Until recently, I couldn't recall the last time I'd checked my breasts. I know it's important, I know it's quick and painless, and yet I never seem to remember to do it.
My Twitter friends Carol Duncan and Sarah Pietrzak came up with a fabulous idea: 'Feel them up Friday' - a day to promote breast cancer awareness and encourage women to check their breasts. It went wild. Women all over the Twitterverse changed their avatars to pink in support of the day, and we all checked our breasts on Friday. It was easy. And for me, thankfully, all was good.
But then the storm broke. Melinda TankardReist, a self-proclaimed feminist and advocate for girls and women, took offence to Feel Them Up Friday. She claimed that the slogan sexualised breast cancer campaigns, and was offensive.
I was pretty stunned by this turn of events, and expressed my disbelief in a series of tweets. Melinda then posted about the issue here, specifically linking to one of my tweets here.
According to Melinda: “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.” She later goes on to state in bold: ‘The sexism of breast cancer awareness normalizes the view that women are sexual objects rather than subjects with agency and dignity’.
Okay, so let’s take the statement in bold. Let’s assume for a minute that 'Feel them up Friday' does sexualize breast cancer awareness (which I do not believe it does). This may normalise the view that breasts are sexual objects, but in no way normalizes the view that women are sexual objects. And here's the thing. Breasts are sexual objects! Breasts are sexually desirable! It’s true! Do we have a problem with this? Well, I don’t. Sexual desirability is okay, right? Sex is okay, right? Rape, of course, is not okay. Sexual assault, of course, is not okay. But sexual desirability does not equal rape or sexual assault.
Still, I do not believe that 'Feel them up Friday' sexualizes anything. From my point of view (and the view of the dozens and dozens of women who turned their avatars pink in support of the campaign), the slogan ‘feel them up’ is a wonderful way to make breast cancer awareness accessible. It is making what a potentially awkward and frightening and intimidating procedure (i.e. checking your breasts for cancerous lumps) non-threatening and simple by the use of colloquial language. ‘Feel them up!’ - we all know how to do that! ‘Feel them up!’ - it’s nothing! In fact, as one tweep pointed out, it also makes the process accessible and non-threatening for men: ‘Honey, it’s Friday - we’re not going out until you feel them up!’
Now, of course, in its traditional context, ‘feel them up’ can have connotations of a male fondling a woman’s breasts. However, by appropriating this term for breast health, we women are making the slogan our own. We are empowering ourselves. We are feeling ourselves up, for our health and well being. We are looking after our bodies. We are in control.
Melinda also makes reference to the women who have lost their breasts to breast cancer. The slogan, she felt, excluded them. “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.”
It took me a while to work this one out, but Melinda’s argument, I believe, is that such advertising implies that women who have lost their breasts no longer have sexual validity – or perhaps validity at all? The reality, of course, is that women who have lost their breasts will feel an impact on their sense of sexual desirability. This is well documented, and probably the main reason women seek breast reconstruction. This feeling is not sad or demented or abnormal, nor is it caused by breast cancer advertising. And nor, do I believe, is it entirely preventable. It is a normal response to losing one of your sexual organs. Obviously the ultimate aim of any cancer treatment is to save the patient’s life, but it is normal to wish to preserve organs and body parts, as their loss is a devastating outcome.
Melinda rages against the 'sexification of the breast', claiming that, amongst other things, this negatively impacts on breast feeding. So we have to stamp out the notion of breasts being sexual so that we women can focus solely on being mothers and breastfeeders? We can't be sexual and maternal at the same time? Well, that doesn't sound like a feminist notion to me.
Ultimately, I believe it is disingenuous and counter-productive to try to stamp out the association between breasts and sexuality. It exists and it is not scary or bad or disempowering to women. To me, what is truly disempowering is the attempts of commentators like Melinda TankardReist to place such restrictions on women, to impose such a culture of fear upon us, through the insistance that language that is even mildly sexual places us at risk. The implication is that if we talk about our breasts in anything but the most neutral, clinical terms, we are opening ourselves up to abuse and exploitation. But really, are we so vulnerable? Are we so helpless? Does the term 'feel them up Friday' invite sexual exploitation? Does wearing makeup or tight clothing invite rape? I don’t think so.
I don’t want to impose that level of fear and restriction on myself. I want to be able to use colloquial language. I want to be able to feel myself up. And please goodness when I do, I will be staying healthy.