture has taken a toll. The social body can no longer handle this abuse without self-destructing. Pink culture needs an intervention. It won’t be pretty. But it is necessary.

As a start, consider some of these fun new slogans from the blog, I Hate Breast Cancer.

  • Let Me Tell You About My Side Effects
  • Neuropathy: It’s Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be
  • What Part of Incurable Disease Don’t You Understand?
  • Thank Goodnesss I Have Chemo Brain, Because You Look Pretty Forgettable
  • Screw Research, I’d Rather Buy Pink Crap from a Shallow & Useless Group
  • Wear Black & Save the Rack!

Then, check out Breast Cancer Action, Breast Cancer Fund, National Breast Cancer Coalition, Metavivor, Dr. Susan Love’s Army of Women, and other organizations working toward fundamental efforts to identify the causes of breast cancer and the evidence-based knowledge about how to find it and treat it successfully. There are other ways to learn about breast cancer, motivate people to take action, support the diagnosed, change the conversation, and get money to projects and research that will have a chance of making a difference.

— For more information on the boobies campaigns, see my previous essay: “Boobies.” I said it. Now, May I have Your Attention Please? and check out the sexy photo gallery.

Be Sociable, Share!

21 comments to Boobies, for Fun & Profit!

  • Gayle- congratulations, this essay is brilliant. You have captured perfectly the frustrations that many of us are feeling. But we struggle to be heard and are told to “lighten up” or “get over it” when we try to discuss the issue and present an opposing viewpoint. As I keep wondering, where will we be when the public grows weary of the boobie fad? Certainly no further to eradication or a cure I’d wager. But plenty more will have reaped their dividends and simply gone home to think about the next big opportunity. Thanks for being the ” interventionist” in this case.

  • Thank you, Anna, for supporting the intervention! Though this aspect of the culture is disheartening, I have to say that I’m more hopeful now than I’ve ever been about recalibrating this machine. The health activists out there working to change the conversation are committed to fixing what is broken. Kudos to them, and to you!

  • And may I add Dr. Love’s Army of Women to the organizations that are working hard to identify the causes of breast cancer.

    Wonderful blog post. I, an 18 year survivor, had been caught up in the “pinkness” of it all until recently.

    I deplore the “boobies” and “tatas” messages. I signed up for the Avon 2 Day (for the second time) and am now rethinking my participation, given the vendor fair that takes place before the walk, when all this crap is sold.

  • Yes, thank you for reminding me! And great article you wrote on the topic. Thanks for including it here.

  • Excellent follow up essay, thanks for posting it!

  • MizGreenJeans: Always a pleasure to hear your voice!

  • Gayle, perfect and sadly, exactly right about those sharing the true realities of breast cancer raining on the parade of those thinking their good time is aiding the cause when really, it’s not. Raising money to fund research should always be the goal. Educating about the disease as it truly is, not how some want it to be, should be the goal. The fact that it all gets lost in a sea of pink, that as you said, “cancer” takes second place to “breasts,” is just a sad reminder of how much work is left to be done. Although, it’s too bad we all need to waste time, money and energy reminding people, it’s still a killer disease when there’s so much more we could be doing. Thanks, Gayle.

  • Stacey, It is very disheartening to see breast cancer cast as an entertaining past-time. When considering the outcomes, it is clearly a waste of time, money, and energy. Luckily there are people, groups, and organizations who see the big picture and are willing to intervene. Thanks for being one of them.

  • Gayle, Like always, great job pulling all of this together. I had to speak up again today as well on this same topic. I just can’t figure out why there continues to be acceptance of these more than tacky slang words and methods laced with inuendo and disrespect for women. It feels like a step backward for women, all women, not just those with cancer. Thanks for writing about this once again.

  • I’m so glad you spoke up again, Nancy. It does feel like a step back, as Kathi suggested too. Using a killer disease to sell sexy pink is unfathomable to me. And it’s unnecessary. Billions of dollars spent in the wrong places will have no impact on ending breast cancer, and information that does not lead to knowledge that will save lives and reduce the incidence of cancer is NOT awareness. It’s just an entertaining past-time for some. And I agree with you that this is about breast cancer but it also affects women as a group.

  • Fantastic post once again, Gayle. And once again, it puts into perspective the fact that the pink menace has a lot more to do with the insidious and, sadly, internalized sexism and gender trivialization that continues to be rife in our culture, despite the gains that feminism has helped women achieve over the past four decades. Deja vu all over again, as Yogi Berra once said.

  • Two steps forward, one step back. Still, we keep climbing!

  • Gayle,

    This is a powerful, beautifully written posting! I couldn’t agree more. Somehow the message of cancer gets lost when it’s breast cancer. I dread seeing all the pink items in every store I go into. Awareness without a cure just doesn’t cut it.

    I had a couple of disfiguring lumpectomies, a double mastectomy with reconstruction, chemo, radiation, a cancer-preventive med that caused me excruciating pain — and I was lucky enough to survive it all. I can tell all those pink addicts that this process was not pretty or sexy. It was ugly and frightening beyond belief.

    Thank you for leaving your kind message on my posting about breast cancer and the blame game. Please feel free to use that posting on your Pink Ribbon Blues site. By the way, I purchased and started reading your Pink Ribbon Blues book and am learning a lot. It’s excellent!

    — Beth

  • Thanks, Beth, for your comment, your honesty, your work, and for reading PRB. The current culture does feel like an addiction. But there are growing numbers of people who do want to get real, once again, about breast cancer.

  • Mary

    You cannot bring up this pink nonsense too often, Gayle. I went for a long overdue visit to the surgeon’s NP, today. She sees those of us who have lymphedema issues. I had “Pink Ribbon Blues” on my Nook and the tech commented that it is not easy to see what people are reading with the e readers. I made sure she knew what I was reading and she asked for the author. If we can educate the staff, maybe we can educate the medical profession. In the exam room I found that the white paper tops are now pep-to bis-male pink!!!! Using every ounce of control, I could muster, I told her I don’t do paper and would use my front opening shirt. She thanked me for letting her know how I feel. Now I must add that my surgeon is the top in the BC field, in this area, and we are doing the pink thing!!!!!! AAAAARRRRRRGGGGGG. Forgive me, but that felt good!! Does make one wonder who the “clueless” ones are, anyway?

  • That’s incredible, Mary! Sorry to hear about the pepto paper tops… But yes, it’s all about feeling free to speak, knowing that you’ll be heard, and deepening the conversation. Sounds like an exam room is a perfect place to do that.

  • Mary

    Gayle, exam rooms would be a great place to educate, if you could just keep your clothes on!! I have tried to educate my surgeon, but am up against a brick wall. He doesn’t even understand why I made an issue of the written information on the consent form for surgery not being legible! I have given him and the hospital a hard time over various issues that came up. You would not believe the transcription errors I have found and corrected on reports, that I insist on having a copy of. I found this across institutions. The MRI report, I took to the surgeon, had the cancer in the wrong breast! I corrected the report and initialed it, before I saw him. If I am finding errors, think how many are not found because patients are not asking for copies. This might be a good subject to explore.

  • I’ve heard many similar stories… One woman told me that she drew an arrow with a Sharpe pen that pointed to the breast that was to be surgically removed for her mastectomy, with a note saying, “Take This One!” She wasn’t trying to be funny.

  • Tru

    I want to vent on two aspects of the pinkapalooza that I’d really like to see go:

    1. Pink-ribbon scrubs. For some reason, it seems every manufacturer of scrubs for medical personnel decided that the thing to do was design scrubs with pink-ribbon designs, many of which incorporate words such as “Hope,” “Love,” “Support,” etc. The market for these is obviously female medical personnel (what male is going to wear these?) working in areas focused on women’s health, especially breast cancer treatment and mammography. I know that before I was ever diagnosed, it turned me off to see a technician walk in to do my mammogram outfitted from head to foot in pink-ribbon-patterned garb. You’re nervous enough going in to get a mammogram; the last thing you need is to be attended by someone whose very clothing puts right in your face the thing you’re afraid of most! After diagnosis, it’s even worse. You’re already neck-deep in pinkapaloozaland; being attended to by women in pink-ribbon garb only makes it worse.

    2. The explosion in “breast cancer awareness music videos” on YouTube. These are events in which vasts groups of people–usually including or starting with employees at a particular hospital, but often expanding to include breast-cancer survivors, dance troupes, musicians and other various locals–dress in some form or other of pink getup (surgical gloves, T-shirts, hats, feather boas, what have you) and combine forces to create a massive lip-synched song-and-dance extravaganza, often in the hospital but also frequently in a large public arena of some type (such as a busy intersection) to help spread “awareness.” (When these are conducted in public, they are sometimes erroneously referred to as “flash mobs,” despite the fact that they are not surprise events, have usually received permission from local police, and are often publicized in advance through media releases.) Everyone’s smiling, the music is always fun, happy and upbeat, and the message is a cheery one of “she-roes,” strength and survivorship. The proceedings are captured on video and edited into a clip that gets posted on YouTube in order to spread the “awareness message” further. Again, the question must be asked, exactly what are these events doing, aside from giving the people in them a chance to prance around like characters from “Glee” in the name of a “good cause”? Every time I see one of these, I think “Wow. If only actually having breast cancer were that much fun.” The worst thing is, I get the impression of a whole lot of people having a whole lot of fun at someone else’s expense. While they’re dancing, singing (or pretending to) and having a good time, people are dying. And I just don’t see why other people can’t see the strangeness of that. I think: Can you imagine people dressing up and singing and dancing and making a happy-clappy music video for lung cancer, or uterine cancer, or leukemia? No. You can’t. Because nobody would. It would be considered in bad taste. Yet somehow it’s not only OK to smile and sing and dance about breast cancer, it’s the RIGHT thing to do–and woe be to you if you’re a party-pooper!

  • Nice venting! Pinkapalooza is a perfect term to illustrate the drunken playfulness surrounding the mainstream cause of breast cancer at this point. I’m waiting for Disney to open up a pink ribbon theme park!

  • Mary

    Can you imagine an “intervention” at a Pinkapalooza pre advertized flash mob? I’d love to be in on that. Next thing you know breast cancer will be advertized as “boob” cancer. My plastic surgeon used the word “boob” in my presence and the presence of a doctor shadowing him. I think he was showing off for the “good old boys’ club”. He was definitely put out when I told him my reconstruction was a breast mound not a “boob”! Oh the ignorance! Oh the humanity!

"women urged to get screened because it might save their lives. But that’s only 1 possible outcome, and it’s the least likely one" @cragcrest

“Pink Ribbon Blues”

Paperback includes a new Introduction on fundraising controversies and a color insert with images of, and reactions to, the pinking of breast cancer (2012).

Praise » 

Flyer »

Press Release »

Hardback Cover »

Paperback Cover »

Request Review Copies »

Order the Paperback »


"Seeing clearly through the pink haze" Toronto Sun

*Sad face*: Being happy does not help you live longer" New Scientist

How should we address breast cancer when norms continually change? The Guardian

Your Fun 'No Bra Day' Photos Are Overshadowing Terminal Breast Cancer Patients Broadly

Backlash against “pinkwashing” of breast cancer awareness campaigns BMJ

Breast Cancer to Rise 50 Percent by 2030? Hey, Not So Fast! Health News Review

Breast Cancer: The Flaws in the Cause

How to Make the Biggest Impact With Your Breast Cancer Donations Money

The Very Pink, Very Controversial Business of Breast Cancer Awareness Racked

NFL, Pink Ribbons Not Enough to Win over Women CNN

3 Questions We Need to Answer for Breast Cancer Awareness Month Chronicle of Philanthropy

The problem with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month Women's Health Magazine

Pink Ribbon Envy: Living with an Uncool Cancer The Nib

A Year After Bombings, Some Say 'Boston Strong' Has Gone Overboard NPR, All Things Considered

Canadian Mammogram Study KCRW, NPR Affiliate

Time to Debunk the Mammography Myth CNN

Breast Cancer: Awareness, Activism & Pinkwashing NPR Charlotte

Buying Pink Al Jazeera's The Stream Watch »

The Pink Backlash Orlando Sentinel

Why Jolie's Test Costs So Much CNN

Preventative Mastectomies: Disease and Deception BlogTalkRadio

Angelina Jolie and the 'Breast Cancer Gene' KCRW

Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer The New York Times Magazine.

The Story Behind the Pink Ribbon Campaign Sisters Talk Radio

WISH Interview Women's International Summit for Health

Making Cancer About The Patient, Not The Body Part CBS Pittsburgh

Sexy breast cancer campaigns anger many patients USA Today

The perils of pink The Daily

Komen pink campaign creates breast-cancer blues for some Dallas Morning News

A yellow flag for the NFL's pink New York Daily

Gayle Sulik named #7 in SharecareNow’s Top 10 Online Influencers in Breast Cancer

Breast cancer cancer causes so easily derailed Philly Inquirer

Komen Charity Under Microscope for Funding, Science Reuters

The Fight Against Cancer - And Abortion?

Susan G. Komen For the Cure defunds Planned Parenthood. In Deep with Angie Coiro

Amid Breast Cancer Month, Is there Pink Fatigue? NPR's All Things Considered

How is Breast Cancer Culture Undermining Women's Health? America’s Radio News Network

Pink Ribbon Culture and Breast Cancer The Kojo Nnamdi Show

The Big Business of Breast Cancer
Marie Claire

Does Breast Cancer Awareness Month Crowd Out Other Diseases? Slate

Pink Inc. Has Many Starting to See Red The Sacramento Bee

Get Your Pink Off Ottawa Citizen

Komen Pink Ribbons Raise Green and Questions USA Today