“Boobies.” I said it. Now, May I Have Your Attention Please?

There’s been a lot of talk about boobies lately especially in breast cancer awareness campaigns. Discussions erupted in the blogosphere in early March after Peggy Orenstein posted a set of pointed questions about the awareness tactics of an “I ♥ Boobies” campaign promoted by the Keep A Breast Foundation. Katie of Uneasy Pink was super uneasy about the situation, questioning why it was okay to sexualize women and trivialize the disease in the name of “awareness.” Jackie Fox, author of From Zero to Mastectomy, questioned the overabundance of quaint awareness campaigns and pink products of which the “boobies campaigns” are just one part. The Keep A Breast Foundation chimed in on Peggy Orenstein’s blog with apparent openness to a frank and earnest discussion. Unfortunately, when the discussion moved to the Feel Your Boobies Facebook page (which was also at the center of the controversy) the administrators deleted all of the discerning and critical comments they didn’t like.

Followups, questions, and comments mounted as the weeks progressed about fake awareness, censorship, commercialism, sexualization, and the use of funds to run programs that spread misinformation while failing to prevent breast cancer or save lives. People on both sides of the debate were increasingly riled and flabbergasted at the absurdity as they tried to determine where and how to draw the line about what is useful and appropriate. Despite the controversy there was a lesson to be learned about the rules of engagement when dealing with a serious matter like breast cancer. A lesson that all of us should consider if we want to see real progress on the disease front.

Last fall I had an opportunity to think about the “rules of engagement” as I prepared for an interview on Oprah Radio’s The Dr. Laura Berman Show. Dr. Berman’s producer sent me a set of guidelines about what I could not say on the show. I was not supposed to mention last names, brand names, or websites. I was not supposed to swear. Bummer! I was to avoid slang and use “clinical language” instead when talking about a body part. This particular rule was a tough one to follow. Many awareness campaigns — not just the “I ♥ Boobies” folks — use slang terminology and stylized imagery to gain publicity that in turn increases their revenues for breast cancer awareness programs.


Scoobies for Boobies


Keep M Lookin HOOTERrific

Feel Your Boobies.

Don’t Let Cancer Steal SECOND BASE


Jingle Jugs for life

There is no shortage of examples. A creative college breast cancer awareness event last year included a “Think Pink Poll” through which students could vote for their favorite Think Pink Advertisement: Hooters, Jugs, Knockers, Melons, Mosquito Bites, Mountains, Headlights, Rack, Twins. I don’t know which term won.

What is wrong with using slang terms and stylized images to draw attention to breast cancer?

Dr. Berman wasn’t keen on slang because these words detract attention from the seriousness of the issues that affect women and their bodies. If as a society we are light-hearted about women’s bodies and sexuality, then we are not likely to give them the depth of attention they deserve. Likewise, the informality surrounding breast cancer coupled with representations that highlight the fun-loving festivities of the cause tend to overlook the deep impact the disease can have on women’s bodies, their relationships, their work and family lives, their communities, their dreams, and their longevity. If this were not the standard of practice, it wouldn’t be so much of a problem. But this element of the culture has become the norm.

Two years ago, Jenna McWilliams noted in her blog that how women’s bodies are viewed in society matters:

Let’s face it: We’re really freaking immature when it comes to talking about breasts. Culturally, we treat them as dangerous; unless they’re on display as sex objects, we don’t want to see them at all (for more on this, google “breastfeeding in public”). We’ve imbued the breast with so much sexual power that serious cultural conversation about diseases and dangers is difficult, at best, to carry on.

Topless bars, yes; breastfeeding, no. Breast implants, yes; mastectomy scars, no; Cleavage, yes; lop-sidedness, no. Sexual object, yes; sexual subject, no? Titillation, yes; seriousness? Well, you get the point. There are double standards when it comes to societal appreciation of the breast.

Yet the objectification of the breast is everywhere, and it starts long before there are even breasts to be had. Check out the Abercrombie & Fitch kids line aimed at children ages 8 to 14. Buy your 8-year old daughter a padded string bikini. While you’re at it, get her an “I ♥ boobies” bracelet to signify an awareness that one day her little fun bags might kill her. Not too much fear. Just enough to get her geared up for full participation in that little pink consumption engine that could. She’ll learn to pathologize her boobies at a young age, think of them as objects for others, and submit to regular medical interventions that are not even guaranteed to save her life from that wicked pink beast.

This brings me to another unfortunate consequence. The objectification of the breast has lent itself very well to boobies campaigns in the name of awareness, particularly in terms of breast self exam (BSE). BSE is a popular awareness message even though BSE has not been found to find breast cancers early nor has it been found to provide any survival benefit for the diagnosed. The National Cancer Institute reports that there is no good evidence to conclude that BSE reduces one’s chances of developing an invasive breast cancer or reduces breast cancer mortality.

A large randomized, controlled study of 266,064 women found that after 10 to 11 years of follow-up, 135 breast cancer deaths occurred in the instruction group and 131 in the control group. Although the number of invasive breast cancers diagnosed in the two groups was about the same, women in the instruction group had more breast biopsies and more benign lesions diagnosed than did women in the control group.

Similarly the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force found in 2002 that the trials of BSE showed no reductions in mortality, but did result in increases in benign biopsies. The World Health Organization advises that national cancer control programs should not recommend screening by BSE because “there is no evidence on the effect of screening through breast self-examination.” The American Cancer Society also changed its recommendation to make BSE optional as a screening method. In 2003, The Journal for Cancer Clinicians published an update on the ACS Guidelines stating that:

Recent evidence reviews have focused on the absence of direct evidence of benefit…and data indicating that the rate of benign biopsy is higher in women who regularly perform BSE compared with women who do not regularly perform BSE.

For this reason the ACS states today that, “It is acceptable for women to choose not to do BSE or to do BSE occasionally. Women who choose not to do BSE should still know how their breasts normally look and feel and report any changes to their doctor right away.” The body of evidence for the last ten years at least has pointed to evidence of no benefit for BSE in terms of early detection or mortality reduction. To the contrary, there is strong evidence of harm through excessive biopsies.

BSE is considered to be optional for good reasons. Almost everyone agrees that it’s useful to be aware of your body. Notice your bumps and bruises, how you sleep at night, whether you digest your food well. Are you achy? Do you get headaches? How’s your breathing? Are you stressed? Notice. Be mindful. Yes, yes, yes! The problem in calling any of these actions screening modalities is that NONE of them are a sufficient way to find cancers early enough to reduce mortality. Women find lumps getting dressed, taking showers, putting on moisturizer, lying on the couch, being intimate with partners, and feeling their breasts. Some women never find lumps because there are types of breast cancer that are not palpable, ever. In both scenarios these actions will never solve the breast cancer problem. They do not result in early detection. To say that they do is a sad, unfortunate, and infuriating lie.

It may be fun or even empowering to feel boobies. It definitely sells a lot of t-shirts and bracelets. But it does not save lives in the long run. One third of breast cancers recur, whether they’re found accidentally, in showers, with mammograms, through BSE. One third of people who are diagnosed will eventually find themselves with a metastasis. When that happens, prognoses decline considerably. BSE may result in a diagnosis, just as the accidental observation of a lump or new feeling in the breast might. But it does not result in longer survival.

Please do not squander time, energy, and money promoting something so ineffective and futile. Please do not separate women into their body parts especially in the name of breast cancer awareness. If you need another visual to see what has become of commercialized breast cancer “awareness,” click here.

For other commentary on the “Feel Your Boobies” campaign and related issues see:

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49 comments to “Boobies.” I said it. Now, May I Have Your Attention Please?

  • Gayle,
    What a great, insightful overview of the debate of the last couple of weeks. Thank you for including my posts, and thank you even more for doing this.

  • Thank you for writing about the issue on your blog, Jackie. There is so much to be done to encourage thoughtful consideration of what is currently passing as “awareness,” “fundraising,” and even “progress” in the wake of breast cancer. It’s time to regroup and reconsider what is working well, what is working less well, and what is actually undermining meaningful progress. Changing the conversation is a step in that direction!

  • Gayle,

    This is a most excellent post. You’ve taken all my scattered thoughts and feelings on this topic and brought them together into a lucid, calm, well-written essay. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    I got so sick of all the ways the Boobie Brigade were trivializing this issue that I created a group and page on Facebook called Breast Cancer Isn’t Cute. Because, clearly, it’s not.

  • Thanks, Laura. I’m glad this essay offered clarity about this heated controversy. Thank you for taking action and creating an outlet on Facebook for people to come together and acknowledge that Breast Cancer Isn’t Cute. All of these actions matter!

  • Registered Nurse

    I am really appreciative of Dr. Sulik’s blogs; but many are just unbelievable to me. In my profession, I have worked with women and men with cancer. It is such a sad area to work in. I feel such compassion for them. They deal with fear and anxiety on a daily basis. I cannot imagine being a patient and dealing continuously with all of the ugly pink propaganda in addition to the normal feelings that cancer alone brings about.

    CANCER is UGLY; IT needs to be prevented; not just breast cancer, but all of the CANCERS. Let’s spend our moneys on PREVENTION of all cancers. The Bible states that we should give out our Love and Compassion. Not to have our name shining in bright PINK lights, and not to make ourselves look better; But to love all of God’s sons and daughters, and to make a difference in their lives. What is happening in awareness these days is NOT loving or compassionate. It’s taking advantage of a disease and those who have it for the sake of money and notoriety. Thank you Dr. Sulik for your interest and continued efforts to help in this area.

  • I hear your concern about all this especially as someone who has worked closely with those who are diagnosed. I agree that it would be both more loving and more compassionate to be honest about what cancer does instead of covering it up with cutesy campaigns, pink lighting, and wishful thinking. Focusing on research and prevention would have much greater potential to reduce the cancer burden and its impact on the diagnosed and their loved ones.

  • Gayle, a perfect summary and expression of the issues here. I’m flattered you included my post. Thanks for that and adding your thoughts to this conversation. Hopefully, more people will begin to see why this bothers us so.

  • Thank you, Stacie, for writing about these issues yourself. This system is deeply ingrained and heavily funded, but changing the conversation will change the system.

  • Gayle,
    Thank you for bringing all this together and summarizing it in a really meaningful and understandable fashion. You brought more clarity to it all. Sometimes I wonder how much more clear things can be, but… Great post. Also, thank you for including Nancy’s Point in your list.

  • Ah, Nancy! It seems pretty clear to me too, but… if we need to repeat, reiterate, share from multiple angles, and speak until we’re BLUE in the face, I guess that’s what we’ll do. Thank you for continuing to probe into these issues on your blog and expand this conversation.

  • After reading this post and all the others, how can there be any argument that what is going on is completely misguided and inappropriate on so many levels? Let’s stop this insanity now.

  • Anna: It really is insanity…doing the same things over and over while expecting a different result (i.e., winning the war that we’re not really winning). The information is out there. Now we just have to pay attention and act accordingly. I echo your call: “Let’s stop this insanity now.”

  • Mary

    Excellent, as always, Gayle. Last week, I started a dialogue, on the BC board I belong to, regarding this very issue. Now these are women who have been through breast cancer. I brought up the same concerns you did and my personal distress at the “boobie” minded campaigns to encourage breast cancer “awareness?”. I find it degrading to women as a whole and those who endure breast cancer in particular. Several of the members agreed with me and one has even rethought her views, on the matter, and is determined to try and change the mentality. What totally shocked me were the number of women who saw nothing wrong with this type of twisted “awareness campaign”, as long as it brought money to the “cause”. I am not exaggerating when I say they got pretty nasty about the issue and their god given right to call them whatever they pleased. Good grief, call them what you will, that is not even the issue I brought up. My concern was the same as yours, the sexualization of a disease that causes so much pain and suffering It is down right disrespectful! After a particularly thoughtful response by a woman who discussed, the indignity perpetuated, one of the “boobie” proponents replied. “I guess my mother just slapped me… Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will not hurt me….” I think this just goes to show how pervasive this mentality is in our society, when you have survivors buying into it.

  • It is pervasive, Mary. Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between personal choices and social consequences. Getting at that bigger picture is what all of this is about so that we have a real chance of getting somewhere productive with this disease. The current approach just isn’t working. Sexualization, trivialization, commercialization, misinformation, superficial visions of awareness, misallocation of funds…well, all of these factors contribute to why it’s NOT working. No need to throw out the whole system. It just needs a thoughtful rethinking and recalibration.

  • Cancer isn’t cool. Cancer isn’t cute, sexy, or sweet. Cancer kills women before their time.

    Stop the insanity. I agree.

    Let’s use our “grown-up” voices to talk about cancer.

    Thanks to all of your for bringing blending passion, reasoning and advocacy.

    Keep it up,

  • Jody: I couldn’t agree more. And, yes, this is a team effort. Those who have been questioning, writing, speaking, engaging, and sharing this side of the awareness puzzle are part of a growing movement to get real about breast cancer. It’s time.

  • Dorry

    Well Thank You!

    I was banished from “Feel Your Boobies” land on facebook because I posted a link to The Scar Project ( http://www.thescarproject.org/gallery.html ). All my comments were removed even after I made it clear that I am in treatment for breast cancer. What a vapid self serving cash making operation that joint is! And to top it off, they hand out lies! Nice job.

  • Thanks for your comment, Dorry. To cover up the realities of breast cancer and the evidence is shameful and harmful. To censor the words of people who care deeply about this subject, people who have been diagnosed, people who are in treatment…that is unconscionable.

  • Thank you Gayle for your eloquent summary and rational response to the boobies/awareness controversy. I will be sharing your blog post!

  • Thanks for sharing, Katherine!

  • Jorjanne Hamilton


    Thank you so much for your essay. I didn’t find my lump by breast exam, my breast just changed shape. It drew up in a ball-hard to miss that something was wrong. My tumor was at the chest wall, my gynecologist and oncologist had a hard time feeling the lump so you can imagine it was darn near impossible for me to feel. I went through chemo, radical mastectomy, more chemo, radiation and hormone therapy and after 2 years of being “optimistically” cancer free, guess what…it had spread to my bones and now my liver. You’re right-it didn’t matter how I found it or how early I found it because it would have still spread. Money raised needs to go to research, there needs to be a cure and a way to give those of us who have to hear the words “Metastatic Breast Cancer” and “incurable, but treatable” a better prognosis. I can have all the pink ribbons and pink ribbon products in the world but it doesn’t help my 10 year old son have to hear that his mommy’s cancer has come back and there is no cure. Thank you so much for what you do and for fighting for people like me who, at 43 years old, have to think about making final arrangements and not being here to see my son graduate.

  • Thank you for your comment, Jorjanne, and for sharing what the reality of breast cancer is for you. We need a shift in focus. We need to take this seriously. We need to honor the full reality of what breast cancer means. My heart goes out to you and your family.

  • Thank you for writing this Gayle and I’m thrilled to see that people seem to be understanding this issue. I am surprised by the backlash I’ve gotten on my blog and on FB. I guess people don’t like to have their thinking challenged. In any case, I think we’re making real progress on this issue. Thank you for your cogent, reasonable and comprehensive response.


  • Thanks, Katie. It’s a difficult situation partially since these kinds of representations of breast cancer are so rampant and fit in seamlessly with other portrayals of women. Just flip through any popular magazine! This is why something like the SCAR project is so shocking, and such a downer to many people. It takes away the mirage of progress, of normalization, of triumphant survivorship, of the idea that as a society we’re doing everything right when it comes to breast cancer. Unfortunately, we’ve been sold a myth of progress wrapped in a pretty pink ribbon. It’s not the ribbon that’s the problem though. It’s what’s inside of it.

  • Dorry

    We need publicly supported research!

    Not these small nonprofits and grant makers and gate keepers.

    This is a no brainer.

  • I have been stunned by the fact that people claim to be in support of a cause, yet are unwilling to listen to, or even hostile toward, people who have actually had the disease they claim to want to help. Bizarre. I’ve been called bitter and angry, lacking in a sense of humor, the c-word, I’ve been told I should focus on be positive for the sake of my health and, get this, I’ve been told I should be THANKFUL for boobies programs. It boggles my mind.

    Thanks again.


  • Gayle,

    This is an excellent essay with very insightful points. Your point about double standards involved the breast is so true. Our society is so appalled by breast feeding, but it’s OK to sexualize the breast.

    You are spot-on about BSE. I happened to find mine through BSE, but that does not mean that is the gold standard. We need so many more diagnostic measures in place.

    And thank you so much for including my posting on your list. I really appreciate it!

    — Beth

  • Thanks for your comment, Beth. Societies are very fickle aren’t they?? It’s great to see that we are moving this conversation forward, and all of our writing on the topic is crucial to making that happen. Let’s keep it going!

  • Katie2

    You women not only educate, you inspire. Thanks to all of you!

  • Mary

    Katie, I have been through all you speak of. How dare we not be thankful for a program that demeans women, in general and those with breast cancer, in particular. I am boggled right along with you!

  • Thanks for commenting Katie2! This is some good company to be in, for sure.

    Mary: I am also NOT thankful for any efforts that undermine productive discussion, accurate information, realistic representations, and movement toward the ultimate goal of eradication. I AM thankful that individuals in general want to support the cause of breast cancer and other cancers. Now, we just need to direct that effort in ways that have much greater impact. What good is awareness if

  • Great post, Gayle. I’ve had issues with my own bOObs book — being banned both from Breast Cancer Awareness bookstore events and asked not to mention the title on-air. I can’t even list my own book under my personal Amazon profile (where it is sold) because the word is considered offensive. Why is it that the slang “boobs” is fine to use if you are raising money for a breast disease, but banned when talking about breast issues and concerns? I don’t know about the rest of your readers, but I’ve never heard a nursing mom tell me she needs to give her baby a “hooter.” Yet we have a restaurant chain with that name. There’s even a Hooters down the street from my mammography center. The reality is that we see “boobs” everywhere — cleavage is used to market not just little pink bracelets, but many other products, on television, in magazines, and on the internet. Seems you can sell just about anything with boobs, except an intelligent conversation on the subject. Thanks for keeping the dialogue open, Gayle.

  • Thanks for commenting Elisabeth. More craziness! I know. I would fully support the use of ‘boobs’ as a dimension of breast cancer awareness if it accompanied serious discussion, accurate information, meaningful campaigns, respect for women as complete human subjects (as opposed to a collection of body parts), and a fuller range of representations. Give the baby a “hooter!” — What a great example of what we would never see. Given that there is a dearth of clear and accurate information about prevention, diagnosis, and treatment as well as a lack of funding for cancer research (especially mets), quality care, and a full range of support for those who are dealing with diagnosis and treatment, there is a lot of work to do before the boobs campaigns and the like could occupy a place in the breast cancer movement that is powerful and effective.

  • Mary

    Have I, at last, found the correct forum to express my extreme distaste for “The Pink Glove Dance” that went viral on Youtube? So many of my friends have sent me the link to that thinking I would appreciate the wonderful pink message of hope they came away with. I saw surgeons and nurses in scrubs, pink gloves and hairnets cavorting around an operating bed. The OR table reminded me of a sacrificial alter and the doctors and nurses priests and priestess awaiting for the sacrificial lamb, some poor woman about to lose her breast. In my humble opinion that was an attempt to sanitize the process of of the very barbaric surgical treatment so many of us go through. I would love to hear thoughts about this. I have been told that I am too sensitive.

  • It’s a good question. I need to take some time to think through my thoughts about it, but I can say that I was also concerned when i saw the video. Having grown up in a medically oriented household, I’m aware that people in the medical field will often try to be light hearted with patients. Marked by nurses with smiley faces on their smocks, festive holiday pins, and other things to lighten what is otherwise a heavy and odious experience. That said, the ease with which the video went viral is, I think, part of the overt festivity that surrounds the culture of breast cancer, one that has the effect of masking the difficulties and promoting triumphant positivity at all costs. I’ll think about it more and get back to you.

  • Thank you for giving me one place to send folks to see all the stats on BSE as well as a well written discussion of the issue.

  • Thanks, Carey. It’s great that people are furthering this discussion!

  • Gayle,

    I wrote about this almost a year ago, with the I Heart Boobies campaign. http://butdoctorihatepink.blogspot.com/2010/06/i-heart-boobies.html [Corrected URL]

    I now work in a high school and these bracelets are omnipresent. The kids have no idea that they are even supposed to be for cancer awareness at this point, it’s just fashion. You can kind of understand why the boys wear them – but the girls do too. One of these days I’m going to take the time to turn a girl around.


  • In But Doctor I Hate Pink, Ann wrote about what ‘awareness’ meant to one young boy: “I recently saw one [of the bracelets] on a boy…I asked him why he was wearing it. He said, as I expected, “to support breast cancer.” I then asked him how wearing the bracelet did that. He paused. He couldn’t come up with an answer. I prodded, “Did any of the money of the sale of the bracelet go to breast cancer research?” He said he didn’t know. “Then, how does wearing that bracelet support breast cancer?” Silence. I asked him how much he’d paid for that bracelet, and he said, $8.00. (An astounding amount for a rubber bracelet.) I then told him that I have breast cancer, and next time he wanted to help somebody with the disease, I’d be happy to take his $8.00. Cancer treatment can be expensive.” There we have it! Maybe this particular boy will be a bit more ‘aware’ since his interaction with Ann. Thanks for sharing!

  • Mary

    Thanks, Gayle, for giving “The Pink Glove Dance” some consideration. I think the reality of breast cancer and the very traumatic effects of treatment tend to get lost in all the hype. No matter how you spin it, this woman will awake from anesthesia without a breast and possibly without two. Another will, perhaps, have a lumpectomy and suffer lymphedema as a result of node surgery. Surgery is the first line of treatment and the most mutilating. We need to find a balance that adequately prepares a woman for what she is facing in the OR. I have maintained that hospitals should hold mastectomy classes to give women a walk through of the pre op, operative and post op area and what to expect before, during and after surgery. I really think that would have been helpful in putting me more at ease. There would have been less fear of the unknown. I do understand this would take some thought and planning but could make a big difference in the anticipatory anxiety suffered. It could even be done with a video and medical personnel, present, to answer questions that come up during its showing. Lots of food for thought on this one.

  • “Promoting triumphant positivity”–good phrase. People want us to have learned a valuable lesson from having had breast cancer–otherwise, gee, maybe the universe doesn’t make sense! Maybe there’s no god! Maybe things *don’t* happen for a reason. But that’s too bleak/realistic because we Americans, living in a country founded on blind optimism, want to continue believing in Good.

    You can use humor to trivialize a killer disease, but you can also use humor to empower yourself, get your politics across, make fun of the powerful and the status quo, and to laugh at death–knowing, of course, that the deck is stacked against us.

  • Excellent point! Check out “Pink Town” from The Cancer Culture Chronicles, “Music to My Ears- Stayin’ Alive by The Accidental Amazon, and “Cancer patients commandeer pink bus for 3-day joyride” from I Hate Breast Cancer. Who says serious people don’t have a good sense of humor??

  • ron

    what an interesting discussion of the issue. I was unaware how far it goes. as a man, I feel uncomfortable with all the “boobies” and other slang uses for breast cancer awareness campaigns. breast cancer cannot be taken light headed and these campaigns for me are immature and even idiotic.

  • Thanks, Ron. It’s important to acknowledge that men must also deal with these representations.

  • Mary

    PS. Gayle. I want you to know that that I, in no way, question the good intentions of the medical staff that took part in “The Pink Glove Dance”. My fear is that instead of not speaking of the disease and keeping it in the closet, as was done years ago, we are basically using the same mentality by wrapping it in a pretty pink ribbon. Yes we have awareness of breast cancer, but does the general public have any more awareness of the devastation, it causes? Both issues need to be addressed in a mature manner that honors women. Please know how much I appreciate your forum and all you do.

  • I agree, and this speaks to the need to separate intentions from outcomes! A crucial distinction.

  • […] For more information on the boobies campaigns, see my previous essay: “Boobies.” I said it. Now, May I have Your Attention Please? Gayle A. Sulik, Ph.D. is a medical sociologist and was a 2008 Fellow of the National Endowment for […]

  • A bit late to the game, but LOVE all you’ve said nonetheless. Everytime I see an invite to race for a cure I want to scream, and then follow up with, “when there’s a race for the prevention, let me know, especially if you are promoting breast FEEDING.”

    thank you……..

"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 cutt.ly/jei8WJr

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