Save the Women, Not the BoobiesS

Men notice boobs no matter where they are — under your shirt, in the written word, and, apparently, on my Facebook wall. All I had to do was post link with the headline-"No More ‘Save the Ta-Tas,' Please"-and before long, a couple of put-upon guys from my Midwestern roots swooped onto my Facebook page to tell me to get grip. They didn't want to see incorrigible feminist like myself post a sharp critique of boob-centric Breast Cancer Awareness campaigns. I need to stop "whining," dial it back, and accept that sexism makes the world go around. Guys, seriously. The last thing I need is for you to explain breast cancer to me.

Their arguments went something like this: "Hey hey, now, calm down there, Missy. Don't be a party pooper ruining everyone's good time. Straight men love boobs; that's a fact. They love to look at them and, when they can, feel them. And sex sells! That's a fact of economics. All this good ol' boob-ogling is making money hand over fist for breast-cancer research-isn't that all that matters?"

And I get it. On the surface, it does seem churlish to complain about a proven money-making formula, especially when that money could be saving lives. For example, Libby's Legacy provides low-income women in South Florida with free mammograms, thanks in part to cheeky slogans like "Save the Jugs" and "Scooters 4 Hooters," and I can't dismiss its measurable impact. I'm sure there are myriad programs like it across the U.S.

Breast cancer has been on my mind lately-and not because of all the inane pink marketing scams for Breast Cancer Awareness month. An old friend just revealed on Facebook that his wife has breast cancer to request prayers and support. In that moment, the abstract became jarringly real, picturing life as a young mother facing a disease that can kill you.

So I wasn't feeling particularly titillated by the "breast" piece of "breast cancer," by when I came across Luther's rant against "Save the Ta-Tas" on Flyover Feminism. Her piece gave shape to all this vague and itchy discomfort I've felt since my first encounter with Rethink Breast Cancer's lascivious "Save the Boobs" PSA in 2009. She writes:

Focusing on breasts and breasts alone obscures the reality and the faces of the people who are at the center of the fight against breast cancer. It reminds the survivors who either don't have their breasts or have scars across the breasts they do have that they are now not as wholly feminine as they once were (and they never will be). They may have beaten the cancer but they lost their breasts, the things everyone seems to actually care about.

Recently, my friend's wife found out that, because of where the cancer is located, she won't be able to have reconstructive surgery until at least a year after her mastectomy. Understandably, she's upset. Perhaps all this vaguely lewd fundraising will help her in some indirect way; but at the moment, it seems like adding insult to injury. I can tell you, without a doubt, her family is more concerned about having her around to hold them than the state of her bustline.

The trouble with these cleavage-ogling breast cancer campaigns is that, like most advertising, they place a disproportionate emphasis on straight male sexual desire and reduce a woman's value to a body part. It seems particularly crass that women's health funding should depend on the same sort of eye-candy marketing that sells beer, chicken wings, and Axe cologne. What if you don't have the sort of breasts that win wet T-shirt contests? Would anyone care that they were threatened? As a woman, you're told so much of your success depends on whether men find you pretty, from whether you get a date or whether you get a job. So perhaps it shouldn't be shocking that people are more likely to rally for the lives of young, comely women, as that is the premise of every alarm-system commercial or movie about facing death, whether it's a cheesy horror film, a Disney fairy tale, or a romantic tear-jerker.

Of course, you know who thinks these campaigns are awesome? Male writers, like Dan Neil, naturally. In a 2009 L.A. Times column, he writes, "In recent years, the increasing frankness of breast cancer PSAs has been a bright spot of adult sensibility in what is Americans' generally neurotic relationship to the female anatomy. … [They put] the male tendency to objectify the female body is put to good use." Sigh.

My Facebook mansplainers also believe that objectification isn't troublesome. I was informed, "Every person with a brain and a bit of sense realizes you cannot have a ta-ta without a person." O RLY? And "I appreciate the intent of the article, but aren't we taking ourselves a little too seriously?" No, I'd say a woman who's lost a friend to breast cancer gets to be as humorless as she wants.

In reality, breast cancer is a brutal, unsexy disease that can quickly spread to the lymph nodes and blood system. And it's growing more and more alarmingly common; about 1 in 8 American women are expected to get breast cancer in their lifetimes. When diagnosed, a woman has two disfiguring treatment options: Mastectomy, or lumpectomy with intense chemotherapy, which will also make all their hair fall out. Even if you insist that campaigns bent on "Saving the Ta-Tas" are equal-opportunity boob-lovers that desperately wish to protect all shapes, sizes, and ages of tits, that still doesn't change the impact on breast cancer survivors who lose their breasts to mastectomies. How these women supposed to feel about themselves when their most prized assets are gone? We sacrificed the ta-tas to save the woman-can we get a cheer for that?

Despite my Facebook friends' deep concern that I don't understand "the nature of sexuality" or "the way things are," I am not anti-eroticism. But I am fed up with heterosexual male desire dominating every damn aspect of our culture, to the point it can consume a woman's whole identity and self-worth. And it should, in fact, be dwarfed by the tragedy of cancer, of parents losing their daughters, life partners losing their loves, friends losing their confidantes, and children losing their mothers. And I wonder if there were a disease that gave men the option of castration or death if these guys would be so quick to defend a campaign with "Save the Cocks" slogans featuring a tremendous phallus or overwhelming bulge.

But, I suppose, if we question "Save the Tits," et. al., all the cheerfully oblivious men such as my debaters would have to question their own sexual privilege and everything around them that supports this-from billboards and magazine racks to what they see on TV. That, I hear them telling me, is asking way too much.

Lisa Hix is a reporter, blogger, and editor in the San Francisco Bay Area, specializing in history, pop culture, and feminism. Find her on Twitter @lisahix.

Image by Jim Cooke.