Why Raising Awareness through Sexism Isn’t Beneficial to Anyone: the Facebook Breast Cancer Memes

Normally I do not post any social commentary on this blog, but I think I am going to start.  I have always been a socially political person, and growing older and going through new experiences has only added to that.  So, expect to see more of a mix in the future.  The following is a post I just made on the site Blogher.com, which is an amazing collection of blogs, all by women, on a huge variety of issues ranging from recipes and entertainment opinions to commentary on politics and economics.

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and with the start of the month comes the deluge of pink reminders peering at us from everywhere from grocery stores to online ads.  Much has been written on the idea of using commercial products painted pink as a sign of supporting breast cancer research; I am not fully opposed to the idea, insofar as the money that is actually donated to research funds.  What I am concerned about is what these attempts at awareness say about the women of our culture.

Take, for example, those pink can openers and bejeweled bracelets.  What kind of message is that sending to our public?  That women, who are certainly the vast majority of consumers willing to purchase these glaringly pink household objects, can only be counted on to raise money via shopping?  That we’ll only be aware of breast cancer in the grocery store aisle where these goods are displayed?  Regulating the support of research on this disease into an arena culturally designated to the female audience sends the message that this disease should only be of concern TO women, forgetting that men can also suffer from breast cancer, both directly and indirectly when the women they love suffer.

Even worse is the Facebook meme that is, regrettably, repeating itself right now.  Last January users saw women updating their statuses with colors and patterns, leaving other users not in on the joke scratching their heads (or maybe, more appropriately, their balls).  The idea was to raise awareness of breast cancer by posting the color of the bra the female user was wearing.  Driving the supposedly anonymously started movement was the idea that men and other users would be piqued by these vague updates, thus asking questions about the mystery to uncover the truth.  And then, I ask, what is supposed to happen?  That those users would then go donate to breast cancer research?  Or that they might participate in Race for the Cure or volunteer at a hospital?   Unfortunately, this trend has nothing to do with raising awareness or instigating action.  Instead, it plays on the idea that men can only consider breast cancer when it is framed by sex and that women can only voice serious social and health concerns while baring their naked, and necessarily sexy, breasts.  The current trend circulating as I type is mimics these same tired stereotypes even more explicitly by having women post where they like to leave their purses.  With responses like “I like it on the kitchen counter” and “I like it on the front seat of my car” the sexual implications could hardly be clearer, made even worse by the awareness on the part of the posters of this sexual undertone.  Further, what does this have to do with breast cancer?  At least the first meme was loosely related to breasts.

Both men and women, but particularly women as the instigators and perpetuators of these trends, when talking about a serious health issue that affects an overwhelmingly female population, can only do so by limiting themselves as sex objects.  Nowhere has anyone posted about something they have done to support breast cancer research as a result of these posts.  As such, all these memes truly do is raise awareness about how sexist our culture really is.

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