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Growing up in a small Gujarati town meant that I became aware of my breasts only when my body hit puberty and they started making their outward journey in earnest. In my teenage years, breasts were looked on as an inconvenience, something of a womanly burden! I only dealt with them in the shower and when shopping for bras.
For a lot of people who possess breasts, these organs remain a weird enigma. They are high maintenance, they invite a lot of attention, their nipples get tender during menstruation, and in more conservative cultures, they remain fiercely hidden.
As we grow up and start realising more about our bodies either generally, or through masturbation or sexual relations with a partner, we start noticing the wide gap in our awareness of this organ. This acute lack of information during younger years puts us at a disadvantage not just in terms of pleasure and care, but also when it comes to looking out for signs of potentially life-threatening conditions like breast cancer.
Recent reports have pointed out repeatedly that this lack of awareness is fuelling breast cancer cases on an epidemic level, especially in India. A University of Portsmouth report quoted in The Indian Express mentions, “As many as 70,218 Indian women died of breast cancer in 2012 and deaths from the disease are predicted to increase to 76,000 in 2020 with an average age of incidence shifting to 30 years from 50 years.”
These statistics should scare us into thinking, what stops us from knowing more about our breasts? Here are some factors:
- Shame – In traditional cultures where most open conversations around periods and sex remain taboo, even mothers sometimes do not possess the tools to educate their children about breasts. When they start growing, you are handed a dupatta. This is often the first signal that breasts are shameful organs that should not be paid too much attention to unless something is wrong with them.
- Sexual Organs – In teenage years or during the period that one starts to become sexually active, breasts suddenly pop up into one’s consciousness as highly sexualised organs. From pornography to teen flicks, breasts suddenly seem like they are everywhere. They become partner-pleasing instruments that need to be soft, perky and covered in fancy lingerie, instead of being parts of our bodies that we should touch and feel often to look for lumps or unnatural spots.
- Gender Roles – Women in many families often ignore their health and wait for the absolute last moment to seek help. Their conditioning makes them view hospital expenses as a burden they should not impose on their families. And even when a check-up becomes essential, there is a strong resistance to it because disrobing in front of a doctor, especially a male one, is beyond comprehension. These factors are directly responsible in putting many women at risk as they prevent early detection which can literally be a life-saver.
- Slang Marketing – Every culture seems to have invented colourful slangs to avoid saying ‘breasts’ – tits, tatas, fun bags! This kind of linguistic couching further alienates us from understanding our breasts as they are. Even marketing campaigns that aim to raise awareness about breast cancer often miss the mark because they rely more on slang terms and symbols like ribbons and the pink colour to make the issue more palatable. The result – the issue’s seriousness gets side-lined and it all becomes performative. A cancer patient from Los Angeles said this in a news report, “I’m grateful for it. Not a lot of diseases have this much awareness. There’s such a spotlight on it. But it’s also hard. All the pink… it’s cute. But it’s not a cute thing to go through.” (https://www.cbsnews.com/news/breast-cancer-why-some-patients-keep-diagnosis-private/)
So, what is the way forward? Just simply, more awareness at the family level first. We need to talk more about breasts, exchange information and build a healthy support system at our homes. Involving men in the conversation is critical because not only can they help women with early detection and diagnosis, but they also need to know about their own risks of developing breast cancer.
Breast cancer awareness has also shown to be more effective when it is led by local nurses at the community level, and not by marketing agencies. Breasts – their varied shapes and their varied functions – need to find space in school textbooks so that the shame attached to them never grows.
Lack of awareness about breasts is, more often than not, a cultural thing. To improve the situation, we need cultural solutions, along with medical ones.
Author: Shruti Sharada is a freelance writer, editor, communications strategist, podcast host, and queer feminist based in Bengaluru, India. She curates ‘The Feminist Reading List’ page on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TheFeministRL