Work out. Stay fit. Eat right. Be aware.
These messages appear along with images of barely-clothed dudes (and a couple of equally clothesless women) in this video posted by Rethink Breast Cancer. The idea, apparently, is to make younger women more aware of breast cancer by having “hotties” deliver the message.
OK, let’s unpack this. So first there’s the blatant sexual objectification of men. Even though it is different from women’s objectification (which happens in the context of a patriarchal society in which gender-based violence is pervasive and hypersexualized images serve to degrade and devalue women), it’s still seriously problematic.
More troubling, though, is the messaging. It’s basically this: “Dear women, your breast health matters to us (hot guys). In fact, it’s not really your breast health we’re concerned about – just our access to your breasts (’cause, you know, they exist for our pleasure). So take care of them by exercising, eating right, and not drinking too much. Because that’s how you can prevent breast cancer, and the even more awful reality of not being able to sexually please us.”
OK, I’m no medical expert, but I’m pretty sure that a person cannot just “prevent breast cancer.” The last time I checked, different kinds of cancers ran in different families. A person can be genetically predisposed to breast cancer, the same way a person can be more likely to be diabetic or have heart disease, based on their family history.
I’m not saying that healthy choices can’t reduce our chances of getting sick, but on some level, it’s luck of the draw. Of course, it’s good to make healthy choices. But this is misleading crap. And it blames women who do end up being diagnosed with breast cancer, because apparently they didn’t do enough pushups or eat enough kale!
Moreover, it perpetuates the idea that women should have hot bodies… for men. This is not only completely heterosexist (not all women are into men!); it is also deeply sexist. It is sexist because reinforces the idea that women’s primary function in society is to serve men’s sexual needs. It establishes “hotness” as the benchmark by which our value is measured. It tells us we are not good enough, and sends us chasing after an impossible beauty ideal. It suggests we’re less than “human” – a category that includes a range of experiences and ways of being, and most importantly, inherent worth and dignity.
I wish these hot guys were actually saying that our health matters. That we deserve to be healthy, and that maybe a healthier lifestyle will reduce our chance of becoming sick with a horrible and life-threatening disease. And that regardless of how “fit” we are, if we do end up with breast cancer, it’s not our fault.
I wish it didn’t have to be “hotties” delivering this message. It is both presumptive of women’s sexuality and insulting to our intelligence to think that it takes half-naked guys to make young women care about breast health.
At the end of the day, who really benefits from this kind of awareness campaign? Presumably the non-profit organization that is running it, and the businesses that affiliate themselves with the campaign. Maybe – hopefully – it is raising the level of awareness of breast cancer among young women, and contributing to the disease’s prevention.
Ultimately, though, women lose out from this kind of messaging. It encourages conformity to a patriarchal script that is disempowering at the personal and societal levels.
Cancer isn’t sexy. Let’s stop using sexism to try and sell solutions.