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S*xualised bre*st cancer campaign sending the wrong message

By Melinda Tankard Reist - posted Friday, 10 September 2010

“Help The Hooters”, “Save The Jugs”, “Don’t Let Cancer Steal Second Base”, “Cop a Feel”, “Save The Tattas”, “Save The Boobies”, “Save The Headlights”: these are just some of the slogans which have been used to promote breast cancer awareness and fundraising around the world.

There’s a new slogan appearing on twitter at the moment. It’s “Feel Them Up Friday” (#feelthemupFriday).

EllyMc (@Ellymc) took issue with this slogan, believing it sexualised breast cancer awareness. She expressed her thoughts in a piece titled “On Public Health, Prudes and Hashtags”, which she then circulated through twitter last Thursday. I agreed with her, so re-tweeted another tweet about it by @daiskmeliadorn.


Well, didn’t that cause a flurry of responses? I was making a big deal out of nothing, picking a fight, it was just a “fun hashtag”. I was even accused of saying women touching their own breasts was “sexual”.

Now, I really don’t mind anyone disagreeing with my arguments. I’m kind of used to that. But I’d prefer an argument about what I said, not about what I didn’t say.

I have no issue at all with women touching their breasts and support self-examination. I’ve done it myself and found something suspicious, which was checked out (there’s some family history of the disease, so I try to be vigilant). Fortunately, it wasn’t cause for concern.

But I do have an issue with the kind of language used in these campaigns because it emphasises the sexual desirability of breasts, especially as objects for male sexual gratification  -  and not a woman’s health and wellbeing. “Feel Them Up” is associated with the sexual behaviour of some men. The phrase is linked with and suggestive of adolescent males groping girls. (You would never hear the sentence “She felt him up in the back of the car”.)

Even if the phrase is appropriated, and it is women doing the “feeling”, these connotations remain. The language contributes to the broader cultural sexualisation of the breast regardless of whatever arguments are employed to justify its use. Using these words in mainstream breast cancer awareness campaigns normalises them and makes them OK  -  just a bit of “fun”. (You can imagine boys out on a Friday night saying "I’ll feel them up for you!”) This wider commodified sexualisation of the breasts contributes to many negative outcomes, not least mixed feelings about breast feeding. The sexification of the breast is mentioned in this journal article. (Thanks Dr Samantha Thomas for directing me to it. Samantha also has a piece on problematic breast cancer promotion on her blog which is worth reading.)

Many of the slogans used in breast awareness campaigns are about saving boobies/hooters/jugs. But many breast cancer survivors lose their breasts. What do these campaigns say about them? They survived, their breasts did not. Perhaps this is why survivors who have had mastectomies don’t feature much in breast cancer advertising  -  like this public service announcement for “Saving The Boobies” (note also the apparent jealousy of the smaller-breasted women towards the woman with the larger breasts who is attracting all the attention).


And don’t tell me this nude modelling site -  billed as a “Breast appreciation gallery”  -  is really about “Helping defeat breast cancer”. The fundraising angle can be used as a nice cover for displaying women’s naked bodies  -  their “assets” as described here  -  all in the name of a “great cause”.

“Nude models wanted. Share your beauty with us and help Q’BellaT with a great cause … If you’re outgoing, fun, daring, over 18, female; and you think your assets belong here … then … contact us with your information. Tell your friends to join us!!!”

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First published on Melinda Tankard Reist’s blog and on Crikey on September 6, 2010.

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About the Author

Melinda Tankard Reist is a Canberra author, speaker, commentator and advocate with a special interest in issues affecting women and girls. Melinda is author of Giving Sorrow Words: Women's Stories of Grief after Abortion (Duffy & Snellgrove, 2000), Defiant Birth: Women Who Resist Medical Eugenics (Spinifex Press, 2006) and editor of Getting Real: Challenging the Sexualisation of Girls (Spinifex Press, 2009). Melinda is a founder of Collective Shout: for a world free of sexploitation ( Melinda blogs at

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