Censoring a cancer victim's breasts

A PBS documentary prudishly blurs out a dying woman's nipples.

Published January 23, 2007 9:03PM (EST)

Let's talk about breasts for a second. Every woman has them, and in America at least, we like to look at them. Push-up bras, bustiers -- we love it all. But reveal a nipple, and all hell breaks loose. Sometimes, though, the hell-breaking is good -- like this column by Jon Carroll in the San Francisco Chronicle, criticizing PBS for blurring out a cancer victim's nipples.

Carroll writes: "The documentary showed some cancer victims. One of them was an old woman in the final stages of esophageal cancer. She was skeletal; her skin had shrunk away from her ribs, leaving her looking like an anatomical drawing. She was suffering, hardly conscious; the narrator said the woman died a few days after the segment was shot." He continues: "But here's the thing: The woman's breasts had been digitally blurred. Because she was so thin, she didn't really have breasts, but she had nipples, and those were apparently arousing enough to cause the PBS censor to step in. See, it's not prurience that's bad; it's not sexual exploitation that's bad; it's breasts that are bad. Any breasts, even the breasts of an elderly Chinese woman dying of cancer. Your breasts are bad. Speak to them severely."

I tried speaking to my breasts and they agree with Carroll. Sure, they can be sexual, but like any other body part, they're also just functional. And they're prone to disease, which means that making them taboo can actually hinder attempts to diagnose and treat things like breast cancer.

Our prudishness is not something that just affects women. If the documentary had featured a naked old man, I doubt that PBS would have thought twice about blurring his penis. But is either decision really reasonable? Where's the line?

That question obviously taps into the much larger issue of censorship, which many people assert is a "slippery slope" into complete government control over what we watch. But I once had a teacher who said, "I'm sick of slippery slopes. Sometimes you build a goddamn wall." With that in mind, it seems to me that the biggest problem Americans have, when it comes to sex and body parts -- whether they're male or female -- is our inability to contextualize them. We're not a people known for our subtlety, and that seems to extend to our views on the body, to the point that penises, breasts and vaginas are inherently sexual, whether they're in a porn movie or on an emaciated cancer victim. Who cares that breasts feed babies, or penises double as a way to urinate? They're all still considered obscene.

Granted, we live in a country where a schoolteacher was suspended for taking her students to an art museum because there were nude statues. So perhaps the extent of our nipple-phobia shouldn't be surprising. But it's still pretty messed up. As a much more inspiring example, check out the work of Mohamed Shaalan. He created Egypt's first comprehensive breast cancer service, the Breast Cancer Foundation of Egypt, to "combat social stigma" that comes from Egyptian cultural taboos about the disease.

Here's hoping that Americans can work toward a world where network heads don't have to censor nonsexualized body parts just in case, as Carroll puts it, "someone's mother somewhere writes the FCC saying, 'My son saw the breasts of a terminally ill Chinese woman, and now he's playing in a heavy-metal band.'" Because if nothing else, I would hate to blame my breasts for Metallica.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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