Do you like Page 3? Or do you hate breasts and want them to have cancer? That is the dilemma that the Sun issues on today’s front page, where the paper announces a collaboration with the charity Coppafeel to promote self-screening among young women. The initiative is called Check ’Em Tuesday and it’s not so much a public health initiative as a war: according to the headline, it’s “PAGE 3 V BREAST CANCER”. So which side are you on?
It’s very sweet of the Sun to take an interest in my boobs. In fact, it’s downright incredible, since my boobs are basically anathema to Page 3: they’re had-a-couple-of-babies, been-through-a-few-years-of-breastfeeding, gained-and-lost-the-odd-cup-size, attached-to-a-30-something-feminist boobs. I mean, I like them a lot. We have good time together. But Sarah, 32, from Bath is not likely to make a topless visitation to the newsagents soon, or indeed ever (unless the Sun decides to give me the Clare Short treatment).
I don’t want to sound cynical, but consider this: the Sun’s concern for my rack may not be fully sincere. Page 3 is under pressure. The No More Page 3 petition has over 130,000 signatures, and there’s a growing feeling that a topless teen is not a good use of a page of newsprint. However much the Sun and its defenders want to cast Page 3 as a cheeky bit of fun or a charming Fleet Street tradition, women are taking a second look at it and coming to the conclusion that, actually, this is some sexist bullshit.
The biggest circulation newspaper in the country devotes more column inches to a salivating portrait of a pair of tits than it does to the achievements of, say, British sportswomen. What does that tell women about their place in the world? It tells them that their place is to look sexy, be quiet, stay young, make themselves available to male sexual interest – and if they can’t reach the requisite standards of perkiness then for God’s sake don’t try to force yourself on the public view, because this is no country for saggy women.
But there’s one thing worse than the limp tit in the Sun’s view, and that’s the absent one. That’s the problem with so much breast cancer awareness work: it’s all about the tit. Coppafeel’s founder has advanced breast cancer herself, and I can only admire the energy with which she’s devoted herself to raising awareness. Nevertheless, I cringe at some of the tactics the charity uses, such as sending runners round half-marathons with giant disembodied foam boobs joggling on their backs: you couldn’t really get a better example of the single-organ fetishism that pervades some breast cancer campaigns.
For the Sun, Coppafeel is a reason to put a gorgeous young woman on the cover giving herself a grope. For the women who get breast cancer, it not a sexy disease. It is painful. It is tiring. The women who contract it are not, for the most part, young and fresh-faced: they are middle aged and older. The treatment can be almost as unpleasant as the disease, invasive surgery may be required, and many women would die without a mastectomy – and it can be extraordinarily traumatic to lose a breast when you live in a culture that thinks a woman only exists if she’s got the wherewithal to fill a bra.
I wonder how much thought Sun editor David Dinsmore gave to those women’s feelings when he was signing off the front page. Did he realise that the Sun’s breast fixation might be an insult to these survivors? Or did he give any thought to those who have cancers every bit as menacing, but which tragically afflict only non-sexy organs: the cervix, the pancreas, the prostate? Of course not: this is a move of strictest self-interest from the Sun. Page 3 is a malignant growth of sexism on our press. If the Sun really cared about women, it would start by losing the boobs.