Last week, a federal judge stopped a Pennsylvania school from suspending two girls from school for wearing breast cancer fundraising bracelets that proclaimed "I ? Boobies!" with a nod to their 1st Amendment rights.
Well, score one for free speech.
And zero for breast cancer.
Those ubiquitous rubber bracelets are part of a new trend: sexy breast cancer. There is "Save the Ta-Tas." "Save 2nd Base." "Project Boobies." "Feel Your Boobies." "Jingle Jugs." And, of course, "I ? Boobies" itself.
These campaigns aim to bring a fresh, irreverent approach to the youth market, but beyond that, their agenda is, at best, mushy. There is "breast cancer awareness" of course, but given that each October everything from toilet paper to buckets of fried chicken to the chin straps of NFL players look as if they have been steeped in Pepto-Bismol, I think that goal has long since been met.
Sexy breast cancer groups say they promote (with a wink and a naughty nudge) the importance of breast self-exam for young women. Sounds good, right? Yet experts no longer recommend self-exam for anyone, let alone high school girls. The unfortunate truth is that even when scrupulously performed, self-exams neither detect cancers earlier than they would be found otherwise nor offer any survival benefit. So where's the "awareness" in spreading that misinformation? The only "?s" involved are those of women who have or have had cancer, women like me, and our hearts break at the thought of millions of dollars wasted.
Let me be clear here: Young women should touch their breasts. Not out of fear but because they live in a world that continually encourages them to act sexy without understanding their sexuality, to care more about being desirable than about their own desires. Kittenish cancer campaigns reinforce that message, simultaneously pathologizing and fetishizing women's breasts at the expense of the bodies, hearts and minds attached to them. In that way, they actually suppress discussion of real cancer, rendering its sufferers — those of us whom all this is supposed to be for — invisible
I mean, really, forget "Save the Ta-Tas." How about save the woman? How about "I ? My 72-Year-Old One-Boobied Granny?" After all, statistically, that's whose rack is truly at risk.
There's so much young people could do to show they care about breast cancer: They could organize childcare or meals for mothers of small children going through treatment. They could volunteer in cancer resource centers. They could hold fundraisers for affected families whose mothers can no longer work. They could spearhead projects on potential carcinogens in beauty products (which, to be fair, is something "I ? Boobies," in the wake of criticism of its mission, has now begun to emphasize). All of that would take effort and time, but it would be more meaningful to women with cancer and, I imagine, to teenagers themselves. Because, among other things, the idea that you are taking action merely by wearing a titillating bracelet is not a great life lesson.
I recently suggested as much, ever so respectfully, to the "Feel Your Boobies" campaign, in a comment on its Facebook page, beneath a photo of a Betty Page-type young woman on a pink bicycle. It was instantly deleted, along with posts by others who felt the campaign trivialized cancer or questioned how the funds raised were being spent. Yet the moderator left intact comments such as "I wanna feel ur boobies," "I like feeling people's boobies for them" and "Never wanted to be a bike seat more in my life!!"
I guess, then, make that score: breast cancer zero, free speech zero.
Peggy Orenstein is the author, most recently, of "Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the New Girlie-Girl Culture."