The most interesting thing about breast cancer is the breasts

AlterNet has published a really great article on Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Lucinda Marshall decides to take a look at many different women’s magazines and take a look at how they cover the issue. There’s a lot going on there, so I strongly suggest reading the whole thing.

Her first point: the reporting on breast cancer is often erroneous, insulting or conveniently incomplete.

This year there is even [a magazine] called Beyond Breast Cancer that cheerfully proclaims that there are “10 Good Things About Breast Cancer.” Who knew? And just what are the pluses of getting this dreaded disease? According to the bubblegum-colored magazine, one perk is a pair of new boobs that “will face the horizon, not the South Pole.’ Better yet, they will be paid for by insurance. Oh, and you get lots of cards and flowers.

Meanwhile, both Good Housekeeping and Woman’s Day give incorrect information about mammograms. Good Housekeeping claims that “[N]o one disputes that all women 50 and over should be screened annually.” Yet physicians in different countries disagree on how often women over 50 should be screened. While doctors in the United States recommend annual mammograms, those in Europe say every two to three years. In Australia, where a study out last year shed significant doubt on the extent to which mammograms save lives, the recommendation is every two years. Interestingly, in some of these countries, the incidence and death rates for breast cancer are actually lower or comparable to the United States.

When they’re not spewing misinformation, the October issues of the traditional women’s magazines are offering overly simplistic information about breast cancer risk factors and tips for preventing it. Woman’s World (not to be confused with Good Housekeeping) discuss factors you can change, such as smoking, and those you can’t, like genetics. Missing is any mention about the purported connection between breast cancer and hormone replacement therapy. Also absent is information on parabens, phthalates and other carcinogenic chemicals, which are disturbingly common in consumer goods from lipstick to lotion.

Reporting on breast cancer has bothered me for some time, now — ever since I started to think before I pink. Firstly, every article I read seems to give different information. Look up what the risk factors for breast cancer are, and the only two that you’re likely to find regularly are age and genetics. And as I understand it, genetics doesn’t play nearly as large of a role as most believe.

And I’m regularly annoyed by the way that most articles ignore the environmental factors that many believe are likely causes. In it’s recent cover story, Time at least made mention of the fact that Western lifestyles lead to an increase in breast cancer rates. It’s true that we don’t yet know what specific factors are causing this increase. Is it diet, pollution or chemical products? Personally, my gut feeling is that it’s all three (since there obviously are so many chemicals in pollution and Western diets). Regardless, shouldn’t we be informing women of these potential risk factors? I don’t want to go around scaring the crap out of women for no good reason. But the evidence is looking fairly solid. And I don’t want women with cancer knowing that they might have done things differently if they’d been informed. And I don’t want the corporations getting away with murder when we have the chance to stand up and fight it.

Which, in the case of these magazines, is precisely what’s happening. Are we to be surprised that mainstream women’s magazines wouldn’t call out the cosmetic industry for harmful chemicals it uses? Of course not. Cosmetics are what keeps these magazines going, both in terms of advertising revenue and “article” topics. The fact that for some women these magazines may be a main source of information isn’t really seen as very important.

. . . Especially when you can use breast cancer to sell stuff! Lots and lots of stuff! Oh, and you can also use it to remind women that though their breasts can give sexual pleasure, provide nourishment and cause death, what they’re really for is showing off.

The silence on these subjects mirrors the focus that both the American Cancer Society and Susan G. Komen for the Cure place on the profitable business of curing cancer rather than preventing it, which likely would hurt the bottom line of many of their biggest donors. Consumers are told that shopping will help find a cure — a message that is not lost on advertisers.

Vogue sings the praises of one prolific advertiser, Ralph Lauren, who this year is selling polo shirts with bullseyes above the breast to target breast cancer. The ad shows a group of young, mostly white women wearing skimpy thongs, the polo shirts and nothing else. Subtle, huh? . . .

And what if you or someone you love gets breast cancer? Not to worry, the women’s magazines are full of inspiring survivor stories. Unfortunately, while most breast cancer victims are over the age of 50, not one of the nine magazines I analyzed focused on those women and the impact the disease has on their lives. Far more typical is a piece in Vogue discussing a very attractive young woman’s agonizing choice to have a preventive double mastectomy because she carries the genes that can cause breast cancer. And with the exception of Essence, whose target audience is black, most of the women in these survivor stories are white, even though black women are more likely to die from the disease. . . .

Glamour even uses breast cancer awareness as an opportunity for a little full frontal nudity, featuring young, pretty and oh-so-white survivors with their best come hither looks. This emphasis on youth and whiteness is a true disservice to older women who are far more likely to get this disease and black women who are more likely to die from it.

In short, the only reason that the media cares about breast cancer is because boobs are hot. Boobs sell things. The prospect of saving boobs sells lots of things. The promise of talking about old boobs being replaced by new, perky boobs sells lots and lots and lots of things.

Obviously, I willingly admit that (at least culturally), breasts are sexual things. The problem is of course that they’re more than that — they’re attached to an actual live woman, and we’re talking about cancer. Of course breast cancer survivors don’t want to walk around pretending like they’re sexless, but sexualizing a serious, deadly disease is just fucked up beyond recognition. When was the last time you saw awareness of prostate or testicular cancer accompanied by photos of bulging pant fronts or hot guys in their underwear? Hopefully never. How screwed up are we that we will objectify women’s body parts even when those parts are harboring a grave illness? How far gone are we that we will ignore the bulk of victims — black women and women over 50 — to create a marketable story? Do we really only care about women’s health when we get to look at thin young white women while talking about it? How do “ideal” perceptions of sexiness and womanhood permeate even this?

As Marshall points out, though, it gets even worse. You see, October is not only Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It’s also Domestic Violence Awareness Month. I spend a lot of time checking out the news, and I’ve only seen it come up once or twice. I forgot that October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month because there are pink ribbons and boobs everywhere, and no one talking about the totally un-sexy women with bruises. Did you know? And how many companies have you seen proudly supporting domestic abuse survivors?

Despite most of these magazines having sections on health, family and love, only two of them (Redbook and Essence) had any mention of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

While it is questionable that additional awareness of breast cancer is useful, in the case of domestic violence, more coverage would be helpful. Domestic violence is the most common type of violence experienced by women both globally and in the United States. The Family Violence Prevention Fund reports that one out of every three women worldwide is “beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during her lifetime.” Here in the United States, the rate is one in four. In 2005 (the latest year for which statistics are available), 976 women in the United States were killed by by men that they knew. Yet because we tend to see this violence as a private, shameful issue, only 20 percent of rapes and 25 percent of physical assaults against women in this country are reported to the police. . . .

Though lacking in many other details, this month’s article in Redbook did attempt to demonstrate how common domestic violence really is, with featured pictures of two women as well as two men who knew a woman who had been affected by domestic violence.

And the article in the October issue of Essence, which delves into why black America is “so silent” about the violence that is committed against black women (a number that nearly doubled between 2003 and 2004, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics), also pinpoints why more coverage in these magazines would be more useful. “”Awareness, or lack thereof, is also a factor, says Rose Pulliam, president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline. “We have to find a way to talk about domestic abuse that doesn’t demonize our men but creates a way of looking at this as something to discuss openly,” she says.

So women are more at risk for domestic violence than they are for breast cancer, and yet breast cancer gets about 10 times more coverage. And of the two magazines that featured a story, only Essence seems to have put any effort in.

And so what are we to conclude? Because everything I’m coming up with is pretty damn depressing. It seems that we (as society) only care about helping the “right” kind of women. The black women and older women who are actually doing the suffering don’t seem to be the right kind. Neither do the women who are abused — since so many people seem to falsely believe that only poor women and black women are battered.

Or maybe we don’t really care about women that much at all. I mean, think about it. Breast cancer “awareness” has become “buying stuff.” Young white women are being used to sell that stuff. And young white women have been used to sell stuff for a very, very long time. Are we concerned, or do we just like to tell ourselves that we are? Are we concerned, or is it just an excuse to buy some expensive pink electronic? Are we concerned and just having a difficult time breaking our racist, classist, ageist, consumerist bad habits? Or do we just never ignore the chance to talk about young, white boobs?

0 thoughts on “The most interesting thing about breast cancer is the breasts

  1. katie

    It annoys me how the one magazine made it sound like it was a free “boob job”. My mother had breast cancer (from menopause hormones) and had both breast removed. I watched her go threw the agony of not only the surgery but the loss of self as she lost part of what made her feel a “woman”. I am just thankful that my father is the type of man that stuck with her and made her feel beautiful through the whole process. So that article can kiss my ass.

  2. Kate

    I hardily agree with the above poster. (I might be biased because of her name, though) Women’s magazines and information sources have a duty to talk about women’s health in a real way. The articles should have focused on causes, prevention, and treatment. They should have recorded the very real and traumatic experiences and should have included testimony from the women breast cancer most affects. It is shameful, utterly shameful.

  3. brandann

    i know i am a little late on this…but thank-you for reminding me that it was also violence against women awareness month. i am from a reservation, and statistcally native american women are almost twice as likely as anyone else to be sexually assaulted…and are less likely to see their case go to court, since noone can decide whose jurisdiction it is to arrest and prosecute.

    seems like a cop out to me…

    but thanks again…i usually learn something here!

  4. Elaine Vigneault

    And I’m regularly annoyed by the way that most articles ignore the environmental factors that many believe are likely causes. …Is it diet, pollution or chemical products?

    I’m more than annoyed, I’m furious.

  5. brandann

    i also wrote a blog on my own space about violence against native american women. a lot of it has to do w/ non-indian/indian violence. until recently, nothing could be done if the assailant wasn’t native.

    also, native americans are among the most impoverished in the nation. i forget where i found the stat, but there is a strong connection b/t poverty and domestic violence.

    i am bad at making links:…/Entries/2007/10/28_also_happening_in_october….html

  6. Pingback: HPV and Moral Stances (TM) « Modus dopens

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