By Julie Michaud

A while back, someone asked me if I would like to participate in a topless photoshoot of women who’ve had breast cancer. I’ve been noticing an increase in these types of projects and at first glance they seem great. Women are proudly baring their scarred chests. They’ve survived, their bodies are changed and they are not ashamed. As someone who was pressured by her doctor to undergo breast reconstruction and didn’t (a disturbingly common experience among breast cancer patients), there’s something about this that is really appealing. But the thing is, the more of these photoshoots I see and the more I think about them, the more they make me almost as uneasy as the pinkwashing of just about everything under the sun in the name of breast cancer “awareness.” I declined to participate in the shoot but at the time I wasn’t able to really articulate what it was that made me so uncomfortable about the concept.

I’m going to try and do that now, but before I do I want to be clear that this isn’t about shaming anyone who has organized or participated in these types of projects. I understand that participating in something like this can be empowering on a personal level. The issues that I’ll be outlining are much broader than a few photoshoots; it just so happens that the photoshoots tend to play into these issues despite intentions to the contrary.

Body Positivity

The premise of topless post-treatment photoshoots is simple enough: women who’ve been treated for breast cancer who’ve lost part or all of their breasts because of it have lost what society views as the key signifier of womanhood. Because of this, for many women the loss of breasts can be a huge blow to self-esteem and the photoshoots aim to remedy this by broadening the concept of what is womanly and what is beautiful. All good so far.

The trend merits a comparison to a growing movement of fat women who proudly post photos of themselves dressed in revealing clothing (such as swimsuits that thin women can wear without question) or simply daring to look beautiful and unashamed. Sharing these photos online has allowed fat women and their allies to appreciate and celebrate fat women in opposition to normative beauty standards. But sharing these photos never elicits a purely positive response. Hateful people invariably take it upon themselves to post insults and slurs. Some who are kidding themselves about their hatefulness engage in “concern trolling” in which they shame fat women for being fat on the largely unsubstantiated basis that their fatness is bad for their health. As is the case in any pride movement among people who face this kind of hatefulness on the basis of their identity, putting yourself out there with the full knowledge that you will be insulted and demeaned is a brave act. 

The “Brave” Cancer Patient

Having cancer is a major hardship on many levels. And it does happen that people who have cancer face discrimination in finding or keeping employment when we are able to work (not to mention the impossibility of getting any kind of decent government support when we can’t work). While these types of situations are discriminatory, it’s not the same kind of virulent and sustained discrimination that generates hatred against particular identities. There are no slurs to describe cancer patients. Cancer patients are not viewed as lazy or fake or milking the system. Quite the opposite. Cancer patients are generally characterized as being brave, inspiring, and fighters. And while I wish it were so, we’re pretty much like everyone else. Some of us are brave and inspiring (for reasons entirely unrelated to having cancer) and some of us are not. It bears mentioning that this focus on cancer patients being brave actually creates additional stress in the experience of having cancer. Many patients put pressure on themselves to conform to this image, and feel bad about themselves when they don't succeed.

While I’m glad that women who’ve had breast cancer get much more praise than criticism for posing for such photos, all of this praise about being brave and beautiful feels hollow, and also entirely beside the point. It’s very odd to be undeservedly put on a pedestal while simultaneously being denied sufficient social assistance to get through the very ordeals that are supposedly making us so admirable. The individual suffering of cancer patients is held up as almost saintly and yet little is done on a collective (governmental) level to alleviate our very human suffering. Instead, the vast majority of collective efforts are channeled into charities that are mainly concerned with raising “awareness” about breast cancer as though being aware of breast cancer was really what breast cancer patients needed.

I’m fortunate to have received a great deal of financial help from my family and workplace to get through my experience of cancer because, let me tell you, fifteen weeks of Employment Insurance sickness benefits (at 55% of your regular income) doesn’t even begin to cover it. Celebrating a cancer patient’s scarred “after” body without political action to address obvious sources of carcinogens in our environment or provide adequate support to people going through treatment is really just the fetishization of suffering. In a manner that is not so far removed from the pink pep rallies that are the Runs for the Cure, these photoshoots can perpetuate the idea that breast cancer is not so bad and that at the end you are cured and you get to be part of a special and inspiring sisterhood. Instead of acknowledging the hardship we’ve been through and the lack of tangible support that could have made these experiences a bit easier (acknowledgement of an injustice being an excellent precursor to political action), some who’ve had breast cancer are lulled into feeling they’ve been adequately supported by the disingenuous praise that is heaped on them, and these photoshoots only encourage such hollow compliments.

The whole thing reminds me a little of a brief stint when I worked at a yoga apparel store several years back. The chain famously markets itself with a mixture of self-help platitudes and capitalist-new age law-of-attraction nonsense. But it went beyond just marketing. As employees, we were expected to have regular meetings with our managers to talk about our life goals; we were required to listen to crap motivational CDs on our unpaid time off; and, after working there for a year, could attend a free, notoriously brainwashy three-day conference to develop our “authentic self.” The idea was that the company truly cared about whether we would each develop to our full potential as human beings. A surprising number of employees actually fell for this stuff. They felt that because the company cared so much about our personal development it must be a great place to work. But the truth was, the pay was the regular low pay that you get working in retail, the company found clever ways to exploit us during our unpaid time off, and the managers treated us like thieves. It’s amazing what a little pseudo support can obscure. Be it a grand statement about a person’s bravery or a cursory interest in helping someone develop to their full potential, these types of gestures are ultimately just flattery and don’t actually do anything to improve a person’s quality of life.

Inspiration Porn

As my uneasiness with topless post-treatment photoshoots grew, I thought more and more about a TED Talk that had been given in June of 2014 by the late journalist, comedian and disability rights activist, Stella Young, and about how her ideas might apply to the case of women who had had breast cancer. In the talk she outlined what she termed “inspiration porn”: images that objectified disabled people for the purpose of inspiring non-disabled people. Examples included memes consisting of the image of a person with a visible disability participating in a sport with the caption, “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.” Or a similar image, this time with the caption, “Before you give up, try.” She explained that the images were designed to make non-disabled people feel motivated and to think to themselves, “Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person.”

“Life as a disabled person is somewhat difficult,” acknowledged Young, “Though not for the reasons non-disabled people tend to think.” Disabled people, like non-disabled people, learn to use their bodies to the best of their abilities and use adaptive tools and assistance when needed. What makes life difficult, she said, is living in a world that is designed in ways that exclude and marginalize disabled people (stairs that block wheelchair access, lack of closed captioning and braille, etc.).

She stated that the reason people routinely told her she was inspiring (without them knowing anything about her) is that we’ve been sold the lie that disability makes a person exceptional. Young noted that she did learn from other disabled people, but specified: “We are learning from each other’s strength and endurance, not against our bodies and our diagnoses, but against a world that exceptionalizes and objectifies us… I really want to live in a world where disability is not the exception, but the norm.”

When we show our scars we reveal something about our medical history. When women who've had breast cancer share their topless photos with the broader world in a context that makes our experience of breast cancer the central point, we invite the notion that there is something exceptional about us because of our diagnoses and our images become a kind of inspiration porn despite our intentions otherwise. In our day-to-day lives when we are clothed, our appearance doesn’t show that medical history. Once treatment has ended, most of us don’t present any evidence that we’ve had cancer, it’s just that we don’t look the way women are supposed to look. Many women who’ve had mastectomies without reconstruction report that people stare at them or even police their use of public washrooms (not unlike the way that trans and gender non-conforming people’s use of public washrooms is policed). By showing our scars in these photoshoots, we’re not so much saying “Fuck your gender norms” as “Please accept my different body because I had cancer.” We miss the opportunity to speak out about the individualism, sexism and transphobia that become so tangible in our society when our governments leave us to make do during major health crises and when individuals mock or misgender us after our surgeries. Instead of focusing on the way that our sexist, transphobic and ableist society marginalizes us, we allow others to voyeuristically marvel at the fact that we don’t hate ourselves now that our breasts have been removed or injured. In our effort to gain acceptance for our changed bodies, displaying our cancer scars sets us apart from trans and disabled people rather than linking our shared struggles against paternalistic healthcare, the underfunding of social programs, and narrow conceptions of what bodies “should” look like.

This isn’t a plea for modesty. Rejecting the idea that women are supposed to feel bad about how we look is a wonderful thing. By all means, share photos of yourself in whatever state of dress or undress you choose, but if you have had an experience of cancer, I urge you to reject the tired platitudes that attribute heroism to you just because of your cancer scars. Point out that seeing how cancer patients must struggle to figure out how to make rent or put food on the table while they’re wiped out from treatment shouldn’t inspire anyone—it should make them angry. And more than compliments, we need a health justice movement to fight for the things we need in order to live as well as we can during our experience of cancer. So much needs to be done to ensure that people who are struggling with major health issues get the support they need: not the empty support of pink pep rallies and private philanthropy, but real, accessible social programs that allow us to live as well as we can when we aren’t well; medical research that isn’t swayed by profit motives; and respectful care from our medical teams that embodies the principles of intersectional feminism. We have a lot of work to do and getting distracted by hollow praise won’t help us get what we need.