Keep your kit on for charity

For anyone who has recently been shocked by a preponderance of pink products in the shops (is it a trend? What does it mean? Have you succumbed to a rare strain of colour blindness?), fear not. Here and across the pond, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. This means both the hawking of pink teddy bears, dresses and cosmetics, and major charity events such as the online extravaganza "Boobie-Thon 2006".

Haven't heard of it? Well, the Boobie-Thon has been running annually for five years now, and features more than a thousand female (and a few male) bloggers posting photographs of their disembodied breasts on a dedicated website. For a $50 fee, committed boob-watchers can access these images, with the proceeds going to a breast cancer charity.

Which set me thinking: is anything acceptable so long as it's for charity? After all, it's not just the Boobie-Thon - in the past few years, using female nudity as a fundraising tactic has become extremely popular. Examples range from the benign (surely no one could really be incensed by the now-infamous Women's Institute calendar) to some much more iffy examples.

One of the mainstream pioneers has been the animal-rights charity Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals). Over the years, its "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" campaign has featured many famous women - Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell - all smouldering sexily for the camera. And recently Peta has been at it again. In June, the Hollywood actress Pamela Anderson, a long-time supporter, posed naked in the window of Stella McCartney's London shop, while last month Sadie Frost was photographed naked from behind, urging us to turn our backs on fur (geddit?). This approach has allowed critics to accuse Peta - that great enemy of meat products - of using women as pieces of meat.

In defence of its campaigns, Peta argues that the organisation is staffed "largely by feminist women" and that it has run "naked" adverts using men, too. Yet the few campaigns featuring men generally have a very different tone (one featured the hirsute American comedian David Cross camping it up, with the tag line "Wear your own fur").

Some of Peta's other campaigns also give the lie to its "pro-women" stance. Trying to convince people not to drink milk, it recently devised a video clip called Milk Gone Wild. Taking off the American phenomenon Girls Gone Wild (a series of "reality" DVDs of drunken college girls getting naked in bars and clubs), it features assorted models lasciviously pulling up their tops to expose . . . huge prosthetic udders. I have no clear idea what this is supposed to achieve, other than a comparison of women to cows.

In the case of fundraising for breast cancer awareness, the Boobie-Thon is far from alone in using women's naked breasts to plug the cause. From China to South Africa to the United States, there have been campaigns involving young models/actresses/celebrities going topless. This year, a charity distributed a mouse mat featuring a photograph of a pair of perfect breasts to all internet cafés in Hong Kong.

Of course, fundraising for breast cancer causes is hugely important. The disease affects 41,700 women in Britain each year, and kills 12,400. But is getting women to expose their breasts really the best approach to fundraising, or to raising awareness? The American commentator Barbara Ehrenreich, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2000, has attacked the infantilisation and feminisation of the disease - the pink products, the teddy bears. The sexualisation of the disease is also pernicious. On the plus side, it's an approach that attracts many celebrity supporters (much sexier to be associated with breast cancer than with cancer of the colon or liver or lungs, or heart disease - all major health issues for women, too). However, research shows that understanding of the disease among the most severely affected group, older women, is much lower than it should be. That can't be helped by so many of the "faces" of the disease being in their twenties and thirties.

Robyn Pollman, the Florida-based founder of the Boobie-Thon, has said that "sending a message that 'if our breasts are worth looking at, they're worth saving' is very empowering". Here, inadvertently, she gets to the crux of the matter. Part of the reason why breast cancer attracts so much more attention than other causes is that our culture really does value women's breasts - often apparently more than it values women in general.

Although raising money for breast cancer research is hugely important, and can be done brilliantly (I particularly like Breast Cancer Care's 41,000 Faces campaign, which aims to collect the photographs of 41,000 people who have been touched by breast cancer, representing the number of British women diagnosed with the disease each year), using hugely reductive images seems unhelpful. Until we women are appreciated for rather more than our boobs, we can surely find more interesting, more inventive and less harmful ways to raise a buck.

Kira Cochrane is Guardian women's editor