October is known for many things — apple picking, the chance to dress up as a slutty frying pan for Halloween, Oktoberfest. And for 25 years, it has been Breast Cancer Awareness month as well. This explains the Facebook statuses that have been across my newsfeed. But these statuses don’t feature facts about the treatment or prevention of the disease. These statuses merely say, “I like it on the (blank)”, with the blank filled with words like floor, closet or table. It is supposed to refer to where women like to leave their purses, and is a continuation of last year’s unofficial viral campaign, which had women writing “I like (insert color here)” to indicate what color bra was their favorite.
There are several reasons this campaign is both ineffective and offensive. First of all, talking about where you leave your purse in relation to breast cancer makes no sense. Do you use your purse to fight breast cancer? Is your purse an integral part of your identity that breast cancer takes away? No. This campaign does little to educate individuals about breast cancer, and merely reminds them of it.
Secondly, it revolves around emphasizing the feminine aspect of breast cancer that has long been exploited through campaigns such as the breast-centric ones that have filled college campuses. Men are not supposed to be able to participate in this campaign (except to voice their appreciation for women’s breasts), isolating half the population who is affected by this disease, whether they like it or not.
And thirdly, wrapping this campaign around an accessory typically used by women sexualizes it and feminizes it to an unnecessary degree. It is as though we must promote knowledge about this disease by reminding everyone of what could be lost with a diagnosis is the presence of femininity. We are clinging to our femaleness as we cling to our breasts.
Barbara Ehrenreich has written poignantly about the marketing surrounding breast cancer. Her 2009 book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America features an entire chapter on her experience post-her diagnosis with breast cancer, in which she describes the campaign that surrounds fighting the cancer: “It is also clear that the ultrafeminine theme of the breast cancer marketplace – the prominence, for example, of cosmetics and jewellery – could be understood as a response to the treatments’ disastrous effects on one’s looks. There is no doubt, though, that all the prettiness and pinkness is meant to inspire a positive outlook.”
There are many different causes out there, but none have such a culture surrounding them as breast cancer. Part of this is due to the ease with which its culture can be marketed to women, who are viewed as a very specific focus group. The same cannot be said of lung cancer, which is the biggest killer of women, but also features a much more diverse group of victims (smokers, non-smokes, men, women). It is unlikely that the positivity culture that Ehrenreich describes will die down, but perhaps ridiculous “educational” tactics involving Facebook can be avoided; there are more teachable moments. Ehrenreich describes a particularly poignant moment where she was sitting in her doctors office, avoiding the pile of women’s magazines next to her. She explains that she was not against their content, but because she “had picked up this warning vibe in the changing room, which, in my increasingly anxious state, translated into: femininity is death.” Let’s try to reeducate ourselves to learn a new lesson.