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Breast Cancer Sells

October is an awareness month for breast cancer and domestic violence. Yet media coverage shows we'd rather be aware of breasts, even sick ones, than talk about abuse.
 
 
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October means falling leaves, ghosts and goblins, and pink, lots of Pepto-Pink as we observe National Breast Cancer Awareness Month (NBCAM). From Campbell's Soup to Breast Cancer Barbie, it seems as if just about everyone has jumped on the pinkified bandwagon. And although October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM), we'd much rather be aware of breasts, even sick ones, than talk about black eyes and things that aren't supposed to go on behind closed doors. That point is reflected in women's magazines, which devote much more space in their October issues to breast cancer than they do to domestic violence.

Of nine publications that I recently found on a grocery store magazine rack, all of which advertised breast cancer articles on the covers of their October issues, only two also contained coverage of Domestic Violence Awareness Month (and mentioned that on their covers).* And, what's worse, of the coverage dedicated to breast cancer, much of it was offensive, superficial, misleading, or flat-out wrong.

This year there is even called Beyond Breast Cancer that cheerfully proclaims that there are "10 Good Things About Breast Cancer." Who knew? And just what are the pluses of getting this dreaded disease? According to the bubblegum-colored magazine, one perk is a pair of new boobs that "will face the horizon, not the South Pole.' Better yet, they will be paid for by insurance. Oh, and you get lots of cards and flowers.

Meanwhile, both Good Housekeeping and Woman's Day give incorrect information about mammograms. Good Housekeeping claims that "[N]o one disputes that all women 50 and over should be screened annually." Yet physicians in different countries disagree on how often women over 50 should be screened. While doctors in the United States recommend annual mammograms, those in Europe say every two to three years. In Australia, where a study out last year shed significant doubt on the extent to which mammograms save lives, the recommendation is every two years. Interestingly, in some of these countries, the incidence and death rates for breast cancer are actually lower or comparable to the United States.

When they're not spewing misinformation, the October issues of the traditional women's magazines are offering overly simplistic information about breast cancer risk factors and tips for preventing it. Woman's World (not to be confused with Good Housekeeping discuss factors you can change, such as smoking, and those you can't, like genetics. Missing is any mention about the purported connection between breast cancer and hormone replacement therapy. Also absent is information on parabens, phthalates and other carcinogenic chemicals, which are disturbingly common in consumer goods from lipstick to lotion.

The silence on these subjects mirrors the focus that both the American Cancer Society and Susan G. Komen for the Cure place on the profitable business of curing cancer rather than preventing it, which likely would hurt the bottom line of many of their biggest donors. Consumers are told that shopping will help find a cure -- a message that is not lost on advertisers.

Vogue sings the praises of one prolific advertiser, Ralph Lauren, who this year is selling polo shirts with bullseyes above the breast to target breast cancer. The ad shows a group of young, mostly white women wearing skimpy thongs, the polo shirts and nothing else. Subtle, huh?

A Pine Sol ad in Essence features motorcycle riders Aj Jemison and Jan Emanuel "driving for the cure," which is awfully hard when your vehicle is spewing cancer-causing exhaust. On top of that, Pine Sol contains 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE), which has been linked to fertility disorders, birth defects and other medical problems.

Redbook carries a sparkling wine "Cheers for the Cure" ad. Curiously, their article, "Who Beats Cancer and Who Doesn't," was one of the few risk factor pieces that failed to mention the link between alcohol and breast cancer, something that is highlighted in several of the other magazines.

And what if you or someone you love gets breast cancer? Not to worry, the women's magazines are full of inspiring survivor stories. Unfortunately, while most breast cancer victims are over the age of 50, not one of the nine magazines I analyzed focused on those women and the impact the disease has on their lives. Far more typical is a piece in Vogue discussing a very attractive young woman's agonizing choice to have a preventive double mastectomy because she carries the genes that can cause breast cancer. And with the exception of Essence, whose target audience is black, most of the women in these survivor stories are white, even though black women are more likely to die from the disease.

Despite most of these magazines having sections on health, family and love, only two of them ( Redbook and Essence) had any mention of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

While it is questionable that additional awareness of breast cancer is useful, in the case of domestic violence, more coverage would be helpful. Domestic violence is the most common type of violence experienced by women both globally and in the United States. The Family Violence Prevention Fund reports that one out of every three women worldwide is "beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused during her lifetime." Here in the United States, the rate is one in four. In 2005 (the latest year for which statistics are available), 976 women in the United States were killed by by men that they knew. Yet because we tend to see this violence as a private, shameful issue, only 20 percent of rapes and 25 percent of physical assaults against women in this country are reported to the police.

Also underreported is the great financial toll domestic violence takes on communities. FVPF estimates that the health-related costs of "rape, physical assault, stalking and homicide committed by intimate partners exceed $5.8 billion each year." About 70 percent of that goes toward direct medical costs; the other 30 accounts for indirect costs such as lost wages.

Though lacking in many other details, this month's article in Redbook did attempt to demonstrate how common domestic violence really is, with featured pictures of two women as well as two men who knew a woman who had been affected by domestic violence.

And the article in the October issue of Essence, which delves into why black America is "so silent" about the violence that is committed against black women (a number that nearly doubled between 2003 and 2004, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics), also pinpoints why more coverage in these magazines would be more useful. ""Awareness, or lack thereof, is also a factor, says Rose Pulliam, president of the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Teen Dating Abuse Helpline. "We have to find a way to talk about domestic abuse that doesn't demonize our men but creates a way of looking at this as something to discuss openly," she says.

What to take away from all this? The bottom line, literally, is that we shrink away from black eyes. Breasts, on the other hand, are highly marketable commodities, as these magazines' advertising and helpful hints about pink products attest. Glamour even uses breast cancer awareness as an opportunity for a little full frontal nudity, featuring young, pretty and oh-so-white survivors with their best come hither looks. This emphasis on youth and whiteness is a true disservice to older women who are far more likely to get this disease and black women who are more likely to die from it.

Such irresponsible coverage of breast cancer and blindness to domestic violence suggest that many publications are less concerned with women's health than with making a buck. By tugging at consumers' purse strings instead of promoting their well-being, these magazines fail to serve the women who read them.

*The magazines surveyed for this article were: Essence, Redbook, Good Housekeeping, Women’s Day, Women’s World, Ladies Home Journal, Glamour, Vogue and Beyond Breast Cancer.

Lucinda Marshall is a feminist artist, writer and activist. She is the Founder of the Feminist Peace Network, www.feministpeacenetwork.org.

 
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