3 Reasons Why Feminism Is Needed in the Breast Cancer Awareness Movement: Feminist Book Series Part I

Feminism is for Everybody, photo taken by author

If you’re an active reader of my blog, it’s clear that I emphasize the importance of being a #breastcancerfeminist. Naturally, I’ve talked a lot why I’m a critic of the breast cancer awareness movement, the pink ribbon, and pinkwashing. But what I haven’t talked a lot about, and perhaps what I have taken for granted, is why I’m a feminist. To be totally forthright and candid, the feminist movement originally didn’t resonate much with me. It seemed so vast and complicated, with so many different players and different waves of relevance, that the more I learned, the more I felt like I didn’t know. I didn’t strongly identify as a feminist until I slowly started embracing the movement in college. Feminism is very nuanced, and I admit that there’s still much I need to learn, but I still identify with it. So just as this blog is about breast cancer, it’s also about feminism, and why I believe that the breast cancer awareness movement needs more badass #breastcancerfeminists.

With that in mind, let’s cut right to the chase. What really is feminism, what am I whooping and hollering about anyways? “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.” Pause. Don’t speed read here, take a second and read that line again. “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexual exploitation, and oppression.” If there’s one takeaway you have from this post today, that exact line would be what Gloria Jean Watkins, AKA Bell Hooks, would want you to remember.

In the first edition of my blog’s feminist book series, I wanted to highlight Feminism is for Everybody Passionate Politics by Bell Hooks since it’s the perfect introduction to the evolution of the feminist movement in the US and why it should be a no-brainer to support feminism. As both a feminist and woman of color, Hooks provides a much needed straight-forward, no bullshit, and easy-to-read informational pamphlet about feminism that, well, let’s just say isn’t afraid to pull some punches when necessary. After I eagerly flipped through the pages of Feminism is for Everybody, there were three takeaways I gathered from Hooks’ common sense wisdom about why feminism is needed in the breast cancer awareness movement. Today I want to share those takeaways with you all. Please keep in mind that this is NOT a book review, if you want a book review, go to goodreads.com, or better yet, read the book yourself 😁

1) Breast Cancer Has Become a Sexualized Disease 

Let’s face it, the breast cancer awareness industry rakes in a lot of $$$. According to an estimate from magazine Marie Claire, the breast cancer awareness movement raises $6 billion every year. That’s a lot of money, no question. Now, the topic of today’s post isn’t where that money is going — I’ve talked about that before, and I will talk about that again another time. Rather, what I want to talk about is how the breast cancer awareness campaign implements sexist marketing to convince consumers, particularly women, to donate money. A lot of breast cancer awareness related product marketing frames the disease in a sexual light. Between ‘save the tata’s’ ‘save second base’ and ‘I heart boobies’ it’s clear that in the breast cancer world, sex sells.

Now I wish I didn’t have to write what I’m about to write, but I’m left with no other choice but to write it. Women are more than breasts, they’re human beings. When you talk about saving the tatas, you’re sexualizing a disease that primarily impacts women, and that’s sexist.  This really shouldn’t be that complicated of a subject, but it is. It’s complicated because as Bell Hooks discusses in her book, all of us, women and men, are raised with sexist beliefs about our social hierarchy. Women and men are both guilty of accepting this socially learned reality that a woman’s value lies in her body and not her brain.  That being said, women aren’t born feminists, they’re just as capable of embracing sexist attitudes, ideas, and beliefs that support a patriarchal society as men are.

With all that in mind, women are guilty of buying into these sexist breast cancer marketing campaigns. Sexualizing breast cancer may raise fundraising dollars, but that doesn’t create a strong and empowered movement of women leaders in the breast cancer space. But even more importantly, by continuing to sexualize breast cancer, we’re condoning to future generations that it’s OK to objectify women, to talk about their breasts and not about their lives, and that’s just not OK. In fact, that’s worse than not OK, that’s horrendous. And as empowered #breastcancerfeminists we cannot stand for that.

2) The Breast Cancer Awareness Movement Has Not Been Inclusive to Women of Color

As brief background about me, while I often jokingly introduce myself as ‘Grace la Gringa,’ I take issues about race and ethnicity very seriously. I dedicated the last five years of my life into becoming a Latin Americanist, earning my BA and MA in Latin American Studies in perhaps the world’s best city to do so, Miami. In short, my global view has changed in that I can’t talk about any social movement without talking about people of color. I don’t want to make myself out to be a hero, because even growing up as third generation Polish, I’m still very much biased based on the privilege I have from the color of my skin. But I try my very best to keep my non-white sisters in mind when thinking about societal issues, including the breast cancer awareness movement.

Women of color have been shown to be diagnosed with breast cancer at later stages than white women. According to a report issued by the Obama administration, women of color are 40% more likely to die from breast cancer than white women. But the racial disparity in the breast cancer space goes even deeper than that, as it impacts our fundamental knowledge of the disease overall. It’s been demonstrated that women of color are largely underrepresented in clinical studies on breast cancer. We need to stop pretending that the breast cancer awareness movement has been catering to all women equally when it really hasn’t been.

Bell Hooks explains how the feminist movement has always had a nuanced history that as a whole, has never fully embraced women of color. In short, the feminist movement does not exist in a vacuum — feminism is intertwined with topics like racial and class stratification. In terms of economic advancement, white upper class women have benefited from the feminist movement more than women of color. Moving back to breast cancer, white upper class women have had better access to not only healthcare, but the top-of-the-line research that has in many ways resulted from the fundraising from the breast cancer awareness movement. Furthermore, white upper class women have been more in a position of power to lead research and clinical studies on breast cancer. The breast cancer awareness movement has ultimately benefitted white upper class women more than women of color, just look at the facts.

Am I saying the breast cancer awareness movement is racist? No. But what I am saying is that women of color have been left behind in the breast cancer space, and it’s up to all us women to change that.

3) Women and Men Should Fight for Women’s Access to Health Care

Over the last few weeks, I’ve written about why I support the Affordable Care Act (ACA) or Obamacare and why the American Health Care Act (AHCA) is bad for women with breast cancer. But let’s put aside the drama on Capitol Hill and switch gears for a second. Feminism is painted as such an angry movement, and well, in many ways it’s rooted for good reason in women’s anger about their oppression and forced subservience within our patriarchal society. I still stand by Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee, when she said, “It’s time for women to stop being politely angry.” But just as much as Feminism can be associated with anger, for better or for worse, Bell Hooks emphasizes that feminism also comes from a place of love. Hooks writes:

“When we accept that true love is rooted in recognition and acceptance, that love combines acknowledgment, care, responsibility, commitment, and knowledge, we understand there can be no love without justice. With that awareness comes the understanding that love has the power to transform us, giving us the strength to oppose domination. To choose feminist politics, then is a choice to love.”

Affordable access to healthcare has become a social justice issue. It’s a matter of justice that women of lower socioeconomic class and women of color have reduced access to healthcare and thus, breast cancer treatment. It’s a matter of justice that underprivileged women are at risk of losing their local Planned Parenthood provider that assists them in obtaining breast exams and mammogram treatments. It’s a matter of justice that all women, regardless of socioeconomic class, will experience rises in their breast health coverage under the AHCA.

The concept of feminist politics has become nuanced, malleable to whatever definition people want to give it. That’s because as the feminist movement has become fractured over the years, women manipulated feminism to match their own individual beliefs, as opposed to a set of beliefs widely accepted by all women. Bell Hooks criticizes that aspect of the feminist movement, saying that feminist politics must unanimously and undeniably protect the freedom, sovereignty and liberty of all women. There can’t be deviation in what feminist politics are. Regardless of whether or not you support President Trump, I say that supporting feminist politics means you can’t support the AHCA as it currently stands, plain and simple. Women’s lives are too important to let the AHCA slide through the Senate. And before you say, “Grace why do you have to talk like such an angry liberal,” take it from me, while I”m angry at the AHCA as a piece of legislation, I’m writing out of love not anger, love for all women that are at jeopardy of suffering and dying from breast cancer.

As a #breastcancerfeminist, I want to hold the breast cancer awareness movement accountable in supporting and empowering all women. And to reaffirm Bell Hooks’ optimistic point from her book Feminism is Everybody, sisterhood can be powerful. Just look at all the good the Women’s March on Washington was able to accomplish, when women from all backgrounds unite under a common goal. So let’s unite above the patriarchy to support women’s access to healthcare as a human right that all women deserve. 

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