“Breakfast for boobs!” I heard a young woman in a bright pink shirt yell as I walked across campus last week. “Bagels for boobies!” her compatriot shouted. The glittery sign on their table advertised “$5 bagel boobz with pink strawberry cream cheese”. I was torn. Part of me was proud of the students for being activists, but another part of me was deeply troubled by the exuberant, cheery, and strangely sexualized way they were framing breast cancer.

But let’s be clear this “Bagels for boobs” fundraiser is not out of the norm of breast cancer awareness campaigns. There are countless T-shirts with pithy sexualized slogans such as “Save the Tatas”, “Save a Life Grope Your Wife”, and Boobies Rock!“ just to name a few. If there was a ever an opportunity to ”see the familiar as strange" and find the sociology hiding just below the surface, I think this is it.

Questions to Ask Your Students

I think we owe it to our students to question in our classes breast cancer awareness campaigns like these. Isn’t it down right bizarre that we sexualize a disease that kills thousands of women[1] each year? Is it really okay to objectify women in the service of raising money and awareness for said disease?

And while we are at it, do we really still need to be raising awareness? Can you think of any two things that Americans are more aware of than breasts and cancer? I know enough of the the history of breast cancer to know that there was a time when we didn’t publicly talk about it and we shamed women with breast cancer into silence, but this has largely changed because of breast cancer movements and activists. Raising awareness of an issue is the first step. It is what nascent movements are preoccupied with. Hasn’t the breast cancer movement graduated out of this phase? If you answer yes, then why do campaigns like these dedicate so much time, energy, and money toward raising awareness?

I ask my students these questions, not to demonize anyone, but rather to invite them to critically think about social movements, patriarchy, and the objectification of women’s bodies. Many of my students, friends, and family members care deeply about breast cancer and are passionate about supporting women with breast cancer and working to find a cure. And it’s precisely because they are so passionate that I think they would welcome a discussion about the effectiveness of the movement. If you care about these issues, as I do, then we should want to maximize the amount of impact our actions have on the issue.

Excellent Resources

There are loads of great resources that you can use to prime your students for a critical analysis of breast cancer awareness campaigns. First and foremost is the book and film Pink Ribbons, Inc.

In addition Sociological Images has two posts that I think students can really sink their teeth into:

  1. We should also note that men die of breast cancer each year as well.  ↩