Sexing up breast cancer

We're all aware of breast cancer, thanks. Time to call October what it is -- a month to leer, ogle and joke

Topics: Breast cancer,

Sexing up breast cancer (Credit: iStockphoto/dubassy)

“Are you doing it?” the “friendly reminder” asks. Guess what, ladies and gents? It’s “Feel Your Boobies Week” again already.  And yes, in fact, I am doing it. If by “doing it,” you mean horking in exasperation.

October has long been a veritable minefield of raunch and innuendo. For years,  we’ve gritted our teeth as Halloween has morphed from a festive, candy-getting opportunity into our National Day of Dressing Up Like Slutty Nurses. Now an opportunity to promote and encourage women’s healthcare has deteriorated into a thinly veiled opportunity for ogling. Welcome to Sweater Meat Fest 2011. I mean, Breast Cancer Awareness month.

The wink-wink effect will always surround anything to do with such a fascinating, beautiful and powerfully erotic body part. But wasn’t Breast Cancer Month sufficiently appalling when it jumped the shark into a big branding opportunity, a chance to doll up merchandise in pink and make a buck? Does it really now additionally have to be skanky? Not to mention tacky?

Think I’m exaggerating? Already this month, a high school cheerleading team in Arizona landed in hot water for printing T-shirts that read, “Feel for lumps. Save your bumps.” Lingerie company Journelle is meanwhile encouraging women to “Save the tatas.” Hipstamatic has released a limited edition We Heart Boobies Goodpak to benefit vaguely defined “breast cancer charities.” In Canada, roller derby queens have sold off casts of their breasts in the name of “boobies” care. There’s even a boobies bus.

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I understand. Breasts are awesome, whereas cancer is terrifying. The desire to tame a disease, to wrangle it with cuteness and a side of sex, is perhaps a natural response. If by doing so, money goes to research and women remember to get their health screenings, that’s not a bad thing. But I’m just warning you, this is how something like Kris Carr happens, folks. Cancer is so totally bangable! In, like, an adorable, Zooey Deschanel-like, girl-next-door way!

Tatas? Feel your boobies? Seriously? What are we, 12? It’s somehow at once both lecherous and infantilizing. And as a friend recently eye-rolled, “Is there anybody who isn’t ‘aware’ of breast cancer by now?” At this point, it’s damn near impossible not to feel a sharp pang of sympathy for the many diseases that ravage less sexually arousing body parts. There are no leering campaigns for leukemia. You can’t build a double-entendre empire around non-Hodgkin lymphoma. And I’m saying this as someone fortunate enough to have cancer of the skin, which conveniently lends itself to all kinds of nudity-related “awareness.”

With each passing October, the cult of Breast Cancer Awareness feels exponentially less like empowerment for women — of every size and age and level of allurement — and more like one big autumnal grope-fest. The incentive of a long and healthy life is plenty sexy enough for a whole lot of us. You can be firmly in the “I don’t like cancer” camp and still call shenanigans on straight-up exploitation. And you can believe in the value of eradicating disease without baby talk, without condescension, and without, even, the enticement of giving somebody a boner.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

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