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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 07-Nov-2007

Edition: First

Section: News and Features

Subsection: Opinion

Page: 13

Wordcount: 882

Cheek of a red-hot cause puts others in the shade

Elizabeth Farrelly

October, it can hardly have escaped your notice, was pink-ribbon month. And although November is now decidedly upon us – witness the hyper-happy Christmas carols ejaculating prematurely from every Muzak nozzle – you still can’t bring in the junk mail without an avalanche of breast propaganda, all tight white T-shirts and tighter, whiter teeth, offering you a snow job.

Everywhere, the grinning ranks of pink ribbon pens, coffees and mineral waters; pink-ribbon Mustangs, Mixmasters and M&Ms; pink detergents, pink Filofaxes, pink Tim-Tams. Pink ribbon real estate agents and tax accountants and banks. Supermodels, or similar, donating their time and super-mammaries; entire businesses tithing to the unrefusable pink-ribbon cause. Pink is hot.

Which is nice. I mean, I like breasts as much as the next person. Well, maybe not quite that much. But they’re likeable objects and we all have a favourite pair, or two. But a whole month?

Other diseases are lucky to get a single roll of the planet. Daffodil Day, for example, which is meant to be the general onco-omnibus. Or Jeans for Genes Day, Red Nose Day, AIDS Day – whose stylish red insignia pink-ribbon day has so shamelessly copied. Then there’s all the days you didn’t know about, like International Motor Neurone Disease Day, Hemophilia Day, Stroke Day, Malaria Day and the slightly less lyrical Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Day.

The truth is there are more fatal diseases than days in the year, by a long shot. Entire phalanxes of serial killers don’t get a look in. Multiple Sclerosis for one. And what about Falling over Drunk in the Shower and Scalding Yourself to Death Day? Driving Headlong over a Cliff day? Sick at Heart day?

Breast cancer is a nasty, nasty thing. But it’s not our major killer, even among the cancers, even of women. According to the Medical Journal of Australia, ischaemic heart disease – featuring restricted blood-flow- kills five times as many Australians as breast cancer; stroke more than twice as many.

Breast cancer may be our dominant and deadliest female cancer, in absolute terms, but it also has a high survival rate (about an 80 per cent five-year survival rate). And women, anyway, outlast men. Lung and prostate cancer are more lethal, while the low-profile-to-the-point-of-shyness colorectal cancer runs pretty much neck and, well, neck with cancer of the breast. So, what is it with breasts? There’s sex, of course. But that’s not it. Women like breasts. Homosexual men like breasts. As random gay blogger Ergo notes, “There is still an unresolved issue. I know that even gay men like to admire big breasts on women – I know I do. I often catch myself doing a double-take on a hot, attractive woman with big breasts … why do I – a gay man – consider big breasts on women beautiful? Hmmm … they should do a study on this now.”

For Desmond Morris, of Naked Ape fame, breasts were a secondary sexual characteristic, a frontal analogue of buttocks. Their “purpose”, in evolutionary terms, was to encourage the missionary position, making for more durable relationships and enhanced offspring survival. This – call it buttock theory – may help explain the gay man’s affection for the breast, but there’s more.

Food, for one thing. Food is to sex as taste is to smell, different but inseparable. The breast, from our earliest moments, is the source of all bounty, and mammals, female and male, gay and straight, are hardwired for it. Take the newborn’s endearing “rooting reflex”, where the merest touch on the cheek drives the infant mouth nipplewards.

Not all cultures breastfeed, of course, and not all eras. But the ramifications are noteworthy. The medieval wet-nurse tradition worked as a sort of inverse tax. Not only did it spread both the physical and bonding pleasure from nobility to peasant but, via breastfeeding’s contraceptive effect, gave noblewomen more pregnancies and a higher childbirth mortality rate than their low-born counterparts.

But what about breast politics? Can we see October’s hardcore pink-ribboning as evidence that feminism is finally working? Breast cancer, while not exclusively women’s business, did kill 2641 Australian females in 2004, and only 20 males. Are we at last starting to value femaleness – rather than the quasi-maleness of corporate success – as a deep and enduring social good?

Well, no, not really. Any more than the 1960s use of female orgasm as a political football – if you’ll excuse the uncomfortable metaphor – took feminism anywhere it needed to go. Except perhaps to the bidet.

Breasts, common ground between Marys Magdalene and Mother-of-God, span the moral spectrum. The womb is every bit as female, but breasts? Breasts are sacred. Breasts are motherhood. Badmouth them at your peril.

Don’t believe me? Try getting Colorectal Cancer Month up and see how you fare. Movember may be our token men’s health moment, walruses appearing momentarily. But how many eastern suburbs estate agents are tithing to save the prostate? Or, for that matter, the planet?

But never mind all that. Let’s hear it for the mighty Boob, which may after all have yet-undiscovered functionality. Carbon sequestration, for example; CO2-for-silicone. Pumped-up floaties, two apiece, taking us to higher moral ground. Suck, if you dare, on that.


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