Sexy Halloween and Breast Cancer Awareness Displays: Where’s the Harm?

  |   By Elisabeth Dale

Are you dressing up scary or sexy this Halloween? For women, that second costume choice has been under attack.

The latest objections trace the evolution of young girls’ store-bought outfits to ones that mirror more adult themes. You can choose to be a naughty Big Bird or a nurse. These costumes are all similar in that they offer the wearer a chance to expose parts of their chest, thighs, and midriff. There’s nothing frightening about them except in their lack of imagination. Some view it as an alarming trend that objectifies women. And studies prove that a constant diet of such photos is detrimental to young girls’ self-confidence and contributes to low self-esteem and lower academic scores.

Far more revealing is the question asked this last day of October and the final day of Breast Cancer Awareness Month: should breast cancer awareness campaigns be using the same sexual imagery and language to bring attention to a disease? We’ve come a long way from the days when you couldn’t use the word “breast” and “cancer” in the same sentence. Now there are ads highlighting only cleavage or headless shots zeroing in on women's chests to underscore risk. I can buy a t-shirt to save the “ta-tas” or “second base,” while middle school students fight to protect their right to sport “save the boobies” bracelets. Critics of these tactics believe it trivializes the experience of those diagnosed. Treatments such as lumptectomies, mastectomies, and chemotherapy don’t result in making a woman feel attractive, much less sexy.

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Where is the harm if these messages contribute to better health for all women? Maybe the sexualized breast cancer campaigns are as innocent as sexy Halloween displays. I remember the first time my daughter wore a tight, form fitting, low-cut costume. She was a senior in high school and I didn’t much care that she choose something she’d never have permission to wear any other time of the year (within reason, of course). It was always easier for me to show off a bit of “my girls” than spend time, energy, and money on coming up with something more complicated to wear on Halloween.


But Breast Cancer Awareness Month goes on for over 30 days. Many campaigns run year round, holding races, runs, and other ongoing events. This constant focus on women’s breasts may have unintended consequences according to social scientists and those in the breast cancer community.

First, studies show that when patients identify too closely with a disease, they often ignore the message. Turns out that the more we talk about breast cancer, using pink to paint it as a woman’s health issue (even though men also get breast cancer), the more difficult it may be for women to hear what is being said or pay attention to strategies such as prevention and early detection. Second, recent research finds that both men and women objectify the female form. And we see male images more as “whole” rather than identifying their photos from their specific body parts. This could be due to our constant exposure to sexy female models or it could be hardwired into our brains. Either way, scientists say that we can reverse this pattern by stepping back and looking at women as whole people. It’s possible to retrain our brains only if we stop narrowing in on the bits and pieces that define us as women. Third, decades of awareness messages are heard and have an impact on one specific population. A survey taken of girls between the ages of 8 and 18 found that “nearly 30 percent believed they already had breast cancer.” Their actual risk is closer to zero. We're now giving young women one more reason to dislike their bodies and fear their breasts.

Should breast cancer charities rethink the way they are exposing their breast health message? What’s your view?

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