Breast Regards: The “I (heart) Boobies” Bracelet Ban

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A SYTYCB entry

In 2010, Eastern Area Middle School in Pennsylvania suspended several middle school students for wearing the “I (heart) boobies” breast-cancer fundraising bracelets. The students then did what any self-respecting tween with money will do– took the school district to court, claiming the ban on the trendy wrist-wear violated their freedom of speech. While the federal judge ruled in their favor last year, the school district appealed to the federal circuit court, which recently determined it will hear the case in front of the full 14-judge court.

As a former teacher of young teens (which Science has proven to be the most annoying age EVER), I empathize with the teachers and administrators at this school. There is nothing like delivering a beautifully poetic and painstakingly-rehearsed lesson on the pythagorean theorem, only to be interrupted by a cacophony of giggles and snorts of “haha BOOBS!” Yet, at the same time, it is difficult to tell a teenager who is supporting their mother, sister, aunt, etc. who has battled cancer that their particular form of support may be inappropriate for the classroom.

Regardless of this quandary, which will soon be settled in the federal courts, the situation gives us an opportunity to examine a very problematic media campaign.

The Keep A Breast Foundation, a breast cancer awareness nonprofit in California, introduced the “I (heart) boobies” rubber bracelets in 2004 as part of a strategy to involve younger generations in the fight against breast cancer. With their bright colors and semi-risque phraseology, the bracelets made breast cancer fun and sexy (because what’s sexier than a debilitating disease?).  Since then, the bracelets have become a fashion craze among teens and tweens across the country.

But what is the cost?

While the campaign has successfully reached a previously untapped demographic, it is popular only because it sexualizes a very serious disease and objectifies women’s bodies.

Think of it this way: the bracelets do not say “I (heart) women.” The message is not that women are awesome, that we should concern ourselves with saving women’s lives. No, the message is that boobs are awesome, that we should worry about saving boobs. It reduces women’s complex lives down to a highly sexualized body part. Consequently, the breast-cancer-battleground shifts from promoting women’s health to protecting men’s desire to look at, play with, and otherwise enjoy breasts.

If the end goal of breast cancer awareness, education, and research is to improve the health and well-being of women, then this type of outreach is counterintuitive. Sex may sell, but the cost– reinforcing a system of male gaze and privilege– is simply too high.

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  • Carly

    I agree with your criticisms of the bracelets but I still think they provide a fun way to get out the word. Also, I don’t think it sexualizes breast cancer itself, it is sexualizing the fight against breast cancer. With that said I completely agree that it is dehumanizing to say “boobies” and ignore the woman attached to said boobies. At the same time I think they take a step in the right direction because things such as breast cancer and breasts themselves tend to be on the list that are uncomfortable things to talk about. Putting it out there in a fun and sort of silly way gives people that outlet to become more comfortable with talking about it.

    The bracelets I like better (and have myself) are the ones that say “fight like a girl” and they have the breast cancer symbol with boxing gloves. I think those ones rock.

  • Na

    “the bracelets do not say ‘I (heart) women.'”

    That’s probably a good thing, since women aren’t the only gender with breasts and they aren’t the only gender that gets breast cancer.
    If breasts were a women-only body part, then sure – ‘I (heart) women’ might be more acceptable.
    I’m all for addressing specific body parts, rather than ascribing genders to body parts, since you don’t know how the owner of that body part identifies.

  • NotaPrincess

    I think the potential good of “I heart Boobies” type campaigns tends to be over-emphasized. We’ve basically reached a point where the entire culture is saturated with the understanding that Yes, Breast Cancer Exists, And You Should Get Checked. And it’s great that we’re saturated with that particular message, but it means that every additional push to educate people simply about its existence as a problem has to work harder to justify itself.

    It is important to always balance the needs and feelings of survivors against potential benefits. I am not a breast cancer survivor and can’t speak from that perspective, but to be constantly inundated with the message of “Save the Boobies!”- especially when this type of cancer often involves REMOVING said “boobies” in order to save the person- seems like it might be a rather painful experience, one that seems to imply that people see your “boobies” (a childish word for a serious subject) as the important thing to save. If we are going to be impacting so much potential hate/continual reminders on breast cancer survivors, we at least owe it to them to really be critical of how impactful any campaign is, and not just hit every green light simply because it “spreads awareness.”

    • NotaPrincess

      edit: should read potential “hurt” not hate