It was the nipple seen ‘round the world. On Nov. 27, The New York Times ran a photo on its front page that showed a breast cancer survivor post-lumpectomy, exposing her scar and partially exposing her areola. The photo accompanied an article which explored the high rate of breast cancer in Israel and efforts to test for the cancer gene in the country. But somehow, the focus came down to one photo, which some found disturbing and offensive.
“These featured photographs of headless women, in quick succession, seemed more about selling the news by scandalizing and glamorizing women’s suffering. The pair of photos crossed a line for me — both ethically and aesthetically,” wrote Carolyn Connuscio, an assistant professor of family medicine and community health at the University of Pennsylvania, according to the Times blog.
It’s an argument that has been made time and time again: breast cancer — as horrifying and deadly as any other cancer — is somehow made light of and dwindled down to a discussion of sex when it should not be. In October, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, some campaigns were criticized for making light of breast cancer instead of treating it as the deadly disease that it is. The Breast Cancer Research Foundation refused a $7,000 donation from Simple Pickup, a group of young men who make videos about how to court women, after they raised the money by “motorboating” random women on the street. A breast cancer awareness campaign that invented “mamming” — the act of placing one’s breasts on inanimate objects and taking photos of it to embrace the awkwardness of mammograms — also drew criticism for a lot of the same reasons. And probably most notably, “I Heart Boobies” bracelets, which have been used to raise money for breast cancer research, are at the center of a case that may head to the U.S. Supreme Court after one school deemed the bracelets lewd and suspended two girls for wearing them to school.
But has the argument gone too far? The woman in the Times photo thinks so. The 28-year-old, who chose to remain anonymous, said that the photo was not meant to be controversial. Rather, she wanted to add a humanity to an issue that has impacted her profoundly as a woman of Israeli descent and a breast cancer survivor. She said:
When I first saw the photo I did not find it either provocative or inappropriate. I thought it was powerful and told my story — I am a proud, young Jewish woman who had breast cancer, and I have a scar that proves it. I am not ashamed or embarrassed by the scar. Most of my breast was not exposed and the small part that was does not make the picture "cheap." I think it’s very artistic.
I didn’t expect such controversy around the photo — but I’m glad the photo caused an impact since I believe that there should be more awareness about breast cancer, genetic testing, the conflict of “what to do” with a positive result, etc. (...)
So maybe the idea of a tiny bit of a nipple being exposed on the front page of a world-renowned publication isn’t so offensive when you look at it like that. The idea was to tell a story. And how can one show the reality of breast cancer without, at some point, revealing a breast? Besides, it is our culture that has sexualized breasts. Perhaps if we treated a breast like every other body part that is susceptible to cancer, then a nipple would simply be a nipple — and the story, not the nipple attached to it, would spur the debate.
To read the full article accompanying the controversial photograph, visit The New York Times.