Pic: Breast cancer survivor Angie Jones
“The McGrath Foundations ‘partnership’ with Honey Birdette ultimately makes it harder for women to talk about breasts and breast cancer because it equates breasts with sex, not health”
I am currently waiting for a breast biopsy on a malignant breast lump that has returned after previous surgery, in a public hospital system overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
I hesitate to talk about my two brushes with breast cancer, because even in 2021 it is still awkward to talk about breasts. Even when we talk about breasts in the context of health, we are still undoubtedly aware that are breasts are a primary female sex organ. Breast talk usually ends in self-deprecation and snickering. Even among women.
I especially don't like talking about my own breasts in front of men.
Nobody wants women to talk about saggy, scarred, disfigured or missing breasts. They aren't sexy enough. People only seem to want to talk about sexy breasts and, apart from with our partners, that is rarely appropriate. It's too easy for men to sound creepy when talking about breasts.
So most of the time we don't talk about breast health, even with male family But then we may not get the support we need. And it's easier for men to forget breasts don't just exist to be sexy!
My parents' generation and every generation of women before them, lost women to breast cancer. Until recently breast cancer, its treatment, and the consequences of that treatment, were spoken about privately and in hushed tones. Just like public breastfeeding, which is now protected in law, women still hesitate to do, there is still awkwardness about bringing breasts, in their purely functional or anatomical context, into the public sphere.
Yet breasts are all around us: perky, enhanced, objectified, sexualised. On billboards, on television, in magazines, and everywhere you look online. Sexy Breasts. Everywhere!
But there is nothing sexy about breast cancer.
There is nothing sexy about breast exams, mammograms, ultrasounds, biopsies, cancer gradings, surgery, scars, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, nausea, reconstruction or prosthetics. There is nothing sexy about being scared you are going to die.
Or about wondering if you don't die, whether your partner still finds you attractive, or if you haven't got a partner, whether you will ever find one with disfigured or missing breasts. Or ruminating over whether you will be able to breastfeed your real or hypothetical babies.
Even when we see our own breasts as no different to any other organ or limb we are still hyper aware of their inexplicable link to female sexuality. Breasts are one of the things that distinguish us as female – they are synonymous with female bodies. The disfigurement or loss of a breast can be catastrophic for women's self-esteem.
Even when we are so sick or tired we don’t give a damn whether anyone finds us attractive we don't want to lose our breasts and what they represent to us as women, as uniquely female.
To enable women to talk more freely about breast health, we need to normalise talking about breasts in the context of health and not just sex.
Jane McGrath was an attractive blonde English expat married to a famous Aussie cricketer.
She died of breast cancer in 2008 aged only 42.
You didn’t have to be a cricket fan to have heard of Jane. It seemed so unjust that such a dynamic and charismatic young woman, a mother, would be struck down in the prime of her life by breast cancer. Jane was so eloquent and dignified in the way she spoke about her disease. She came out from the shadow of being a ‘Cricketers Wife’ to becoming one of the most formidable advocates for Women's Health this country has ever known.
The entire country was talking about breast cancer as Jane fought, and the entire country grieved when Jane died. Jane's Legacy was The McGrath Foundation, a charity set up to raise breast cancer awareness and provide specialist nurses for breast cancer patients.
Almost two decades after Jane's death, the McGrath Foundation is still one of Australia's most respected charities. Jane and her foundation paved the way for women like me to talk more freely about our journey and have better access to treatment.
That is why it was so upsetting for me to see the McGrath Foundation come up in my Facebook feed as in partnership with the Playboy-owned lingerie brand Honey Birdette which promotes female sexual degradation through BDSM and up-skirting depictions of women playing tennis in its shopping centre display windows. A company which has been accused of sexually objectifying and under-paying its young, female staff. And a company which displays pornographic images in public shopping centres.
The McGrath Foundation's ‘partnership’ with Honey Birdette ultimately makes it harder for women to talk about breasts and breast cancer again because it equates breasts with sex, not health. It also drags Jane McGrath’s truly honourable legacy down to the realms of selling sex toys and pornography. I didn't know Jane personally but, as a woman and fellow traveller on a different branch of the same journey, I believe Jane deserves more dignity than that.