Archives for posts with tag: sexualization of breast cancer

As you know I am a child/adolescent psychologist with a private practice. A few years back, I got a voicemail from one of the local news stations asking me if I was interested in writing a parenting column for the health section of their website. I returned the call and listened to the description of the webpage. I also looked at it online while on the phone, at the man’s suggestion.

Then he said it. “So, we want to partner with you financially to set up your parenting column.”

I said, “Wait a minute. You’re selling advertising.”

After I confirmed this to be the case, I continued, “Look, I run a business. There was no reason for you to hide the fact that you are selling advertisements. Businesses advertise. But I need to tell you something. Psychologists are ethically bound to be honest in how we represent ourselves, our education, the methods we use, how much we charge, and what are intentions are. If you want to engage with us, you need to be honest.”

We ended the conversation awkwardly and I suspect he may have even thought of my emphatic assertiveness in an extreme unfavorable light, a response with which I have become accustomed over the years.

One of my friends is a professor back east. She is a cancer researcher and does basic work on the metastatic process. She says that the power and influence of breast cancer research advocates is discussed by her colleagues. It is reassuring to hear that we have a voice and influence.

But because of this, we are ripe for exploitation. I was contacted earlier in this week by someone who was representing an organization that purportedly raised breast cancer awareness and was raising money. They asked if I would be wiling to be featured on their website. I did a little quick Google search and discovered that there was a business behind the group. The purpose was to promote a particular panel of medical tests to guide breast cancer treatment decisions. Having benefited from the information provided by oncotype testing, I understand the benefit of such tests. But why not inform me of the real purpose of the group? Consequently, I declined and further noted that I was uncomfortable with the lack of up front disclosure.

It was a bit of a surprise to me that my modest blog might be seen as a resource for free advertising of a medical test. But it’s easy to find breast cancer blogs and easy to send each person a form letter email invitation. The breast cancer blogging community, as a whole, communicates information quickly and widely.

In both of these examples, I was offered something that I may have actually given serious consideration to if I had been told the truth up front. At the very least, I wouldn’t have felt like someone was trying to take advantage of me for their own profit.

The worst of this in breast cancer, as you will read time and time again, is the use of these horrible diseases and their high profile, to make profit. Companies use pink ribbons as an icon of respectability, honesty, and compassion, even if they do very little to help eradicate breast cancer. It has become such a powerful iconic communication that  a lot of people don’t even notice anymore how incredibly tacky and tasteless a lot of this merchandising of our disease is. For example an enormous pink bra statue was installed in a busy pedestrian area of a city. It was inscribed with a healthcare company name and directions to advertise said company through texting so that a tiny bit of money, much less than was likely needed to build and install a 3/4 ton statue.

Then there are all of the sexualized images of women that are used to promote breast cancer awareness because sex sells. You know, if these companies really thought about what they were doing, I mean REALLY thought about it, do you think the marketing departments would say, “Hey, we can make money by leveraging the power associated with a physical disease by combining it with the influence of the cultural disease of sexism. The air of philanthropy legitimizes it and the misogyny will close the deal.”

The last bit, the last layer of this that bothers me so is that not only does all of the pinkwashing use the sexism that is already present in our society to propel itself but by legitimizing it by associating it with a charity, a way to supposedly help women, it makes sexism even more insidious. As a woman, I find this reprehensible. As a mother of a 16 year old girl, I am outraged. As a human being, I am livid.

I emphatically assert that we need more money for breast cancer research. To better understand it, to better treat it, to cure it, and to prevent it. One out of eight women and one out of eight hundred men in this country will develop breast cancer in their life time.  These are awful diseases, just awful.

So much about my breast cancer and the commercialization of this disease has reminded me of my youth, when I would be groped and sexualized by boys and men. When I complained I was often told that I should be glad to be desirable enough to solicit attention.

I am very happy to be alive. But I will not be exploited and told that it is a small price to pay for “increased awareness”. I have a brain and I know how to use it.

Corporate America, you may be powerful, super powerful. But even in my few short years as a breast cancer patient, I see increased outrage about Pinktober and it’s exploitative underpinnings. Things are changing and if I’ve discovered one thing about the breast cancer community is that we organize, we write, we talk, we support each other, and we grieve for eachother. We wish these diseases on no one.

Ta ta’s, my ass.

When I was a young adolescent of about 12 or 13,  I felt ugly and undesirable. And as I aged into an objectively beautiful girl I still felt less than. I didn’t feel desired at a time when it felt like there was so much riding on that question. Did boys like me? Would I ever get a boyfriend? Was I pretty? Would I ever get married?

When I was 19, my first college boyfriend, who was only my second ever boyfriend, actually broke up with me for being “too sexy.” He was very religious and eventually became a fundamentalist Christian minister. By the way, we did not have sex. Not. Even. Close. But the power of my sexuality was apparently threatening to him. He apologized for being a bad boyfriend, for desiring me in that way. This was a bit confusing to me because even as much of a good Catholic girl as I was at the time, I thought that young people who were dating were supposed to have lustful feelings, whether they acted on them or not.

To be honest, I was not initially remotely interested in dating him. He and I were almost entirely incompatible. He told me that I was so open-minded that my “brain might fall out.” But he was one of the most charming and charismatic young people I’ve ever encountered. And he was very good hearted. I knew that he’d wanted to be a minister and he seemed so perfectly suited to it. So I actually found him a few years ago by Googling “Pastor John Doe” and his hometown. I emailed him and he responded to me by apologizing to me again for being a bad boyfriend, offering the same rationale. It was still bothering him over 25 years later! (Again, did I mention that we didn’t even have sex?)

So this is one of the many ways I learned that being a sexually desirable female can have definite drawbacks in addition to the wildly sexist catcalls, groping, and other unwelcome, sometimes even scary behavior I’ve endured in my life simply for being female. There’s the rejection for not being sexy enough, the rejection for being too sexy, and the aggression for being “sexy enough”.  Sometimes there’s just aggression for being any of those things. If I could choose the category of attractiveness vibes that I would like to put out there in the world, I would choose, “Helen Mirren in her 60’s”. She is a sexy woman, who knows it, but she also knows that she is oh so much more. Helen Mirren is smart, talented, and funny. She is a 68 year-old actress who still works regularly in film.

After having gone through multiple surgeries, body rearrangement, chemically induced menopause, and being scared out of my mind at the prospect of having cancer, I can tell you that it is very difficult to set my set my sex appeal to “Helen Mirren”. It has been a confusing time, reminiscent of adolescence and early adulthood. I find that as I gain confidence in myself as an attractive woman, I am now remembering the pitfalls of it. Male attention is not all positive and even when it is “positive” it is not always comfortable. It was much more comfortable to flirt when I felt unattractive and frumpy. I actually remember periods of time in my early adulthood when it was just a lot easier to not dress stylishly. I was already with my husband, he’s always thought I was beautiful, so what was the point in potentially attracting attention to my looks? During one of these times, I worked as a secretary for the Seattle VA Hospital. It was the year between college and graduate school. John and I worked to save money, get married, and apply to graduate school.

I didn’t really like the job at the VA much. I was good at it and got good feedback from managers. I enjoyed a few of the people with whom I worked but it was a pretty stressful work environment and a ind of boring job. I dressed neatly but fairly casually. Frankly, I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on clothes. I got married during the year I worked there and brought my wedding photos to work. One of the other secretaries, Cathy’s way of showing “approval” for how I looked as a bride said, “Well, look at that!  There is SOMETHING underneath ALL OF THAT NOTHING.” So apparently, I was not pulling off Helen Mirren for Cathy.

There are aspects of being a woman that feel like a nearly no win situation. This is one of them. I try to navigate my own appearance according to what I LIKE and how I WANT TO LOOK but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t unforeseen negative consequences. Even as a 47 year-old woman, I find this enough confusing to occupy more than 5% of my time.  As a wife, a mother, a professional, and a middle aged breast cancer patient, it seems like much more time than I can spare. When I was younger, it was all so much more in my face. Now, there are daily small reminders. When I wear a dress with a v-neck opening, I have to make sure that it doesn’t gap too much or that the safety pins I use to keep my dresses from being “too sexy for work” are not showing on the outside of my clothes. I have to think about how short my dresses will get once I’m seated in a chair in front of my patients and their families. I make sure that my make up is neither too heavy nor too light, whatever that really means. It is all kind of subjective. And as a woman I know that ultimately, it doesn’t matter how I dress or behave; there will be times that I am unfairly judged or treated based on my perceived attractiveness and sex appeal. It’s a hard path to navigate, one with ever changing and conflicting internal and external road signs.

I don’t think I am alone in this no-win dance. And is it any wonder that so many of us breast cancer patients do not feel supported by ad campaigns that use sexuality to draw attention to breast cancer causes? And is it any surprise to anyone in a culture where women’s sexuality is used to sell ALMOST ANYTHING, that we feel like we are the ones who are being sold out so that companies can sell all kinds of products under the guise of helping women with cancer? In fact, by wrapping advertising in pink ribbons, which are associated with campaigns that use all kinds of sexual images of women, one might argue that the door is opened to use sex to sell EVEN more products, bottled water, yoghurt, pink pumpkins, you name it.

It is said that “sex sells” and certainly it can be argued that it sells a variety of THINGS. But does it sell respect, commitment, or compassion? Those are qualities that cannot be sold. Those are qualities that we need.

I grew up in a loving household, in a good neighborhood, and went to good public schools. Despite this, as an adolescent girl, I became quickly and keenly aware that part of being female was being prey to boys and men.

I went to middle school in the late 70’s. Like many teens, I had an ugly duckling/swan transformation. As a 7th grader, I was considered to be rather homely. Boys fake-flirted with me to humiliate me. They treated me like I was stupid. By 8th grade, I had undergone a bunch of pubertal changes, lost weight, grew several inches, and got fashionable. But it didn’t matter whether I was pretty or not. That school was an incredibly humiliating place for a girl. Walking the hallways was like running a gauntlet because boys hands would be groping everywhere and I mean everywhere in what seemed to be full view of teachers. Not one of the adults did a damn thing about it.

The summer after 8th grade, we went to a Seafair (Seattle’s summer-long festival) parade. One of the Seafair clowns, a GROWN ASS MAN, picked me out of the crowd (did I mention I had just finished the 8th grade?) and gave me a sloppy kiss full on the lips. I tried to make a joke to regain my footing and recover from the confusion and humiliation. He made some mildly sexual comment. That was my first kiss, by the way.

When I was a high school freshman, I often walked the mile between my bus stop and home by myself. There were other kids in the neighborhood so I don’t know exactly why I walked alone so frequently, but I did. On more than one occasion, a car would pass, come to a halt in front of me, and open the door to the passenger side of the car. They were strange men waiting for me to get into their cars with them like this would be something I would want to do. I would freeze and I remember being afraid to walk past that open door. After a bit the door would close and the car would drive off.

When I was in the 10th grade my history teacher, who was at the time THE SAME AGE AS MY FATHER, engaged in some super creepy behavior with me. Whenever we had independent work time, he would sit on top of the desk in front of me and stare at me. Occasionally, he would try to start up a conversation. I hate to be crass but feel compelled to point out that when he was seated this way, his crotch was right at my eye level. I argued with him about one of my grades once and he looked a little desperate, as if he were somehow losing me. He put his hand on my shoulder and told me that he loved me. I told two teachers and a guidance counselor about this. I was told that I had misunderstood what was fatherly concern. My peers teased me and told me that I thought everyone was in love with me. I felt ashamed and didn’t tell my mother about this or any of the other middle school and high school incidents. I would learn later in my life that my mother would have likely kicked some ass and taken names on my behalf. That’s because my mom did kick ass and take names on my behalf but that’s an incident that I’d rather keep private at this time in my life.

These events were creepy and felt clearly wrong to me. But there were many other experiences with peers that were far more confusing. Some of my male peers could be disgusting one moment and sweet another moment. I dated very little in high school but I did have one little “fling” at music camp when I was 15 years old. The boy was smart, funny, and at times, sweet. At one point he characterized the appearance of my legs as “good for spreading.” I can’t remember the context of this comment except that there were other kids around when he said it. I made out with him anyway, in the kind of barely PG-rated way that a 15 year-old girl “good Catholic girl” would do.

This is the world of females, when being sexually desired is mixed with degradation. And I would clarify that it is the world of straight females but even non-heterosexual girls and women are subjected to expectation from many boys and men that they exist for male pleasure and domination. What a way to tarnish healthy sexual development. What a way to make it feel wrong and dirty.

Why do I tell you about my life experience? Is it because it is so unusual? No, I describe my experiences because I think they are close to the typical female experience. Actually, my experiences may arguably be better than the typical female experience. Tellingly, I took myself off of the dating market until college by having crushes on boys so shy they’d never ask me out or boys who I would later learn, were gay. And I went to a high school where being a smart, outspoken girl meant a death knell to dating. I kept my head in the books. I decided when I was 12 years old that I wanted to get a Ph.D. I was lucky enough to have academic skills and support that I could leverage, to build this future for myself.

Last week, I learned that Larry Flynt and his “gentleman’s club” put on an event called “Flight of the Ta-Tas”, a topless skydiving event to benefit Living Beyond Breast Cancer (LBBC), an organization devoted to women and men who have had breast cancer and later developed metastatic cancer. As it turns out, LBBC’s logo was used to promote the event without their permission. They did not sponsor the event. To read more about this, Knot Telling wrote an excellent series of posts about it as well as communicating directly with LBBC about it.

But let’s back up a second to Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler Magazine. The first time I learned about this magazine was when I saw this 1978 cover.

2hustlerjune9.gif

But look at Larry Flynt’s quote on the side, “We will no longer hang women up like pieces of meat.”

Oh wow, Larry Flynt was speaking up for women. He was trying to help! You buying this because I’m sure not. When one looks at the context of this statement, the context of all of the degrading photos of women in Hustler not to mention the juxtaposition of this quote with an image of a woman in a meat grinder, the real message is as clear as day.

Sexism has long been protected by ignoring context. That is why I’ve told you about aspects of my life. And no, not all males are exploitative of women. And not all women allow themselves to be exploited. I am talking about culture, the group. And as a group, girls and women are subjected to sexism and it hurts.

Yes, I can see a specific instance where going topless skydiving might be a positive experience. But done within the context of the sexism that pervades our culture as well as the culture that trivializes and sexualizes breast cancer because it involves “boobs”, “The Flight of the Ta-Ta’s” does more harm to women and girls than it does to help by raising money for a worthwhile cause. A lot of people may think that I’m making too much out of this, wasting my time and energy. I mean LBBC would get a big check if they chose to accept it, right? Let me ask you this. Would the same rationale apply to a black face/minstrel show to raise money for the NAACP?

Larry Flynt, I’m not taking the candy you offer me to get into your car. Keep your money. We aren’t going to sell ourselves, other women, or our daughters.

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George Lakoff has retired as Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. He is now Director of the Center for the Neural Mind & Society (cnms.berkeley.edu).

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