Last Monday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld an injunction prohibiting the Easton Area School District in Pennsylvania from enforcing a ban on “I Love Boobies! Save a Breast!” bracelets, the trendy bands that promote the Keep a Breast Foundation’s national breast cancer outreach and awareness campaign. But while a federal court may have found the bracelets protected under the First Amendment, the court of public opinion still takes issue with “I Love Boobies” and similar campaigns, with many people finding them toxic to the overall breast cancer conversation.
In its 9-5 decision, the federal court rejected the school district’s claim that the popular slogan is lecherous and disruptive, ruling that it provides commentary on a prevalent social issue. Particularly, Judge D. Brooks Smith wrote in his 74-page opinion for B.H. and K.M. v. Easton Area School District:
Schools cannot avoid teaching our citizens-in-training how to appropriately navigate the “marketplace of ideas.” Just because letting in one idea might invite even more difficult judgment calls about other ideas cannot justify suppressing speech of genuine social value.
“It’s a tremendous ruling supportive of student free speech,” Mary Catherine Roper, senior staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania (ACLU-PA) and lead counsel in the case, told RH Reality Check. “What this ruling does is recognize that teenagers talk about important things, whether it’s political issues [or] social issues. That’s the type of speech we most want to protect.”
The August 7 judgment puts to bed years of litigation that began in November 2010, when the ACLU-PA filed a lawsuit challenging the Easton Area School District’s “I Love Boobies!” bracelet ban, claiming it infringed on students’ First Amendment right to free speech. The original suit was lodged on behalf of Easton Area Middle School students Kayla Martinez and Brianna Hawk, who were suspended in October 2010 for declining to adhere to the ban, which was imposed over a month after students started wearing the wristbands without incident. In rationalizing the interdict, the middle school asserted some students were made uneasy by human sexuality topics, others were “prompted” to make sexual innuendos, and some staff found them offensive, the lawsuit claims.
While, in 2011, a federal judge granted ACLU-PA’s request for an emergency injunction on the ban, the Easton Area School District appealed the enjoinment, arguing the message behind the Keep a Breast Foundation’s catchphrase could be misconstrued as “lewd” and potentially hinder school activities. To prove such, the district invoked both the Supreme Court’s 1986 decision in Bethel School District v. Fraser, which upholds that schools can restrict student speech if it is “vulgar, lewd, profane or plainly offensive” (meaning it offers no fundamental social or political value to a broader conversation), and 1969’s Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which states students have a constitutional right to free speech, but said speech can be regulated if a school proves it “materially and substantially interfere[s] with the requirements of appropriate discipline” in school operations. In its Monday decision, however, the Third Circuit found that the Easton Area School District could not prove either of its claims under these two edicts since the message is meant to stir constructive dialogue.
This is not the first time that “I Love Boobies” and similarly chest-centric breast cancer awareness campaigns, like the “Save the Ta-Tas” bumper stickers, have been subject to school bans. Moffat County School District in Colorado barred students from wearing Keep a Breast’s popular wristband in 2011, but rescinded the ban that year after pressure from the ACLU of Colorado. Sauk Prairie Middle School in Wisconsin also banned the same bracelets, and a federal court judge ruled in 2012 that it could continue to impose that ban. Wearing “I Love Boobies!” gear has also been prohibited at Laramie Junior High School in Wyoming (the ban was reversed), and at an Elmira, Oregon, high school, reports the Huffington Post. Similarly, two years ago, cheerleaders at an Arizona high school were banned from wearing t-shirts brandishing the slogan, “Feel for lumps, save your bumps,” in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
“[The August 7 decision] is a really important rule for schools to follow. When they see a message that a student is conveying a message, is talking about something that is a social or political issue, they can’t go looking for a way to eventually sanitize that,” Roper told RH Reality Check. “This means that schools have to really confront the fact that kids are gonna talk about controversial issues. They need to make sure there’s room for that conversation to happen.”
But not everyone thinks “I Love Boobies!” is a message worth promoting. Last year, Jessica S. Holmes, a public voices fellow with the Op-Ed Project, opined at the Huffington Post that these “pink ribbon culture” movements present breast cancer as “a ‘sexy’ disease”—one that should be publicly represented by “young, intact, firm ta-tas in order to save them.” Holmes continued, “Cancerous breasts threaten idealized femininity and the eroticization of the female body, and these ‘awareness’ campaigns are no different from the over-sexualized and fetishized imagery in mainstream culture, which reduces a woman’s value to her body parts.”
Similarly, in 2012, Jazmine Walker wrote for the blog Furious and Brave that intonations like “Saving the Boobies” and pink ribbon culture make breast cancer an erogenous commodity under “the guise of raising awareness” without bringing consciousness to socioeconomic and racial disparities linked to the disease. In fact, a recent 2013 University of Pennsylvania study discovered that Black women die at higher rates from breast cancer than white women, although Black women are less likely to develop the disease, according to a Cancer Epidemiology article cited by Walker. This inequity, notes the sociologist-activist, can be attributed to disproportion in health-care access and unequal treatment experienced by people of color in isolated communities. Also, the UPenn study showed that for women of color, cancer is more often discovered at a later stage, which can be compounded by other health conditions. “We must approach breast cancer in the same ways that we approach many women’s issues—from the standpoint of addressing the multiple oppressions that are associated with our multiple identities,” writes Walker. “We must move past awareness and early detection and start having conversations on how to rectify the inequalities that lead to Black women dying more often than their white counterparts.”
For Peggy Orenstein, author of the New York Times bestsellers Cinderella Ate My Daughter and Waiting for Daisy, phrases like “I Love Boobies” are “disastrous,” misleading buyers into thinking they are “doing something useful” in helping reduce the disease’s mortality rates. Instead, it feeds off of our collective consumer culture and offers the minimalist opportunity for performing a good deed, she says.
“One big issue is that the money raised by these campaigns is not necessarily going to something that’s going to alleviate the problem,” Orenstein, a two-time cancer survivor, told RH Reality Check. “Why are you giving money to wearing a bracelet … that is not actually doing anything to reduce the incidence of breast cancer? … If you’re going to make a gesture, make it one that means something to women with cancer.”
Too little of the money raised by “pink ribbon culture,” said Orenstein, actually goes toward research. At Susan G. Komen for the Cure, for instance, some $69 million of about $423 million went to research in 2012, while about $174 million went to public health and education—the largest expenditure of Komen’s expenses.
As for the Keep a Breast Foundation, the California-based nonprofit’s mission is to provide support and education to youth about prevention, early detection, and cancer-causing environmental toxins, with “I Love Boobies!” serving as an awareness program and dialogue initiator. Proceeds from the bracelets, claims Keep a Breast, also “[support] important studies” via grant dollars.
However, Orenstein said, “Awareness has become an end in itself, like that’s a good enough reason to sell something or wear something. We acknowledge it to the fact that we no longer understand what we’re acknowledging [and] what needs to be done. There [are] so many women out there who are ill and dying. They need our help and our support and our research.”
Orenstein agrees that “sexy breast cancer” culture also sexualizes the disease, which is one of the leading causes of mortality among women; 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during her life, and in 2012 alone it was expected that an estimated 39,920 individuals in the United States—39,510 women and 410 men—would die from the disease. The hawk-like focus on breasts makes the breast the symbol and “totality” of women at the expense of the woman, said Orenstein. She added that this merchandizing and objectification also marginalizes the experiences of not only breast cancer survivors, but women who no longer have their breasts; it’s a shallow message that glosses over the struggle with sexuality and femininity.
“It ended up being kind of an expendable organ when need be. I’d rather be here than have the ‘boobies’ back,” said Orenstein, who had one of her breasts removed and reconstructed last year, after her breast cancer returned at age 50, and is on medication treatment for the next five to ten years. “So when you sort of say, ‘I Heart Boobies,’ well, mine’s not there anymore.”
Still, Roper says that while some people, like Orenstein, Walker, and Holmes, view “I Love Boobies!” and analogous messaging as curt, there are others who also take these “cutesy” and “light-hearted” campaigns as an attempt to embrace conversations around the disease in a more “self-affirming” and “strengthening” way.
“My mother died of breast cancer six months before I started this case. If she had known about these bracelets, she’d have had one in every color,” Roper said. “Different people want to deal with things in different ways, and that is why we have a First Amendment. We don’t have one right way of talking about breast cancer.”