Too Cute for Comfort

Cutesy bracelets and T-shirts signify that the real breast cancer tragedy is the loss of a woman's sexual allure.

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Brianna Hawk, 15, left, and Kayla Martinez, 14, display their bracelets for photographers outside the U.S. Courthouse in Philadelphia on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013. The two teens have taken their fight over a school ban their "I (heart) Boobies!" bracelets to a U.S. appeals court. The Easton Area School District believes the bracelets have a sexual undertone that invites disruption in the classroom. But Hawk and Martinez say they merely hoped to promote breast cancer awareness at their middle school.

Is it lewd to let the world know you "love boobies"? Federal judges disagree. But they're missing the point.

A Pennsylvania judge ruled this month that two girls who wore pro-breast cancer research bracelets saying "I (heart) boobies" were within their First Amendment rights to express themselves on a social or political issue. Later in the month, an Indiana  judge concluded the opposite, saying:

The evidence in the record reveals a low maturity level at the school. The school could therefore reasonably conclude that the bracelet contained sexual innuendo that was vulgar within the context of North Side High School.

It seems awfully extreme to discipline middle-school students for wearing a bracelet with a word that is juvenile and a little offensive, but not remotely obscene. And it's great that the girls are already paying attention to an important health issue.

But the girls are not the problem. The issue here is why advocates for breast cancer research, early detection and treatment are sexualizing a disease.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on women in combat.]

With the cutesy bracelets and T-shirts saying "I (heart) boobies" or (worse) "Saving Second Base," the movement sends the signal that the real tragedy here is the loss of a woman's sexual allure – that it's not about her possibly dying, but rather maintaining the shape and equipment that makes her appealing to men.

It's cancer, for heaven's sake. Is the fact that it affects a woman's breasts so titillating to people that they find it hard to talk about it in a non-sexualized manner? Many men, if they live to a ripish age, will get prostate cancer. Should we come up with giggle-inducing references to saving men's reproductive parts.

The Indiana judge's decision was a chilling message about student's expression of free speech – though the bracelets hardly rise to the level of the black armbands students wore to protest the Vietnam war or the POW bracelets my generation wore in support of those lost in war. But still, the cases should open a dialogue in schools about respect for girl's and women's bodies – be it how they are described or how they are valued. It's not about saving "second base" for boys and men. It's about saving lives.