Recently a Facebook friend posted a question soliciting people’s opinions of the various Facebook “breast cancer awareness” memes that crop up a couple times a year. My response was so long and vehement that I think I nearly exceeded the comment window.
Clearly I have opinions.
You may have encountered them unawares. It’s not clear who starts them – they’re usually distributed through a private message on Facebook, and consist of some arcane code which a woman is supposed to post as a status to “raise breast cancer awareness” – either a color (which is supposed to be her bra color), a fake “vacation plans” announcement which was supposed to be code for your birthdate, a phrase that hinted at how you like sex but was actually about where you like to place your handbag (“I like it on the table”), etc. The theory behind these, though, is that the women posting these cryptic notes are supposed to not divulge what they’re actually talking about, which – the theory goes – will make everyone else so driven to curiosity that they look up the meme themselves and discover it’s actually about breast cancer awareness.
Setting aside the flaw in logic (how on earth do you think you’ll raise awareness by keeping something secret?) the whole tone behind these memes has always made me angry – not just mildly peeved, but full-on, sulky-for-an-hour, flames-on-the-side-of-my-face angry. Because they reduce breast cancer – and women’s health overall – to some gossipy silly grade-school level.
Women have a hard enough time getting the medical community to take them seriously. Not just for reproductive health – heart disease is actually the #1 killer of women, but in a 2004 survey, fewer than one in five doctors knew that. Women having heart attacks can get misdiagnosed because a doctor can have a blind spot about heart attacks not being a thing that happen to women, so they treat them for anxiety instead. This isn’t even a matter of the biology being different – men and women both have hearts, and heart disease works the same way in both genders – it’s a matter of public perception.
And one of the reasons that doctors can fail to take us seriously is because we so often fail to take ourselves seriously. My paternal grandmother died of breast cancer when I was only four; the only memories I have of Grandma Loretta are a vague image of a face, and a memory of the day my father came home from work early to tell my mother she’d died. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that her disease progressed as it did because she’d simply put off seeing a doctor – she was uncomfortable talking with her doctor and was unsure it was anything worth worrying about.
It makes absolutely no sense for someone to be too afraid to talk to their doctor about their own damn health. I have never been afraid to call my doctor; I’ve always seen that as part of being a damn grownup. I’m a grown adult with physical body, and part of being a grown adult means that you need to take care of that body. And yes, parts of that body are sexual in nature, but they still need grown-adult responsible medical care just like the rest of me. So I have had no compunctions about calling my doctor with complaints like “I have a lump in my breast” or “I need to schedule a Pap smear”, just like I have no compunctions about calls like “I have a fever and a sore throat” or “I think I’ve broken a foot”. Granted, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had access to health care when I needed it – the inequity of access is a whole other issue – but if I hadn’t, I’d have been likely to fight for it or work something out if I needed it, because I need to care for my body because that is what a grown-up is supposed to do.
That’s the biggest reason why these memes piss me off so much – they infantilize women. They reduce discussions about women’s health to the kinds of giggling whispered don’t-tell-the-boys conversations we had when we were in seventh grade, when we were all just starting to get our periods and it was icky and gross and we felt weird if the boys knew about it, but also empowered in a weird way because we knew something they didn’t, and we taunted them with the fact we knew that but God forbid anyone tell them because ew… Yeah.
It makes sense to think like that about your health when you’re twelve, when it’s all overwhelming and new and you feel weird using those grownup words like “vagina” or “breasts” or “menstruation” or “fertility”, so you find girls-only tribal code words like “the girls” or “down there” or “crimson tide” or whatever. But to keep that kind of mindset into adulthood just reinforces that women’s health is weird and secret and immature. At some point you need to start talking about this stuff like an adult. Not that I speak clinically 100% of the time, mind you – I’ve referred to my breasts as “boobs,” and genitalia as “junk” or “nether bits” sometimes, depending on context (and in a very particular context, and with a very select few men, I’ve used another word entirely for my genitalia and no you’re not going to get to hear that). But when it comes to health discussions, that’s a context when you gotta grow up and use the real words. I had two mammograms by the time I was 30, and on neither occasion did I whisper to the technician that they needed to “squish my beeebees” or anything like that.
If we want people to take breast cancer seriously as an adult disease we need to stop behaving like tweens when we talk about it. Period.