This article originally appeared on AlterNet
Nudity is provocative. It draws people’s attention, and sometimes it draws their attention to a cause. When a former SlutWalk-er at City University criticized the university cheerleading team’s “Naked Calendar” for breast cancer awareness, it started a heated debate about what it means to use your body to make a statement. Breast cancer fundraising and rape culture awareness are both important causes—is it right to condemn one form of nakedness as buying into a toxic culture of sexism and objectification while lauding the other as brave and bold?
The conversation began with a scathing article in which a female student harshly criticized the “Naked Calendar” being produced and sold by the campus cheerleading team to benefit the “Coppa Feel!” campaign. Using their hands, different objects, and creative poses to cover their nips, the cheerleaders had recently posed naked to raise money for breast cancer awareness. The author of the article accused the girls of distastefully sexualising the breast cancer cause while pushing forward a much more harmful “women as sex toys” stereotype, using their nakedness to reduce themselves to sexually pleasing objects just to make a few bucks for charity.
The author of the negative critique threw herself into a danger zone— we may not be in high school anymore, but apparently the rules are the same: you mess with the cheerleaders and you face the wrath of the jocks. In this case, guys on the rugby team, some using their own names and others anonymously, responded with personal attacks to the author and called her a c*nt. It escalated to veiled death threats that are now undergoing university investigation. Ironically, in many ways, the backlash poignantly illustrates her point: that men are often happy to support women as objects, but are quick to degrade, despise, and threaten women who seek to establish a different sort of role in society—and the more willingly women buy into the former category, the harder it is for women in the latter.
Others criticized the author for another reason—they believe that it’s hypocritical for her to criticize the cheerleaders’ naked calendar when she herself organized and participated in the SlutWalk, where many women went naked or barely dressed to protest the trend of men blaming a woman’s rape on her own appearance during the attack. How, people asked, could she endorse nudity for her own cause but judge it so harshly for another?
The problem, in this instance, seems to lie not with the particular individuals involved with the calendar. After all, in their rebuttal article they pointed out that they are not the first group to put out a naked calendar for this campaign, and they probably won’t be the last. Instead, I think a lot of the discomfort with their charity attempt should be re-directed at the Coppa Feel campaign itself.
Coppa Feel, along with similar campaigns like “Save the Tattas,” “Save Second Base,” and “Help the Hooters,” are guilty of normalizing many harmful assumptions about gender and bodies in their attempt to spread awareness. The goal of Coppa Feel and similar campaigns is to “lighten up” the issue of breast cancer, hoping to get women comfortable with the idea of feeling their breasts for lumps by making it sound cool and funny. The idea is well-intentioned but problematic.
For one, men can also get breast cancer. But when the disease is embroiled with messages about titty-grabbing and hooters, you’d easily think otherwise— can you imagine a man going into his doctor and saying, “I heard about the Save the Tattas campaign and realised I have a lump in my chest that I think should be checked out…”
Coppa Feel and similar campaigns embody some pretty serious stereotypes about women and sexuality. The tactic they use to “lighten it up,” to sell funny shirts and bracelets to both boys and girls, is to center cancer awareness around the importance of breasts to a woman’s femininity, and to the men who want to “get to second base” with them. If the shirts said “Save Your Lives” instead of “Save the Tattas”, and the bracelets said “I <3 Good Health!” instead of “I <3 Boobies!” would anyone be wearing them? If the calendar was filled with clothed girls and featured tips about how to give yourself a breast exam, would they have made a profit? Probably not, but that reveals that this campaign isn’t just about cancer awareness and prevention—it’s about strategically using stereotypes about women’s bodies, identities, sexuality and worth for a “sex sells” campaign around a completely unsexy disease. A disease that often requires mastectomies or leaves breasts deformed, forcing women to re-define their femininity while being constantly surrounded by “supporters” who sport “I <3 Boobies!” bracelets and show off their own healthy breasts to “raise awareness.”
In reality, the only honest and informative way to spread awareness should be to do just that— to make people aware. These campaigns are hardly “lightening up” the issues; instead, they’re misrepresenting them. Cute-ifying cancer through hot pink bracelets, naked cheerleaders winking at rugby boys, and frivolous “save second base” T-shirts doesn’t really make people aware of the disease or how to effectively prevent it, but it does reinforce some harmful stereotypes about our feminine identities. Spreading real awareness isn’t cute or commercial, but neither is cancer.
So yes, the girls in the calendar got naked for a cause, and yes, SlutWalk protestors get naked for a cause, too. But is it hypocritical to be critical of using nudity for one cause and not the other? I say no. It comes down to normalising vs. challenging societal expectations about women and their bodies. Coppa Feel, and women who proudly pose naked to earn their profits, reinforces existing notions about breasts—that they’re sexualised objects separate from the woman herself, and they exist largely for male pleasure. SlutWalk challenges these sorts of ideas—women’s breasts are not men’s toys, and their bodies are their own. However, it’s important to recognize that criticism should be examined from the top-down—these large and complicated issues did not start nor will they end with a cheerleading team’s naked calendar.
A naked female body makes a statement, but that statement is not a blank canvas—whether we like it or not, our bodies are always political. But the politics are always changing—two years ago, who would have thought that there’d one day be a powerful movement called a SlutWalk? Context matters. Motivation matters. And when it comes to breast cancer awareness, lives should matter—not just “boobies.”