Baring Our Breasts Won’t Cure Breast Cancer

Baring Our Breasts Won’t Cure Breast Cancer

Women stop baring your breasts.


It’s not a statement of prudery–I love women’s bodies, I love women’s breasts. But the new trend of bare-breastedness as a political statement? It’s not working as protest. At. All.

We’ve seen the PETA ads.

We’ve seen the FEMEN protests.

And on Oct. 13, we had No Bra Day.

Enough, please.

The PETA ads put me off PETA, a group I had, as a life-long vegetarian and animal rights activist, supported since it was founded 35 years ago. But the brutal, sexist use of naked women to get the point across that animals are badly treated? You don’t abuse women to fight the abuse of animals.

FEMEN, the Ukranian-born protest group has been everywhere lately. Bare-breasted. Founded in 2008 by Anna Hutsol, Oksana Shachko, Alexandra Shevchenko and Inna Shevchenko the group focuses on “fighting patriarchy in its three manifestations: sexual exploitation of women, dictatorship and religion.” The women assert the goal of the group is “sextremism serving to protect women’s rights.”

FEMEN activists have been regularly detained by police in response to their protests, most recently at a Muslim conference in Paris where a group of FEMEN protesters went in, bared their breasts which were scrawled with statements and were arrested.

Now it’s No Bra Day.

I looked at the hashtag on Twitter. Lots of men trolling for pics of naked women. Lots of naked women. And then me, an actual breast cancer survivor (I hope). I posted this:

And this:

I got a flurry of responses–women with breast cancer or breast cancer survivors giving me high fives, men telling me to shut up.

I was first diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 26. I went to the doctor for a pain in my right breast where the underwire hit. She examined my breasts and sent me–immediately–to an ob-gyn at the same hospital.

He came in, examined my breasts. He pulled out a card from his pocket that had graduated sized holes on it. He pointed to the largest one–about the size of a plum or a child’s fist–and said, “You have a tumor this size. You need to see a surgeon.” Then he left.

I lay on the exam table for a few minutes. Tears had come, unbidden, and flowed into my hair, onto the waxy exam-table paper.

I got up, went out the desk. They told me the surgeon was waiting for me across town.

It was a sunny winter afternoon. I got a cab, went to the other office. Soon I was having my first mammogram. Then I was seeing the surgeon. It was nearly dark, now.

Evening was approaching. The surgeon looked at her calender, looked at me and said she would meet me at the hospital at 7am. The next morning.

I had no time to prepare, no time to mourn. My 26-year-old breast would be cut into the next morning. I had cancer.

It came back, twice. Right now a small tumor sits in that same breast, waiting. I am unable to have it removed because I’m facing a different health crisis that precludes surgery. My surgeon is watching it, the tumor. It’s growing slowly. Hopefully, I will outlast it.


Cancer isn’t pretty. It’s not pink. It’s not little hats and pinks and T-shirts. The smell of your own blood wafting up from the drain in your breast is a constant reminder of your own mortality.

When your hair falls out–your beautiful hair that people have always remarked upon since you were a small blonde child–you don’t feel sexy. You barely feel alive.

Your skin changes–burned from radiation, discolored from chemo and cancer. Inside your mouth is sore and bleeds even when you eat.

That’s cancer.

It’s not No Bra Day.

Victoria Derbyshire, a British journalist, just had a mastectomy. She’s recovering from the surgery, keeping a video journal of her experience. We spoke briefly after her diagnosis. She’s showing women what it’s like to have cancer. It’s harsh. I know just how harsh after three breast surgeries and several related surgeries.

When I saw #NoBraDay was trending, I wondered how it could possibly help breast cancer and women like Deryshire who were in the process of having their breasts cut into, removed, radiated.

The not-difficult answer is, it doesn’t. It can’t.

The National No Bra Awareness Day site declares, “Boobies are Fantastic… We all think so. And what better way to express the way we feel than to support a full day of boobie freedom??”

Boobies. Not breasts. Boobies.

There’s more. “Your breasts might be colossal, adorable, miniature, full, jiggly, fancy, sensitive, glistening, bouncy, smooth, tender, still blossoming, rosy, plump, fun, silky, Jello-like, fierce, jolly, nice, naughty, cuddly… But the most used word to describe your breasts on July 9th should be FREE!”

And then we have the paragraph that reminds us who the day is really for: Men.

“Gentlemen, you can participate too! Your job will be to support us ladies by rocking something purple. It can be a purple tie, purple boxers, purple socks, the NNBD button or t-shirt.. If it is purple or with the NNBD logo, it supports us. (Your support means quite a lot to us…)”

No. Hell, no.

This is just about preserving the sexualized part of female bodies for the male gaze. It has nothing to do with saving women’s lives.

No Bra Day can go the way of pink yogurt lids and the fountains in my city running fuschia. It does nothing for breast cancer, just like naked women on billboards does nothing for animal abuse. It’s just a cheap way for men to appreciate beautiful breasts without having a porn paywall in front of them.

What I want to see is activism that has meaning. Pinkwashing, as we well know, doesn’t help women with breast cancer. And it especially doesn’t help lesbians, even if you think scrolling through the Twitter hashtag might be fun.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month but I never see anything about lesbians and breast cancer. We have No Bra Day, but where is the spotlight for lesbians with breast cancer?

In 2000 I published the first book on lesbians and cancer, “Coming Out of Cancer: Writings from the Lesbian Cancer Epidemic.” We haven’t moved the needle much in the intervening 15 years. Lesbians are still dying at an alarming rate from cancer. Do most lesbians even know this?

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has a link to the American Cancer Society–if you search for it. The ACS [] is succinct:

Lesbians are at greater risk. The website states: “Studies have found that lesbians and bisexual women have higher rates of breast cancer than heterosexual women.”

And higher rates of death from the disease. The ACS urges lesbians to monitor their own health, noting, “The best defense against breast cancer is to find it early–when it’s small and hasn’t spread. That’s when cancer is easiest to treat.”

But what do we do to prevent it?

Where are the studies? There are actually only two and one is more than a decade old. If lesbians are five percent of the population, shouldn’t we be studied as to why we are more prone to cancer?

Is it, like African-American women, linked to discrimination against lesbians as a whole or is it a co-related factor to other health issues impacting lesbians, notably obesity and smoking?

We don’t know. We should know. How can we direct young lesbians like I was at 26 about what to avoid? At 26 I was a vegetarian, fit, rode a bicycle everywhere I couldn’t walk, went dancing several nights a week. I drank, but not to excess and not every day and I didn’t smoke, didn’t do recreational drugs.

Only a small percentage of breast cancers are hereditary. Yet many lesbians think that number is far higher and if there’s no breast cancer in their families, they are safe.

We are not safe.

So rather than tearing off our shirts to show off our beautiful breasts (or feeling uncomfortable that we can’t do it because we are scarred from cancer), shouldn’t we be focusing our activism on getting studies done on lesbians and breast cancer?

Toplessness hasn’t helped the animals of PETA and FEMEN has only served to get women arrested and in the most recent instance at the Paris mosque, attacked.

No one’s saying hide your breasts. But perhaps saving them is more important than breast selfies on Twitter.

Let’s get attention for the women who are still dying at an alarming rate. If we’re going to bare our breasts, maybe we should do it en masse in front of the CDC, National Cancer Institute or American Cancer Society. Maybe there it would make sense. But for now, we need action to save our own lives. Baring our breasts on social media just isn’t it.