5Cs Can Look Beyond the Boobies

“Do you like tits?” 

That’s what the “gentlemen of Kappa Delta” asked the student body last week via a Facebook invitation to Pink PUB. The fraternity brothers sure do—breasts are the “greatest creation on this earth,” they explained. In honor of boobs, they asked everyone to come dance to Top 40 in sweaty Doms Lounge last Wednesday and maybe donate $12 to breast cancer research while doing so.

Many breast cancer survivors and advocacy groups have condemned the sexualization and depersonalization of the horrific disease for years. The dozens of “I Heart Boobs” tank tops on campus, complete with a cute upside-down heart to symbolize everyone’s favorite body part, suggest that 5C students have largely missed the memo. In fact, the Breast Cancer Awareness Month activities in Claremont go beyond mimicking the national discourse that makes the fight for a cure more about sex—and men—than about the individuals who suffer from the disease.

In 2010, writer Peggy Orenstein (no relation to this author) discussed in The New York Times the phenomenon of sexualizing the disease that exhausted, depressed and dismembered her. The mountain of pink ribbons on yogurt containers and magenta bracelets on teenagers’ wrists has framed her ugly experience as pretty and profitable, and cutesy terms like “boobies” are designed to make the gruesome palatable for consumers.

In an attempt to raise awareness among youth, various organizations have taken to using eye-catching slogans like “Save Second Base!” and the aforementioned “I Heart Boobs.” These phrases make the fight for a cure less about breast cancer’s victims and more about the people who want to have sex with them. And the use of recognizable feminine colors and symbols to signify breast cancer equates womanhood with breasts, though survivors often do not have both still intact.

It is hugely significant that breast cancer is no longer a taboo conversation topic, and that shouldn’t be minimized. But is the reframing of a life-threatening disease as pretty, sexy and commodifiable significantly better than silence? The use of attention-grabbing tank tops and standardized color codes is understandable in a saturated sea of images, slogans and Causes we’re supposed to support, but when wearing pink does little more than get you early access to the keg line at PUB, we clearly have to rethink our approach to combating cancer.

The fact that PUB was the designated breast cancer awareness event is particularly emblematic of the sexualization trend. PUB is notorious for being a heteronormative, male-dominated space, and the Facebook invitation for Pink PUB only reinforced the party’s reputation. The fraternity members who hosted Pink PUB encouraged students to come “celebrate those great mounds of happiness.” This sentence alone illustrates plenty of Orenstein’s claims—that we put a distractingly positive spin on a tragic disease, that we reduce a personal experience to recognizable symbols, and, of course, that we sexualize the distinctly un-sexy. A celebration of “tits” actually demeans the individuals who have tirelessly fought this disease and, as a result, may no longer have breasts.

The comments section of the Facebook event was covered in photographs of topless models, whose only apparent connection to breast cancer research was that they themselves have (Photoshopped) breasts. It’s disturbingly ironic that members of our community are perpetuating the objectification of women under the guise of finding a cure for a disease that kills 40,000 women annually, according to the Susan G. Komen Foundation. And, needless to say, Kappa Delta’s generous concession that it would be logical to have female DJs at PUB—it would “only be right to have the DJ of I LOVE TITS PUB to actual [sic] have them,” they admitted—doesn’t count as a reconsideration of our attitude toward cancer awareness.

People will undoubtedly argue that the sexualization of breast cancer is a minor issue in the grand scheme of finding a cure, and that it is perhaps necessary in order to keep the donations coming. But a framework that gives people who buy a rubber “I Love Boobs” bracelet a feeling of satisfaction that they’ve done their part likely discourages people from engaging meaningfully with the crucial search for a cure or the more immediate fight for better treatment. It is worth noting that playful, trivializing rhetoric is fairly unique to breast cancer and rarely surfaces when we’re talking about other (read: unfeminine) widespread, potentially fatal diseases.

It is both possible and necessary to stop sugarcoating and sexualizing breast cancer awareness, and it is especially easy to stop perpetuating this discourse on campus.

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