Sexual Objectification

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Objectification: portraying people as objects (to be looked at, ogled, or touched), commodities to be purchased, used, discarded, or replaced, or any way that dehumanizes a person. 

Sexual objectification refers to the practice of regarding or treating another person merely as an instrument (object) towards one’s sexual pleasure, and a sex object is a person who is regarded simply as an object of sexual gratification.

See also: Beauty; Infantilization; Media Literacy; She-ro; Trivialization

When the pink ribbon was created in 1992 it quickly became an icon for breast cancer awareness and advocacy. As the focal point of a burgeoning health social movement, the pink ribbon promoted solidarity and visibility of the cause even as the pretty, pink, and non-threatening symbol evoked traditional gendered qualities such as nurturance, emotional connection, and feminine appearance. Public interest in the cause gave way to commercialization and an excessive array of feminine product placements—anything from jewelry, clothing and cosmetics to figurines, toilet paper, and pink appliances. Primarily functioning as a logo for the breast cancer brand, the pink ribbon helped to transform breast cancer activism into pink ribbon consumption.

Trending perfectly with a culture that commodifies almost everything, from the most intimate aspects of social life to the war on cancer, breast cancer advertising and a new genre of trendy awareness campaigns use sexual appeals as a way to get attention and raise money. Some claim to be educational, vital in the pursuit of a breast cancer cure, and instrumental in helping to save lives.

Sexy breast cancer campaigns are an extension of the broader context that already sexually objectifies women. They just do it in the name of awareness and fundraising.

Sexual Objectification of Women

One of the most common devices in advertising is the use of gender stereotypes that attribute specific traits to women as a group. Women are portrayed in a limited number of social roles (e.g., underrepresented in working roles but persistently visible as mothers and housewives), in decorative as opposed to functional roles, as lacking authority, as dependent upon others (especially men), as alluring and flawlessly beautiful, as the object of a societal gaze that judges women based on appearance alone, as sex objects, and as consumers of sex as the primary means to achieve happiness. What’s more, the sexual objectification of women and pornification across media and other entertainment outlets have increased substantially over time, a trend that corresponds with the rise of the internet, excessive advertising, and the use of shock value to break through the noise.

There are six sexually objectifying techniques commonly used in breast cancer awareness campaigns to get attention, raise money, and lure people to the Cause.

  1. Use women’s bodies as literal objects (canvases, ribbons)
  2. Hone in on the breasts (chest-level videos, animatronic boobs)
  3. Use objects in place of breasts (cupcakes, bowling balls)
  4. Objectify breasts with language (jugs, racks, funbags)
  5. Depict breasts as things to be touched or groped
  6. Show women as objects of the male gaze

There are numerous other examples of these sexually objectifying techniques in the marketing materials of fundraisers, charities, and public service campaigns. They use sex and women’s bodies (or parts of them) to sell products and ideas. Sexual objectification is the means to an end. But since advertising is an applied form of persuasion, the ends are not likely to include active thinking about breast cancer. Indeed sexy advertisements (even those oriented toward awareness) use nudity, physical attractiveness, and sexual content to tap into the unconscious—a space where attitudes, emotions, skill sets, and cognitive shortcuts work automatically. Advertisements draw upon sensory experiences, memory, and heuristics to create affective associations, not conscious scrutiny.

BCF Body paint1. Women’s Bodies As Literal Objects

A breast cancer awareness Body Paint Project involves the painting of breast cancer survivors’ nude bodies so they appear as animals, landscapes, superheroes, and other scenes. A portion of the proceeds is used for fundraising. [Two images from this project were shared here to illustrate this trend. They were removed at the request of the project’s creator.]

Other breast cancer awareness advertisements use similar body displays, such as the Breast Cancer Foundation series from Singapore featuring painted bodies that highlight exposed nipples as a key feature. This advertisement (right) objectifies both the breasts and the buttocks simultaneously. The woman in this Natrelle ad (below) is a body quite literally in the shape of a ribbon.

2. Hone In On The Breasts

Boobstagram compiles photos of women’s cleavage to raise awareness. A porn site offers to donate a penny to charity for every 30 “boob-themed videos” watched. Jingle Jugs for life sells adult novelties (i.e., animatronic boobs) that jiggle to music. An American Cancer Society (ACS) video frames women at chest-level (www.MakingStridesWalk/boobs).

And if there is any question that the American Cancer Society video is about anything other than breasts, just take a look at the URL given at the end of the video.

3. Objects In Place Of Breasts

Cupcakes, hooters, ribbons, and any manner of items stand in for actual breasts in awareness campaigns and fundraisers. Several “Bowling for Boobs” fundraisers use bowling balls to represent breasts, either showing them in a bra, using them to in place of the letter “o” in boobs, or featuring women holding them in front of their chests. Representations of breasts also stand in for actual breasts in many awareness campaigns.

4. Objectify Breasts With Language

Sexually objectifying imagery is reinforced with trivializing language that further sexually objectifies women. Here is a list of 138 slang words for breasts. How many of them are used in breast cancer awareness campaigns? Jugs, rack, melons, hooters, coconuts, funbags, headlights, cans, knockers, tatas, boobies, second base.

A “Save the Cupcakes” fundraiser for Susan G. Komen for the Cure sells gourmet cupcakes such as the Tatas Sampler with Java Jugs, Honeynut Hooters, Coconut Milkshakes, Mango Melons, Tangerine Tatas, and Rocker Knockers – “cupcakes created to look like all types of breasts from various ethnicities to sizes.”

The following “whatever the name” poster uses slang to create the ribbon and equates linguistic objectification with awareness itself.

5. Depict Breasts As Things To Be Touched or Groped

Health news and awareness campaigns typically feature imagery in which hands cup breasts.

Spice Girl Mel B and her husband Stephen Belafonte recently shot a new breast cancer awareness campaign reminiscent of Janet Jackson’s iconic ROLLING STONE cover. The campaign is for the UK-based organization CoppaFeel!, which targets women and men between 18-30 with messages about checking themselves for breast cancer.

“Feel Your Boobies” campaigns use similar strategies along with slang and chest-oriented objectification.


6. Show Women As Objects Of The Male Gaze

“Boobfest” features sleek women in black cocktail dresses. Las Vegas restaurant promises to “Save 2nd base” while providing an open bar to guests in pink bathing suits. The Real Housewives of Miami stage a lingerie party to raise money for Susan G. Komen for the Cure. A popular “Save the Boobs” public service announcement from the Canadian group Rethink Breast Cancer features an MTV host in a white bathing suit promenading in front of ogling young men.

The Save the Boobs video frames (below) focus on the woman’s bouncing breasts as she walks around a pool, flashes an awareness message, and then turns to a woman in the pool wearing a transparent wet tank top that she is about to pull off. Her nude breasts are covered with a black and white “boobyball” label. Called a “bold and fun” approach to breast cancer awareness, the images use the sexual objectification of women (a commonly used advertising strategy) to get attention.

Showing only part of a sexualized person’s body, with a reminder that Aliya-Jasmine still has a name.

Omission of Aliya-Jasmine’s name to hone in what is most important, a prized part of her sexualized body.

The public service announcement embedded within the video gives a semblance of legitimacy. This is really all about awareness.

The imagery quickly returns to the sexualized object.

Conflating the woman’s breasts with an advertisement for boobyball.

The “Save the Boobs” video focuses viewers’ attention to Aliya-Jasmine Sovani’s breasts (as opposed to Aliya-Jasmine Sovani or the actual disease that is the alleged focus of the awareness campaign. What are viewers “aware of” in campaigns such as this? The normalcy of women’s sexual objectification.


Beyond immediate distraction, sexy imagery has not been found to stimulate thinking. Advertising targets the subconscious, not the conscious.

Jeane Kilbourne, author of Can’t Buy My Love argues that women have been conditioned early on to believe that their physical attractiveness is the most important thing about them. Advertising reinforces the message that sexual appeal and physical perfection can and must be attained thereby playing upon an inner critic that incessantly desires approval. Sexy campaigns also support the notion that women – even those who experience bodily damage and trauma due to treatment for breast cancer—are less important than their sexual appeal.

report from an American Psychological Association task force (2010) found that even young girls are exposed to toys, video games, clothing, cosmetics, cartoons, youth magazines, music, and various programming that is rife with sexual slogans and imagery. As those little girls grow up, they will be exposed to breast cancer propaganda that offers them ta-tas t-shirts, boobstagrams, and porn hubs for the cure while it tells them to feel their boobies as a measure of breast health. The marketplace will also prime them to believe that choosing their objectification is empowering.

Women do learn to accept the seeming inevitability of sexual objectification. But there is also strong evidence that when it is internalized, sexual objectification contributes to a range of negative outcomes.

Sexual objectification is tied to eating disorders, habitual body monitoring, and body shame. It is linked to poor self-esteem, lack of self-confidence, limited self-worth, diminished life satisfaction, and depression. It is associated with declines in cognitive and physical functioning and contributes to sexual dysfunction. Sexual objectification also contributes to negatives attitudes about women that may lead to assumptions that only young healthy women have social value, or that women are stupid or incompetent, therefore incapable of leadership and political efficacy. Objectification that is sexual in nature fosters a cultural environment in which sexism, harassment, child pornography, rape, and violence against women are more easily accepted.

These Negative Effects Apply To Women Diagnosed With Breast Cancer

Without conscious scrutiny similar outcomes are likely to occur following a breast cancer diagnosis. Body monitoring, body shame, lack of self-confidence, diminished life satisfaction, and sexual dysfunction have been documented. Are these outcomes the result of breast cancer alone, or are they implicated by social pressures to conform to an idealized model of femininity and sexuality that pervades advertising, popular culture, and now a new genre of breast cancer campaigns?

Supporting a social cause oriented to women while undermining women’s status in society is counterproductive. But since advertisers want to tap into our unconscious minds, conscious scrutiny of media messages can help to mitigate the effects. Whether it is a Dolce & Gabbana ad that glamorizes male dominance or a breast cancer awareness campaign that sexualizes women while glossing over the realities of a serious disease, media literacy has become a necessary tool for the pursuit of gender equality and for the fight against breast cancer.

This information is derived from two articles by Gayle Sulik published on Psychology Today: “Do Sexy Breast Cancer Campaigns Demean Women?Awareness campaigns use multiple techniques to sexually objectify women” (Nov. 21, 2012) and “Sexy Breast Cancer Campaigns DO Demean Women. So What?” (Dec. 12, 2012).



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