Over the 4th of July holiday weekend, I traveled to Las Vegas for a family reunion with my dad and my brother. In case you’re wondering, it wasn’t as racy as you might think. My brother is stationed at an Airforce base on the outskirts of Vegas, so while it is an ideal vacation spot for obvious reasons, Vegas just happened to work out I guess. If you can believe it, we hiked, spent some quality time in the mountains and swam in the pool. But we also definitely spent some time visiting the typical tourist jaunts on the Strip and in Downtown Vegas off of Fremont. During this trip, my mind was constantly churning, contemplating these rather complex ideas of breast cancer, feminism and sex that I guess I felt confronted to think about in Vegas. But first, before I go anywhere else with that, let me start with a personal anecdote to better contextualize where my head is at now.
To set the scene, it was just an ordinary day, nothing special. I was sitting in front of a boy in my honors World History class freshman year of high school (which should’ve been labeled US-centric world history class, but that’s another rant). He was dicking around with one of his friends before the bell rang. I forget how this topic arose in the conversation, but I remember him basically cracking a joke about women that had to lose one of their breasts after a mastectomy. He was mocking them, trying to pretend he was walking around with one of his breasts missing. And I remember just sitting in my chair, shaking in anger. The Grace from back then internalized her anger, in fear of sounding impolite and rude. Well, here I am, Grace in the present, here to tell all of you that this kind of behavior is not only wrong, it’s fucked up, and it can’t be tolerated.
I doubt this kid even remembers making that joke. I’m sure it meant nothing to him. And if I were to approach him now, I’d be willing to make a wager that he’d apologize. “Grace I’m sorry, I was an immature teenage boy and I didn’t really mean what I said, I was just joking around and I’m sorry.” That’s how I imagine that apology would go anyways. And if I were a stereotypically polite woman, I’d laugh it off saying, “Oh it’s fine, well boys will be boys anyways.” Except that justification right there, if I were to say that or even think that, is perhaps equally fucked up. I have no time or patience to be polite about this behavior anymore. He was delegitimizing the feminine identity, her sense of self worth, and her overall livelihood by the loss of her breasts, as if she couldn’t possibly be anything more than that, any more womanly or perhaps any more human. We dismiss that as “boys will be boys” or “boys are pigs.” But that’s just not going to cut it for me anymore. I can’t pretend to hide behind a smile.
A huge gripe I’ve had about the pink-ribbon breast cancer awareness movement is that even as it has empowered women to step out of what Betty Friedman may call the feminine mystique, and raise public awareness about a disease that’s primarily a women’s disease, it has continued a narrative that women had to be sexualized and gendered in order to be taken seriously among men, and among themselves. As women we should be pitied, because our poor little tatas need to be saved. But then once they’re saved, the next question becomes when will we undergo breast reconstruction, because it’s naturally assumed that all women could possibly be concerned about is getting their tits back. Naturally. It’s all part of what Naomi Wolf may have described as the beauty myth that women have combatted as they have ascended to greater power in the workplace and in society at large.
In short, there’s no way to talk about the breast cancer awareness movement unless we talk about women’s continued gendered place in society and perhaps more bluntly, sex.
I don’t particularly want to talk about any of this, but I feel as if I have to, in hopes that maybe the point I want to get across can feel more authentic and real. Growing up, boys hit on me, I had boyfriends, and I had people complement me for my physical beauty. But I’ve also been manipulated, objectified, and even sexually abused. I went through several periods of my life where I was so angry, where all I felt like was a piece of Grade B piece of meat that was thrown away to rot. I felt like I was nothing more than breasts and flesh, it made me feel like nothing I could do was of any real value. And if I feel any anger or resentment, I’m told that women are just women and “boys will be boys.” As if that’s an answer.
It doesn’t surprise me that women diagnosed with breast cancer may believe that their identities have suddenly been compromised through losing their breasts. And I can’t imagine that I’m the only woman that has felt like their womanhood was defined not by their hearts or their brains but by their cup sizes. That doesn’t just go away after a breast cancer diagnosis, if anything, those feelings could intensify. The breast cancer awareness movement has not been successful in breaking this stigma women feel about their beauty. Unfortunately, I believe it only encourages it through their marketing campaigns.
When I was walking around Vegas this past weekend, I was observant about how even today in 2017, women are still showcased as objects of primarily male-driven sexual fantasy. I know that’s kind of the name of the game in Vegas, I’m not about trying to get on some self righteous rant. But when you take a step back and look at all the glitz and glam surrounding the beautiful women on the Strip, it’s actually kind of insane. Fundamentally, women are still desired to achieve this quest towards physical perfection that’s practically impossible to meet. They’re desired like pieces of meat.
I realized that unrealistic idea of female beauty showcased in Vegas is also reflected in the breast cancer awareness movement. Breasts are marketed as something that must be protected and saved. Again, it’s the tatas being saved, not the women. The message can be manipulated since sex sells, but where does that leave women? How does that make them feel about their self worth? Call me bitter, cynical, or even disturbed, but the sexualization of breast cancer is very real and it does not exist in a vacuum. It’s part of a problem that women can’t talk about their health unless they market their breasts in a sexual light. You know, because saying tens of thousands of women die a year isn’t a strong enough standalone message.
To wrap all this up, I’ve been thinking a lot about my interview with Dana Donofree from AnaOno Intimates a few months back. She opened up to me about how some of the women that participated in her fashion show struggle with the decision to undergo breast reconstruction surgery because their perceptions of self-identity and femininity are so drastically altered from breast cancer. From there my mind then flashs back to all the sexy billboards and beautiful women on the Strip, and I can’t help but almost laugh at how ridiculous the charade appears to me. We are more than willing to have women flaunt breasts, but then people like the boy from high school can’t even have a mature dialogue about women after they lose their breasts. It’s all this horrible cycle of how women are valued and how women struggle to value themselves. It’s all part of this story that women are meant to be subservient to men, to be products of their sexual fantasies when they want us to be, to not have voices when we get fussy, to not be considered equal. And this is why we need to break the beauty myth on breast cancer, to start a new dialogue that supports saving women, not saving tatas, and recognizing women are more than breasts, they’re human beings.