by Molly Tack-Hooper, ACLU-PA Staff Attorney
I think about breasts a lot. They have been central to both my professional and personal life recently.
For the past two years, I’ve represented Kayla and Brianna, young women who defied their middle school’s ban on the Keep a Breast Foundation’s “i [heart] boobies!” cancer awareness bracelets, and were suspended for wearing the bracelets to school—on the school’s Breast Cancer Awareness Day.
According to the Easton Area School District, the bracelets are inappropriate. Although it took the school awhile to settle on a precise explanation, eventually the district claimed that the phrase “i [heart] boobies!” was a sexual double entendre because boobies—breasts—are an “inherently sexual” body part.
I beg to differ.
As a breastfeeding mother, half of Philadelphia has now seen my boobs. Dozens of doctors, strangers in coffee shops. All my friends. My whole extended family. My boss. None of these interactions was sexual in the slightest.
At their best, my boobs are miraculous. They dispense milk that is perfectly nutritionally balanced for my growing child. No cooking, no dishes; my body produces instant comfort food that is warm and ready to go whenever my son gets hungry.
At their worst, they are a source of intense pain, frustration, and embarrassment. Breastfeeding ain’t always easy, and it can take a hell of a toll on the nipples. My milk-laden boobs are often lopsided and leaky. (And don’t even get me started on breast pumping. Let’s just say I now have a great deal of empathy for dairy cows.)
My boobs are many things. Sexual? That’s not high on the list of adjectives I’d use to describe my lactating breasts.
So why would a school tell twelve- and thirteen-year-old girls that breasts are inherently sexual, and an inappropriate topic of conversation, even on Breast Cancer Awareness Day?
The school’s reaction to the bracelets—and its take on breasts, generally—is exactly what the Keep a Breast Foundation is trying to combat with its “i [heart] boobies!” campaign. The exuberant campaign seeks to start conversations with the bracelets, not only to facilitate the exchange of information about breast cancer, but also to empower young women to feel comfortable talking about their breasts. It uses the word “boobies”—a term so familiar and comfortable that it’s how many adults teach little kids to refer to breasts—because it’s notclinical. It’s not scary. And discussion of breasts should not be the exclusive domain of the health sciences, and it shouldn’t be intimidating. And it certainly needn’t be sexual.
Maybe things would be better if the Keep a Breast Foundation had been around when EASD’s lawyer and its middle school principals and I were growing up. Maybe then discussion of breasts by judges and middle schoolers wouldn’t elicit giggles or admonishment by adults. Maybe then writing a blog post about my own boobs wouldn’t feel quite so taboo. And maybe then no one would define breasts as mere sexual objects.
We can’t turn back the clock and improve on the breast education adults got when we were younger, but we can certainly stop standing in the way of progress. Our students deserve a safe space to discuss boobies.
This post is part of a series in honor of Women’s History Month.