Today on social media, we have dueling hash tags devoted to “women’s issues”. The one I was previously aware of is #AdaLovelaceDay, which celebrates the contributions of women in STEM fields and honors Ada Lovelace for her incredible ability to not just conceive of computers somewhat like what we have today well over a century ago but to write a program for such a device. The one I was just recently introduced to and by far the more popular of the two is #NoBraDay, which is ostensibly a breast cancer awareness effort.
As of this writing #AdaLovelace day had about 23,000 tweets to its name while #NoBraDay clocked in at 164,000. Now, I am not disputing that breast cancer awareness is important, but there are several massive problems with this campaign. First and foremost is the fact that it, like some others of recent note, reduces women and in particular breast cancer survivors to a pair of boobs. Hey, boobs are great. I, myself, am a huge fan as well as a boob-haver. But having people post pictures of their braless bosoms on social media doesn’t make people more aware of breast cancer. And if it does motivate anyone to do more to fight breast cancer, are they motivated by the human lives at stake or by the fact that the thought of those attractive breasts being gone or deformed makes them sad?
#NoBraDay sexualizes and objectifies women. It says that their main value is in their perky breasts (and I’ve seen a serious lack of less conventionally attractive boob selfies, although the main demographic effected by breast cancer is not the twenty-year-old with gravity-defying tits). There’s absolutely nothing wrong with posting a pictures of your breasts at any age in any stage of undress. Go for it! But those pictures are very unlikely to help save anyone from cancer. Now, I have seen a couple of items today of breast cancer survivors posting pictures and that is an entirely different thing. Showing their scars publicly is a brave thing to do, almost certainly does increase awareness and understanding of this devastating disease, and challenges our norms of beauty and femininity in a deeply valuable way.
Unfortunately, that does not seem to be what the majority of #NoBraDay posts are about. In fact, no one seems to be really sure what #NoBraDay is actually meant to do other than “spread awareness” or where it came from. It’s not associated with any particularly charity or organization, although some have jumped on the bandwagon, which I can hardly blame them for. And awareness is important. Although breast cancer already has one of the highest rates of awareness of any disease, if something makes someone go “hey, I should get checked out” that’s all to the good. But there are better ways to do it, ways that focus on the person and not just their secondary sexual characteristics. Save the women, not the boobies, as this article argues.
I would find #NoBraDay irksome no matter when it fell, because it not only sexualizes women and erotifies a disease, but completely ignores the fact that breast cancer and its treatment ravages a person’s entire body and impacts health for the rest of their life. It ignores the fact that not everyone who gets breast cancer was born female or currently identifies as a woman (I realize I use women primarily in this post because that is the largest demographic but it’s important to remember that pretty much anyone can get breast cancer). It ignores the stories that go beyond the cancer to the financial, social, and other costs of breast cancer including lifelong impacts to someone’s self-image and sexuality. In fact, it reinforces the idea that breasts are what make you a woman and so are what we should be concerned with saving, the very idea that many breast cancer survivors find extremely harmful to their self-esteem and identities. At first glance campaigns like this one or Save the Ta-Tas may seem cute, and certainly do generate interest, but we really need to take a closer look at what messages we are promoting in our quest to beat this awful disease.
That said, I find it especially frustrating that #NoBraDay falls on #AdaLovelaceDay. The relative successes of a campaign that reduces women to their body parts and one that celebrates women as entire human beings, and particularly as intellectual human beings, makes me a little sad. By all means, promote breast cancer awareness. Or even better, give cold hard cash to breast cancer research (preferably directly to a research organization, as unfortunately some organizations, including some prominent ones, do not spend donation money as efficiently or honestly as they should) or to a program that provides support services to those undergoing treatment or recovering. But however you show your support, please make sure you are doing it in a way that emphasized the full personhood of breast cancer survivors as well as the full impact of the disease. It’s not just about breasts.