THE BLOG

Does Page 3 Increase Women's Awareness of Their Own breasts?

06/04/2014 14:23 BST | Updated 06/06/2014 10:59 BST

The medical profession spoke this week in a BMJ article which called into question the Sun's Page 3 Vs Breast cancer campaign. They are by no means the first to do so.

Working as a nurse for 20 years has taught me that the vital theme running through all good care and medicine is evidence. Every change in practice, every new drug or treatment, every public health campaign must have evidence at its heart. So important is this that the governing bodies insist upon it and assess hospitals and surgeries accordingly.

What the Coppafeel campaign had at its heart was the grief and determination of a woman who wanted to help others, to reach as many as she could before her own life is lost to cancer. The emphasis is not surprisingly based on life experience rather than reams of medical evidence. Like the best campaigns it came from the passion that feeling so deeply affected by something yourself can bring.

Then The Sun came along.

After over 18 months of growing realisation that No More Page 3 was having increasing success in raising the debate and public awareness of the problematic nature of the objectification of women in a daily newspaper, the Sun's aim in approaching Coppafeel was to hang the feature they knew no longer had any justifiable reason to exist on a good cause. To find a renewed purpose for Page 3 that they could hide the sexism and exploitation behind for a while, something that seemed faultless. They found this.

As a newspaper, their role is to inform; it could be argued that these journalists and editors had a responsibility to ensure there was some evidence underlying their proposed health awareness campaign, that the message to their readers would be the right one, would reach those most at risk, would be put across sensitively and with understanding and consideration of the survivors and family members of deceased breast cancer sufferers who might be expected to feel some emotional response to such a wide-reaching awareness campaign. It should have been evidence-based.

Instead, the words Page 3 v Breast Cancer were plastered across the front page along with a huge image of a Page 3 model in nothing but her pants. Widely displayed across shops and supermarkets, it caused many complaints. Some supermarkets turned the paper over, some ASDA stores removed all copies from the shelves, and the reminder of the existence of Page 3, along with the shock many felt in having breast cancer associated with soft pornography, saw No More Page 3's signature count rise by over 50,000 signatures.

'Check-em Tuesday' may have increased the conversation around breast cancer, but aside from the controversy about self-examination, the one conclusion that the BMJ article, GPs, specialists, survivors and campaigns all appear to agree on, is that it is awareness of one's own breasts, of what is normal for you, that is most vital in the early detection of breast cancer and in increasing the chances of successful treatment and survival.

Knowledge of and comfort with our own anatomy is what allows women the confidence to feel able to expose their breasts to a GP and to tell them that something has changed. It is a simple concept that could be said of all body awareness and of all cancer and illness. The more we are happy to look at our own bodies, the more we will feel the changes that may happen, be that a lump or blemish to the breast or a subtle change in bowel habit that may suggest bowel cancer. This body awareness may come from seeing more varied human nudity and variations in shape and size which would help us see ourselves as normal, but will it come from Page 3?

For 43 years this sexual image of a narrow, young, female body type has invited the reader to have a cheeky peek at sexy 'Kelly, 22 from Brighton.' Clearly intended for the male gaze, how does this help women to recognise the normality of our own breasts? How does it remove the taboo of looking at, touching or revealing them to a doctor?

I can't think of a single thing in my own life that has made me less comfortable with, less confident about, and less aware of my own breast anatomy than Page 3. The only awareness this image gave me throughout childhood, adolescence and adulthood was how inadequate my breasts might be by comparison, and how much that affected my identity as a woman and a sexual being. Page 3 made me less likely than ever to look at my own breasts in a mirror except to despair, less likely to want to touch them or let anybody else see or touch them without embarrassment. Later in life, after breastfeeding my children and the changes this caused, it ensured that I looked at my own breasts as little as possible, and that my then husband had little opportunity to spot anything abnormal because, despite being proud of the rest of my body, I would rarely remove my bra unless the lights were out.

In our breast-obsessed society an increasing number of women turn to surgery (the only thing a woman can ultimately do to change the size and appearance of her breasts); perhaps increasing confidence, assuming the outcome is good, but also resulting in breasts which will no longer feel anything like "normal" due to a combination of implant, scarring and displaced tissue. Post-augmentation patients are warned that even a mammogram may not detect abnormalities, as silicone can obscure areas of breast tissue.

The only breasts that The Sun and Page 3 continue to make us aware of are the ones they showcase every day. The "sexy", supposedly normal, very young, large and apparently attractive breasts. The ones that for so many women, rather than helping us know our own, make us want to hide them instantly behind folded arms, gel bras and push-up padding and, in an increasing number of cases, eventually behind several hundred grams of silicone!

Page 3 is not about breast cancer awareness, it is soft-pornography, and the evidence would suggest that it has no place either in body confidence or in health promotion.