Does The Sun’s Check 'em Tuesday campaign raise awareness or just set up a sexy breast cancer blame game?

The Sun-Check-Em TuesdayBritain’s best-selling tabloid newspaper, The Sun launched a new campaign called “Check ‘em Tuesday” using topless models to promote breast self exam (BSE) as a way to “spot disease early.” The front page headline “Page 3 V Breast Cancer” features a topless twenty-two-year-old woman named Rosie, from Middlesex. Rosie strikes a similar pose on the page 3, this time revealing her right breast completely.

The Sun’s infamous “Page 3” has published bare-breasted-pin up girls since the early 1970s when Rupert Murdoch first bought the paper. But a petition to remove topless images from Page 3 because it is demeaning to women led to boycotts.

By aligning with a breast cancer “awareness” campaign, is The Sun just trying to assuage angst about the negative social implications of sexual objectification?

The negative consequences of sexual objectification for individuals and society are clearly documented, and sexual objectification of women across media and other outlets have significantly increased with the rise of the Internet and excessive advertising. Opponents of images such as The Sun’s Page 3 understand that such sexual objectification fosters a cultural environment in which sexism, harassment, rape, violence, and negative attitudes about women in general are more easily accepted and internalized. They argue that the real target of the Sun’s crusade is not breast cancer but the feminists that have started the No More Page 3 petition to demand the removal of soft porn from the publication.

What some of the opponents of sexual objectification have failed to see, however, is that there is a new type of breast cancer campaign that does the same thing, sexually objectifies women to get attention and sell products. Some of the breast cancer campaigns compile photos of women’s breasts or cleavage, depict breasts as things to be groped, objectify breasts with language (hooters, melons, tatas), or otherwise prioritize women’s sexual appeal over everything else. Slang and chest-oriented objectification are common in the “Feel Your Boobies” awareness genre, but these groups usually get a free pass because they do it in the name of a good cause. The Sun wants that free pass too. So it teamed up with the UK-based breast cancer charity CoppaFeel!

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The Boobettes, from Coppafeel

Coppafeel’s name references the slang phrase “cop a feel” — to feel a woman’s breasts or buttocks usually when she is not expecting it — to target women and men between the ages of 18 and 30 with messages about “checking their boobs” for breast cancer. As a sexy breast cancer campaign, CoppaFeel is a perfect partner for The Sun’s six-month Check em’ Tuesday campaign to “boost early detection” and “save lives.” The Sun will publish topless women on Page 3 every week as a reminder of the importance of being “boob aware,” and Coppafeel will reinforce that sexual objectification is fun and trendy.

Young “Boobettes” on the group’s website grip their clothed breasts as a sign of female empowerment as the website’s header image features youth leaping for joy amid book-ended beach balls fashioned into the shape of breasts with hot pink nipples.

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Header Image from Coppafeel website

Coppafeel and other sexy breast cancer campaigns encourage young women to be enthusiastically empowered by their objectification.


But it’s not only about sexual objectification; Show me the awareness!

Critiques of sexual objectification in popular media and awareness campaigns are worthwhile in their own right. But even some feminists who have opposed Page 3 on these grounds seem to have bought into the idea that the Check em’ Tuesday campaign is about something important and potentially life saving: “It would be wrong to wish this campaign anything other than success.” But as Sarah Ditum writes in The New Statesman, Check em’ Tuesday is “not so much a public health initiative as a war: according to the headline, it’s “PAGE 3 V BREAST CANCER.” So which side are you on?” Yet regardless of whether one chooses Page 3 or the war on breast cancer, there is no evidence that supports “boob checking” as a way to find breast cancer early or reduce deaths from the disease. The hype about being “boob aware” is just that; hype. And it doesn’t save lives.

Breast self examination has for years been discredited as a breast cancer screening tool. The National Cancer Institute and the World Health Organization confirm that BSE does not lead to early diagnosis or mortality reduction, and the US Preventive Services Task Force actually recommends against teaching the practice altogether. Yet some groups now recommend a newly repackaged euphemism for BSE, the novel practice called breast self-awareness (BSA).

BSA, loosely defined as “knowing what is normal for you,” is usually bundled with advice about knowing your breast cancer risk, getting screened at a particular age, and making healthy lifestyle choices. Not bad directives in general terms (though screening via mammography has been called into question as a population screening tool). But the message to “do boob checks regularly” because  they “may save your life” is scientifically unsubstantiated. Using the word “may” as a nod to this contrary evidence does not lessen the harmful impact of a campaign aimed at persuading people to “just do it.”

In fact, one day after The Sun’s launch of Check ‘em Tuesday” (Mar. 4, 2014), the official journal of The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists published a commentary on the evidence behind BSE and BSA confirming, once again, the lack of evidence about the efficacy of the practice. In addition, the authors warned that BSA might be less than empowering for women than the campaigns claim. “A persistent emphasis on self-awareness,” write the researchers, “provides the individual with a strong message of self-blame when cancer does occur.” When a person is made responsible for self-surveillance as a life-saving measure then the diagnosis of illness is set up to be a consequence of personal negligence.

The Sun further characterizes women as irresponsible in its reporting of findings from an unspecified poll that women “check their WEIGHT far more often than their breasts [and] just under half (48%) wouldn’t go to the doctor if they thought they had found something.” It is unclear how these behaviors warrant comparison. In a body conscious, weight conscious society people weigh themselves, sometimes too much, because we are primed for self-surveillance. Furthermore, there is no evidence that women fail to seek medical intervention when they suspect a problem. Women use health care services more than men.

In addition to sexually objectifying women and aligning with a breast cancer charity to justify it, the Sun is claiming that women simply do not care enough about their health to intervene and protect themselves from breast cancer. In line with Neoliberal ideology that shifts the responsibility of safeguarding human health from the greater society (and the State) to the individual, campaigns like Check em’ Tuesday frame health not as a basic human right but as a personal duty. In the case of breast cancer the duty consists of downstream solutions such as getting screened and being breast self-aware while avoiding looking upstream to tackle environmental and other systemic causes of the disease.

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Grazia De Michele PhD is an Italian-born researcher and historian currently living in the United Kingdom. Her doctoral thesis, “‘At the gates of civilization’: Southern children in Turin primary school from the 1950s-1970s,” analyzes the social construction of Southern migrants’ children during the post-war period. Grazia was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 30, during the final year of her doctoral work. She had no family history of the disease or genetic predisposition. As an historian she is skilled in analyzing dominant discourses. Following her experience with breast cancer, Grazia is particularly committed to unraveling those surrounding the disease. In May 2011 Grazia started the Italian blog Le Amazzoni Furiose (The Furious Amazons) to raise awareness among Italian women about the need to change the conversation on breast cancer and promote research into the systemic issues contributing to the epidemic. She also contributes regularly to the twitter hashtag #BCSM – breast cancer social media. Grazia De Michele finished her PhD in August 2012. Grazia De Michele and Cinzia Greco are co-editing a special issue of the BCC newsletter, Demystifying Breast Cancer, which highlights compelling stories typically missing from the broader breast cancer narrative. Read Grazia De Michele’s Portrait »

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