Usual Suspects

Protesters disclose the bare facts

By Greg Cahill and Paula Harris

FAMILIAR cheesecake? Not so. At first glance, the posters resemble the provocative ads for products like Victoria’s Secret lingerie, Cosmopolitan magazine, or Obsession perfume–featuring beautiful, young, and very voluptuous models. But look closer (yes, go ahead do what you normally do) and check out their chests–gasp!–the models have mastectomy scars where breasts once were.

The three controversial posters are part of a public awareness campaign by the Breast Cancer Fund, the San Francisco-based nonprofit organization that asks, in a society obsessed with breasts, what’s being done about breast cancer?

Sonoma State University will display the posters on campus at the InterCultural Center Gallery at the student union throughout October, which is National Breast Cancer Awareness month.

It’s not possible to predict what the reaction will be, but the ads caused an uproar when they went up at bus stops around the Bay Area earlier this year. They were removed a short time later because of complaints to the transit companies from squeamish passers-by that the images were “too shocking for the public.”

“[The posters] caused controversy when they went up, but they are supposed to get the word out that breast cancer is a serious problem that shouldn’t be hidden. But it’s important to display the posters because this is something the public isn’t faced with and maybe doesn’t want to be faced with,” says Jen Denzell, an assistant at SSU’s Women’s Resource Center.

Scars have been superimposed onto the models, so that one has a double mastectomy and two have single mastectomies. “The models, advertising executive, and photographer donated their time; I donated images of my mastectomy scars,” says Andrea Ravinett Martin, founder and director of the Breast Cancer Fund.

“We created the ads to guard against complacency in a society that so readily commodifies breasts for business and entertainment purposes. . . . The ads force us to acknowledge that we’re being subjected to a deadly and disfiguring epidemic directed at our culture’s most profound symbol of sexuality and nurture,” she adds. “They also help us understand that a true appreciation of breasts requires us to act more responsibly in the way we treat women, their bodies, and the disease.”

Although the ads originally caused quite a stir, Denzell says more people complained after they were yanked. “It was very interesting,” she concludes.

Articles about the Breast Cancer Fund’s purpose in creating the ads and about the controversy they caused will be part of the display, which is free and open to the public.

Breast cancer is expected to kill at least 40,800 women this year, including 4,000 in California (the highest number of any state). Overall, it is expected that 182,800 new cases will be reported in 2000.

MEANWHILE, Sebastopol shoppers got quite a surprise on Saturday, Sept. 16, when a group of 20 women paraded topless down Main Street before holding a noontime rally at which free breast cancer exams were offered. The shirt-optional march, organized by BABES (Breast Action Brigade to Eliminate Sexism), was billed as the first annual Breast Fest..

The march was held without a permit (required for all street paraders–clothed, semi-clothed, or otherwise), though a spokeswoman for the Sebastopol Police Department reports that the event went off without a hitch.

During the past couple of years, Breast Fests have sprung up across the nation, chiefly as a means to raise awareness about breast cancer and related women’s health issues.

Jill Leslie, owner of Milk and Honey in Sebastopol, participated in the hourlong event, not only to raise awareness about women’s health issues but also to make a statement about the sexualization of women by American culture.

“Certainly breast cancer awareness was part of it, but it was more encompassing than that,” she says. “We also marched to protest the fact that in 23 states it is illegal to breast-feed in public and [marched] to make a statement about the objectification of women’s breasts.

“We should be able to walk down the street without harassment just for having this body part.”

Leslie couldn’t say just how much gawking was going on by spectators, but she felt that the protest helped educate folks.

“Our attitude was: These are our breasts, get over it,” she concludes.

From the September 21-27, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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