Critics, including a number of self-proclaimed feminists, have questioned the effectiveness and integrity of a recent Facebook campaign to raise consciousness about National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The campaign, which asks Facebook users to change their status to indicate where they like their purse by writing, “I like it on .,” has been criticized for unnecessarily sexualizing the disease and distracting from the goal of informing and advocating.
What these critics seem to over-look, though, is that this month is devoted to spreading information about the disease and supporting the people it affects. Breast cancer directly impacts sexuality by stripping it away. Supporting survivors and those currently battling this awful disease requires that we aid them in the process of reclaiming their sexuality.
My first experience with the way breast cancer steals a woman’s sense of beauty occurred the day I came home from school when I was 12 years old to find my mom standing outside, electric razor in hand, buzzing her hair to the scalp. It wasn’t the sight of her bald head that shocked me; she had intermittently under-gone chemotherapy since I was 9. In-stead, it was the fact that only small patches of hair had ever fallen out at one time and now here she was destroying everything that remained.
By cutting off her hair before it fell out, she was giving up. I think my mother’s defeatist attitude offered a way to cope with an illness that took almost total control of her body. She had no power to stop her system from rapidly producing destructive cells, effectively killing itself. The treatments stole her appetite, leaving her unable to choke down even small meals. As her hair began to fall out of her head, she had to draw on eyebrows, and using mascara became a joy of the past. Doctors cut tumors and the surrounding flesh from her breasts and then reconstructed them with tissue extracted from other parts of her body. The option was simple and singular: Deal with these side effects or die.
I didn’t understand the emotional weight of these things when they were happening. Even when I was 14 and these efforts ultimately failed, I had no way of understanding how my mom felt throughout her illness. It was several years later when my grandmother, my mom’s mother and a breast cancer survivor, expressed the distress of discovering bras with a prosthetic breast that I first thought about the enormous impact breast cancer has on an individual’s self-image.
Should women be able to feel sexy and beautiful without both breasts and hair? Yes, absolutely. But the reality of our culture is that we enjoy expressing our sexuality through our physical appearance. Our feminist foremothers fought for this expressive ability not so long ago. The enjoyment obtained from self-expression is the reason women model their hair in “sexy” styles and wear push-up bras exposing their cleavage. Most of the time women do these things not to attract sexual partners, but for the pure pleasure of expressing individual sexuality.
Breast cancer robs women of a sense of control over the image that their bodies project. It steals from them the ordinary means through which they express sexuality. That’s why my mom shaved her head before her hair fell out; she wanted to exert control over her body before it was no longer an option.
Creating provocative Facebook statuses doesn’t sexualize breast cancer. Sexuality is inherently linked with the disease. By publicly connecting the two we take a step toward reclaiming sexuality from a disease that kills it. There’s nothing distracting about this tactic; it merely brings to the forefront of discussion a side effect of breast cancer that is often neglected.
So yes, when you look at Facebook you will see that I like it on the couch next to the window. I hope that makes you think about sex and I hope you ask, “Why would you put that on Facebook?” And if you do, I will say that I posted it to support National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, that this year alone nearly 40,000 women will die of breast cancer, and that by quickly researching the disease now you might someday notice its early signs and save a loved one or yourself.
Brandi Streauslin is a senior in the College.