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Can Naked Breasts Make Important Political Points?

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Photo Credit: Mark Lidikay/Wikimedia Commons

Nudity is provocative. It draws people’s attention, and sometimes it draws their attention to a cause. When a former SlutWalk-er at City University criticized the university cheerleading team’s “Naked Calendar” for breast cancer awareness, it started a heated debate about what it means to use your body to make a statement. Breast cancer fundraising and rape culture awareness are both important causes—is it right to condemn one form of nakedness as buying into a toxic culture of sexism and objectification while lauding the other as brave and bold?

The conversation began with a scathing article in which a female student harshly criticized the “Naked Calendar” being produced and sold by the campus cheerleading team to benefit the " Coppa Feel!” campaign. Using their hands, different objects, and creative poses to cover their nips, the cheerleaders had recently posed naked to raise money for breast cancer awareness. The author of the article accused the girls of distastefully sexualising the breast cancer cause while pushing forward a much more harmful “women as sex toys” stereotype, using their nakedness to reduce themselves to sexually pleasing objects just to make a few bucks for charity.

The author of the negative critique threw herself into a danger zone— we may not be in high school anymore, but apparently the rules are the same: you mess with the cheerleaders and you face the wrath of the jocks. In this case, guys on the rugby team, some using their own names and others anonymously, responded with personal attacks to the author and called her a c*nt. It escalated to veiled death threats that are now undergoing university investigation. Ironically, in many ways, the backlash poignantly illustrates her point: that men are often happy to support women as objects, but are quick to degrade, despise, and threaten women who seek to establish a different sort of role in society—and the more willingly women buy into the former category, the harder it is for women in the latter.

Others criticized the author for another reason—they believe that it’s hypocritical for her to criticize the cheerleaders’ naked calendar when she herself organized and participated in the SlutWalk, where many women went naked or barely dressed to protest the trend of men blaming a woman’s rape on her own appearance during the attack. How, people asked, could she endorse nudity for her own cause but judge it so harshly for another?

The problem, in this instance, seems to lie not with the particular individuals involved with the calendar. After all, in their rebuttal article they pointed out that they are not the first group to put out a naked calendar for this campaign, and they probably won’t be the last. Instead, I think a lot of the discomfort with their charity attempt should be re-directed at the Coppa Feel campaign itself.

Coppa Feel, along with similar campaigns like “Save the Tattas,” “Save Second Base,” and “Help the Hooters,” are guilty of normalizing many harmful assumptions about gender and bodies in their attempt to spread awareness. The goal of Coppa Feel and similar campaigns is to “lighten up” the issue of breast cancer, hoping to get women comfortable with the idea of feeling their breasts for lumps by making it sound cool and funny. The idea is well-intentioned but problematic. 

For one, men can also get breast cancer. But when the disease is embroiled with messages about titty-grabbing and hooters, you’d easily think otherwise— can you imagine a man going into his doctor and saying, “I heard about the Save the Tattas campaign and realised I have a lump in my chest that I think should be checked out..."