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Most female users of the social networking site Facebook will have received a message encouraging them to substitute their status with the colour of their bra in a supposed bid to increase awareness of breast cancer.

I received the message, and after contemplation foolishly complied. It did make me feel uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, but because it was marketed as something that would help increase awareness of breast cancer I began to feel guilty for not doing something that was, essentially, effortless. Like a lot of people, I have lost a close family member to cancer, and so I often buy products when I know a percentage of the proceeds will be donated to cancer charities. But on reflection, I’m not sure about the legitimacy or effectiveness of the Facebook campaign.

There is an excellent post on Jezebel about this issue, which articulates some of the reasons why I initially felt uncomfortable. By posting women:

make some form of puzzle for men to figure out, so that they’d be out of the loop until a woman finally lets them know the girls had been posting the colors of their bras.

This promotes a certain degree of cyber flirtation which does undermine the severity of a very serious illness. Men are posting colours to encourage supposedly hilarious banter about the fact that they could potentially be wearing bras, and women are keen to disseminate that they are wearing colourful sexy support, rather than the faded whites and greys that characterise my underwear draw. As Jezebel says:

Does anyone on Facebook really not know about breast cancer to the point where someone posting “purple lace!” and eight dudes responding, “Ooh, hot, lol” is really doing anything to really help the cause in any possible way? If anything, the constant sexualization of and cutesy-poo approach to breast cancer pushes people to take it less seriously.

However, while it might be a reductive campaign, since essentially it assumes that men need to be educated by women about breast cancer, and that the only way we can get their attention is by flashing a bit of sexy bra, does the popularity of this phenomenon indicate the extent to which breast cancer is becoming more widey spoken about as an illness? It is definetely not the most refined of campaigns, but it is something that can be understood by the majority. Since it is possible women who have been touched by breast cancer, either through the effects on a person close to them or through personal experience, have been posting, could it promote a sense of solidarity? At the same time as feeling uneasy, I did feel a sense of closeness with some female friends who posted their bra colours, but maybe this emanated from the fact I knew a lot of their histories and therefore knew the reasoning behind their seeminly inane action.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have posted. It does seem strange to have to expose what is underneath your clothing on a public forum in order to be seen as taking an issue seriously. I can appreciate the degree to which this campaign does trivialise breast cancer, especially since in many instances it has been used as an excuse for some commentators to make lewd remarks about the sexual desirability of women under the guise of ‘acknowledging an important issue.’ In this respect it tries to legitimise female obectification and,as Jezebel says, this has the opposite effect of making people take the illness less seriously. Is it likely that a similar campaign will be launched whereby men are encouraged to state the colour of their pants in order to increase awareness of prostate cancer? It’s unlikely. However, it is perfectly feasible that in a week or so a similar message will be spawned asking women to state the colour and type of their knickers, since only by sharing our penchant for wearing lacey pink thongs or the like will we be seen as doing our bit for the cause.

On the one hand, it is brilliant that there is recognition of the fact that breast and cervical cancer is a big killer of women. However, many men suffer from breast cancer, too, and since it is largely ‘marketed’ as a women’s disease most males don’t seek medical attention even if they are aware there is a problem. Increased awareness of prostate cancer, and other types of cancer that affect both sexes, should be enouraged. There are few campaigns, for example, aiming to increase awareness of bowel cancer, but maybe this is because it is considered more difficult to ‘sexualise.’

On the other hand, the overriding message from this latest Facebook trend seems to be that the sexualisation of women is encouraged in any context, and that even if we are suffering we are still supposed to be sexy. The vast majority of Facebook users will not have intended to cause harm by posting (I know,for example, I posted out of a genuine desire to increase awareness), and some will have, in the words of the initial message, seen this as a “fun” way of promoting discourse about breast cancer, but should the significance of this illness be reduced to nothing more than a “fun” conversation starter? Illnesses should be demystified to encourage understanding, but does this take things too far? The majority of women I know who have had breast cancer had to have mastectomies. Therefore promoting discourse on sexy bras as a means to discuss the issue is insensitive since the implication is that breasts are the most desirable part of the female body (which is largely promoted by the media and popular culture generally), and should not form part of a breast cancer awareness campaign. But what do you think?