Does bra colour really matter?

// 10 January 2010

Most female users of the social networking site Facebook will have received a message encouraging them to substitute their status with the colour of their bra in a supposed bid to increase awareness of breast cancer.

I received the message, and after contemplation foolishly complied. It did make me feel uncomfortable for a variety of reasons, but because it was marketed as something that would help increase awareness of breast cancer I began to feel guilty for not doing something that was, essentially, effortless. Like a lot of people, I have lost a close family member to cancer, and so I often buy products when I know a percentage of the proceeds will be donated to cancer charities. But on reflection, I’m not sure about the legitimacy or effectiveness of the Facebook campaign.

There is an excellent post on Jezebel about this issue, which articulates some of the reasons why I initially felt uncomfortable. By posting women:

make some form of puzzle for men to figure out, so that they’d be out of the loop until a woman finally lets them know the girls had been posting the colors of their bras.

This promotes a certain degree of cyber flirtation which does undermine the severity of a very serious illness. Men are posting colours to encourage supposedly hilarious banter about the fact that they could potentially be wearing bras, and women are keen to disseminate that they are wearing colourful sexy support, rather than the faded whites and greys that characterise my underwear draw. As Jezebel says:

Does anyone on Facebook really not know about breast cancer to the point where someone posting “purple lace!” and eight dudes responding, “Ooh, hot, lol” is really doing anything to really help the cause in any possible way? If anything, the constant sexualization of and cutesy-poo approach to breast cancer pushes people to take it less seriously.

However, while it might be a reductive campaign, since essentially it assumes that men need to be educated by women about breast cancer, and that the only way we can get their attention is by flashing a bit of sexy bra, does the popularity of this phenomenon indicate the extent to which breast cancer is becoming more widey spoken about as an illness? It is definetely not the most refined of campaigns, but it is something that can be understood by the majority. Since it is possible women who have been touched by breast cancer, either through the effects on a person close to them or through personal experience, have been posting, could it promote a sense of solidarity? At the same time as feeling uneasy, I did feel a sense of closeness with some female friends who posted their bra colours, but maybe this emanated from the fact I knew a lot of their histories and therefore knew the reasoning behind their seeminly inane action.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have posted. It does seem strange to have to expose what is underneath your clothing on a public forum in order to be seen as taking an issue seriously. I can appreciate the degree to which this campaign does trivialise breast cancer, especially since in many instances it has been used as an excuse for some commentators to make lewd remarks about the sexual desirability of women under the guise of ‘acknowledging an important issue.’ In this respect it tries to legitimise female obectification and,as Jezebel says, this has the opposite effect of making people take the illness less seriously. Is it likely that a similar campaign will be launched whereby men are encouraged to state the colour of their pants in order to increase awareness of prostate cancer? It’s unlikely. However, it is perfectly feasible that in a week or so a similar message will be spawned asking women to state the colour and type of their knickers, since only by sharing our penchant for wearing lacey pink thongs or the like will we be seen as doing our bit for the cause.

On the one hand, it is brilliant that there is recognition of the fact that breast and cervical cancer is a big killer of women. However, many men suffer from breast cancer, too, and since it is largely ‘marketed’ as a women’s disease most males don’t seek medical attention even if they are aware there is a problem. Increased awareness of prostate cancer, and other types of cancer that affect both sexes, should be enouraged. There are few campaigns, for example, aiming to increase awareness of bowel cancer, but maybe this is because it is considered more difficult to ‘sexualise.’

On the other hand, the overriding message from this latest Facebook trend seems to be that the sexualisation of women is encouraged in any context, and that even if we are suffering we are still supposed to be sexy. The vast majority of Facebook users will not have intended to cause harm by posting (I know,for example, I posted out of a genuine desire to increase awareness), and some will have, in the words of the initial message, seen this as a “fun” way of promoting discourse about breast cancer, but should the significance of this illness be reduced to nothing more than a “fun” conversation starter? Illnesses should be demystified to encourage understanding, but does this take things too far? The majority of women I know who have had breast cancer had to have mastectomies. Therefore promoting discourse on sexy bras as a means to discuss the issue is insensitive since the implication is that breasts are the most desirable part of the female body (which is largely promoted by the media and popular culture generally), and should not form part of a breast cancer awareness campaign. But what do you think?

Comments From You

Laurel Dearing // Posted 11 January 2010 at 2:07 am

i posted, but the message i got saying to do it didnt actually say anything about breast cancer. if it had i probably wouldnt have bothered because i dont see how it raises awareness of anything at all. its more that id seen the colours and was confused and felt like doing some confusing myself. i agree with most what you are saying though

Kitty // Posted 11 January 2010 at 3:22 am

My 25 year old cousin, with whom I live and am very close, is suffering from breast cancer. She is due to have a mastectomy on the 21st of this month. She has already undergone a painful, and ultimately pointless, lumpectomy less than one month ago. She will have to have radiotherapy.

On the one hand I’ve sat with her talking about the suddenly real concept that she will not recover from this disease (it is a rare form); then on facebook people are posting the colour of their bra. I really struggle to understand what impact this has on awareness of breast cancer. Who is it helping?

The more I have thought about it, the angrier I have become. Breast cancer is so often framed by sexuality, or ‘femininity’. Breast cancer and all its pink products are cutesy and pink. Women with breast cancer are encouraged to be upbeat and cheerful, and see it all as a positive experience.

This does not happen with other cancers, or diseases. They are not sexualised, diminished, infantilised, and the onus or blame is not passed on to the sufferers.

There was an interesting article in last week’s Guardian magazine to this effect ( Thus, this issue was already on my mind. Because there is so little one can do when one has breast cancer, or for friends who are suffering, there is a sense of powerlessness for everyone involved, the utter FUTILITY of this facebook gesture is stark. This is upsetting for me, for my cousin. It does not seem like a gesture of support or solidarity.

But everyone responds to these situations differently and I’d love to hear what other people have thought, especially anyone who has or has had breast cancer themselves.

Also is there any authenticity in the origin of this? No way of knowing I suppose…

truthisfree // Posted 11 January 2010 at 5:20 am

Good point, you put how I feel as a man about this facebook “gimmick” exactly, it is trivialising breast cancer and ignoring the other cancers we should all be more aware of.

Kez // Posted 11 January 2010 at 9:24 am

Kitty – I read that Barbara Ehrenreich article – thought it was excellent and something that needed saying. I haven’t experienced cancer, thank goodness, but I have experienced other health challenges and on occasion was ready to punch in the face the next person who told me to “just think positive”! Sometimes, you don’t want to think positive. Sometimes you want to rage and cry at the pain and unfairness, and not to be told that doing that is some kind of self-sabotage. I’m sorry for what your cousin (and you, and her other family and friends) are going through – I hope she comes through OK.

Breast cancer seems to be in a strange position as far as public awareness goes. On the one hand, it is almost certainly the most high-profile and most-publicised disease affecting women – far more so than those bigger killers of both sexes: heart disease, stroke and lung cancer. How many people know that more women develop and die of lung cancer than of breast cancer? Of course, awareness is hugely important, particularly in encouraging women to check their breasts regularly. But I’ve been disquieted for a while by the way in which it is almost seen, marketed in a way, as a “sexy” disease, with celebrities (usually young, attractive ones with nice breasts) posing in pretty bras – doubtless with the best of intentions – and people posting the colours of their bras on Facebook. I can only assume this relates to the way breasts are so sexualised in our society. As Abby points out, treatment for many women involves mastectomy – I don’t know how it feels for a woman who has just endured a mastectomy to see smiling celebrities prancing around in their bras to “raise awareness of breast cancer”, but I can imagine some might find this particular method of awareness raising – like the posting of bra colours on Facebook – both insensitive and futile.

Mair // Posted 11 January 2010 at 9:40 am

I assumed it was a prank started by teenagers somewhere on Facebook and I can’t see how on earth it could raise awareness of breast cancer.

It’s spawned some interesting posts though. I like this one on Feminzary:

JenniferRuth // Posted 11 January 2010 at 10:06 am

I got the message and I did not post my bra colour to facebook. I couldn’t see how posting the colour of my bra would “raise awareness” of breast cancer in any shape or form. It seemed to me that the entire “raise awareness for breast cancer” theme had been tagged on to the meme by someone at some point in order to try and legitimise asking women to post the colour of their bra (and therefore encourage more women to actually carry out the instruction of posting their bra colour).

I saw lots of “purple” and “lacy black” and “chocolate with cream stripes” on my facebook and I didn’t see any “dirty white with broken underwire”. I also didn’t see the following: discussions in comments under colour status updates about breast cancer, links to resources on how to check your breasts or information about donating to cancer research. I therefore remain very dubious about how much this meme benefits breast cancer awareness compared to trivialising it for a bit of titillation.

aimee // Posted 11 January 2010 at 10:23 am

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh! That’s why people are posting colours on their facebook statuses?! I think you’re right. This doesn’t really help. At all. I certainly wouldn’t do it. Mostly because I own only white, grubby white and black bras.

Elmo // Posted 11 January 2010 at 10:35 am

I feel its kind of dangerous to “gender” cancer- obviously breast cancer affects more women than men, but men CAN get it. I imagine it would be quite weird as a male sufferer to be surrounded by all this pink and glitter- like you had become an involutary member of a girls club (and one you weren’t very welcome in either). If you only target women as your market, by selling pink glittery stuff, then surely you isolate men, espcially those who are trying to support a partner or family member who has it. I also find it incredibly patronising the way breast cancer products are marketed- as if the public is only interested in supporting and giving money to it if they get a pink hairdryer out of the bargain. And can you buy pink lipgloss and earmuffs for cervical cancer? Or fallopian tube cancer? Pft, I dont really know, I just feel its wrong to try and market cancer as almost…fashionable.

Like Kez says, there are lots of other diseases which are killing many more women, (I think all the women in my family who died were killed by other cancers) yet because raising awareness wouldnt involve women doing marathons in their bras, there just doesnt seem to be as much publicity.

Rhi // Posted 11 January 2010 at 10:39 am

I think all your points are valid.

It was reading this blog entry though, that really made me realise how pointless and insensitive the ‘campaign’ was/is.

Kez // Posted 11 January 2010 at 11:01 am

Rhi – that’s a great link, thanks.

I particularly liked this: “this was ostensibly an effort to raise awareness of breast cancer — but one in which breast cancer survivors themselves could not participate, and were reminded (as if we needed a reminder) that we didn’t need bras anymore, that most basic undergarment of women everywhere, that symbol of sexuality, for the simple reason that we had already sacrificed our breasts in a hail mary attempt to keep the rest of our bodies from dying of cancer.”

And: “Time for a little less “awareness” and a whole lot of “action”: the time to act is now: address the causes!”


JennyM // Posted 11 January 2010 at 11:05 am

As a slightly off topic aside. Does anyone else feel slightly weird about the commercialisation of Breast Cancer? My hairdresser promotes pink hair straighteners, I can buy pink bras, pink anything that proport to raise money for breast cancer research – when, really, I’d be better off giving the money straight to the research charities. It’s weird to me that people will use a horrible disease to make money and increase their product “image”. Hmm.

Mephit // Posted 11 January 2010 at 11:09 am

It’s news to me that it was about bras at all – the explanation of colours as status had become knickers by the time it reached me – and any cancer awareness message had gone by the bye completely.

Holly Combe // Posted 11 January 2010 at 11:30 am

@Rhi. I reckon you’re right about Susan Niebur’s post at Toddlerplanet. In theory, the Facebook campaign could have got people thinking about the issues she discusses (and it looked, for a moment there, like it did) but, in practice, it just potentially alienates women who have undergone mastectomies and conveniently forgets about the important and apparently central issue in favour of something more “sexy” and palatable.

@Mair. Thanks for the Feminazery link. I think the first comment from Ms.Kitton brilliantly highlights the campaign for what it really is:

Mr.Kitton posted a status asking people to describe the colour of their morning dump to raise awareness of bowel cancer, and posted some statistics. No one has responded at the time of posting this, and I don’t think anyone will. Because bowels and faeces don’t sell calendars, face creams and give excuses to print pictures of jubblies. Or bikini car washes.

Jennifer Drew // Posted 11 January 2010 at 11:59 am

I’m waiting for Facebook to ask male members to post messages concerning the colour of their ‘knickers.’ After all prostrate cancer is a male issue is it not? But wait capitalising and reducing women to men’s sexualised commodities is now de rigeur is it not?

Of course the colour of female bras is a vital piece of information needed in respect of raising men’s awareness concerning breast cancer and it also provides male readers with sexual titilation knowing x woman wears x colour bras.

Patriarchy and capitalism exploits anything for profit and the most profitable way is to exploit women’s bodies and sexuality.

At the same time it neatly deflects attention away from the real issue which is to what extent man’s (and I use this term advisedly) exploitation of the environment has contributed with regards to the numbers of women contracting breast cancer. Heredity is not the primary reason but of course simple answers are always best because environment factors and common usage of chemicals in consumer products sold to women does not apparently have any connection whatsoever to the increase in breast cancer.

Well done Facebook – I can’t wait for your next excuse/justification in promoting women as men’s sexualised dehumanised commodities.

George // Posted 11 January 2010 at 12:10 pm

Bollocks to pink, fluffy, sparkly, sexy “breast cancer awareness”, and everyone smiling and giggling about boobs. Bollocks to this sort of ‘awareness raising’.

When we have sparkly tar-stained lungs, or even better, pink fluffy colon toys, I’ll start thinking of it as a appropriate response to cancer.

Until then, can we not just get straightforward, unsexualised, adult information about what we can do to prevent and treat cancer? No? Oh I forgot, boobies are involved. Yay, boobies!


Lorna Gregory // Posted 11 January 2010 at 12:25 pm

I really didn’t read it like this tho’ I would agree that the sentence about how long it would take men to figure out what it was about was at best childish.

I read it more as a post a colour, pass it on and then maybe someone who wouldn’t otherwise think to check their breasts for lumps might do so. As I did that evening. I’m not sure a simple message suggesting you check your breasts for lumps would have a had a simular affect.

Jilly // Posted 11 January 2010 at 12:25 pm

In my opinion this is trivialising the disease and I don’t see how it can possibly raise awareness. It simply continues the objectification of women’s bodies. I can’t imagine men being willing to do the equivalent to increase awareness of testicular or prostate cancer.

Kit // Posted 11 January 2010 at 1:35 pm

I think the concerns about the sexualising nature of this meme and how that’s insensitive and alienating to the women who’ve lost breasts to cancer pretty much sums up what I thought about it. So glad I’ve not seen anyone I know join in, but I think most of the women I know on facebook would soon set them straight if they did :)

Marina // Posted 11 January 2010 at 2:45 pm

What if one doesn’t wear bra at all, because she read that it increases the risk of breast cancer lol

Denise // Posted 11 January 2010 at 6:18 pm

I’ve seen both sides of this. My boyfriend got a Facebook message to raise awareness of testicular cancer by posting the color of his underwear. The same sexualized message was at the end about having women guess what the color status was all about. Interesting that I have seen a lot of debate on this but no mention of the men’s message.

I agree that this is an interesting discussion so I felt I should add some more info. :)

Schrödinger's cat // Posted 11 January 2010 at 6:51 pm

Totally agree! Unfortunately, this is nothing more than titillation and attention seeking. Particularly enjoyed the Feminazi blog thingy. It’s relieving to see that other women felt uncomfortable about this too.

Emma // Posted 11 January 2010 at 8:31 pm

Unfortunately, it’s spawned some really horrible stuff on fbook too. Go and report this group and see if you can get it deleted – I’ve seen nothing gone yet, including the truly horrible pictures.

These young men are my peers, and it makes me so sad and angry.

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