At the end of a long shift last month, I sat down beside the last customer to leave. He and his friend had just been at a conference about Movember.
Allow me to preface this with the following statement: I have no problem with Movember. I think anything that encourages the men I love to talk about mental or physical illness is extremely positive.
This man, however, the one sitting beside me, had forgotten the positives. He was angry... at women. "Men don't talk about their health," he told me. "Because the modern man is in crisis. He doesn't have a role any more."
I cleared my throat. Damned if I was going to let the fact that women have fought for the right to be more than vessels be blamed for the opposite sex's inability to talk about their health. He was talking as if men had once been great orators on their health, only to be thwarted by feminism and widening roles for women. I opened my mouth. My boss immediately intervened. "Don't get into this conversation," she warned.
He carried on talking anyway.
"You know what else? What's really difficult? Breast cancer," he said, "is sexy."
Wow. What is it, exactly, that is 'sexy' about breast cancer? Tumours. Mmmm. Mastectomies. Phwoar. Death. Bom chicka wah wah.
None of the above. Apparently, what is sexy about breast cancer, according to the Movember man, is...
He was vehement about this, as if Elizabeth Hurley should not be supporting breast cancer charities publicly. As if Hurley campaigning for further research into a cure for the cancer that killed her grandmother somehow made breast cancer more appealing; a 'sexier' cancer, that stole airtime from his poor, neglected prostate.
"Angelina Jolie," he continued.
On the subject of sexy, Jolie is widely deemed to be one of the sexiest women in the world. Her genetic predisposition to breast cancer lead her to undertake a double mastectomy this year. Cue an outcry from some doctors and various feminists, who believed that no man would ever elect to the removal of his testicles in prevention of testicular cancer. The move also threw the US healthcare system into sharp relief, against, for example, the French system, which favours the close monitoring of at-risk women above the removal of their breasts. Regardless of whether or not Jolie made the right decision medically, the choice to share her experience with other women was incredibly brave.
Reducing a woman to her sexiness is already misogynistic; but when the woman in question is raising breast cancer awareness? Come on.
I tried to give this man the benefit of the doubt. I've grown up in a society where breast cancer is talked about openly. I wondered how I'd feel if it wasn't; if the cancer that was most likely to affect me as a woman was only just beginning to be talked about, whilst prostate cancer had been the subject of charity runs and international ad campaigns for years. I supposed that must be how it looked to him.
I have several theories about why breast cancer is allowed to be talked about so openly. The first is less of a theory and more concrete, non debatable fact: feminism and the women's health movement removed many of the taboos from the subject. The Women's Field Army - an organisation for women battling cancer - was founded in the US in 1936. That's right; women have been laying the groundwork to get to this stage of talking about cancer for almost 80 years.
Women's health was a subject intensely focussed on in the 1970s, 80s and 90s by feminists who wrote prolifically on the subject. Before then, medicine was "a solid patriarchy", where women were treated as "small men who have babies". They were not expected to ask questions, or to attempt to instigate change, but to depend on health professionals - almost invariably men. Barbara Ehnrich, one of the feminists who campaigned in the Women's Health Movement explains,
"It is hard now to recall how revolutionary these activities once seemed, and probably few participants in breast-cancer chat rooms and message boards realize that when post-mastectomy patients first proposed meeting in support groups in the mid-1970s, the American Cancer Society responded with a firm and fatherly "no.""
Breast cancer awareness has come a very long way since then, and unfortunately, not without a fight.
Secondly - and I'm being tentative here - we are a culture that still rides, sadly, on a wave of gender stereotyping. According to society, it is still a man's role to father babies, and provide for them, regardless of what my conference attending friend might think. And breasts signify what was for so long the female societal role: child bearing and rearing. So what is a woman without breasts? Very little, say surgeons, as they stick balloons of silicone under flaps of flat chest. Unsexy, says the porn industry, as it zooms in on the aftermath of these silicone pumping procedures. Nothing, says Britain's best selling newspaper, as it immortalises a pair a day, keeping the UK print press afloat.
And what about a woman whose breasts have a fundamental flaw - a tumour, lurking underneath the tissue? That's worth talking about, society seems to say. There are more issues facing women than breast cancer; but giving airtime to the pay gap is not mutually beneficial. A threat to the breast, however, is a threat to society.
I can see why men might find it difficult that breast cancer gets such a big press, why they might throw around accusations of it being a 'sexy' cancer. It highlights a masculine downfall, something that men have to change; their stereotypical inability to talk about their health and their fears. It is all too easy to pin a lack of interest in prostate cancer on spotlight hogging women with their lumpen breasts. But in actual fact, the problem lies with men.
Are we really in a place Liz Hurley and Angelina Jolie - who, regardless of how sexy, are women, like every other woman on the planet - can be berated for taking to a public arena to discuss a type of cancer that predominantly affects women? Shouldn't my customer actually be berating Justin Timberlake and Ryan Gosling for not discussing man-affecting cancers more publicly? Why bash women for getting it spot on? Firstly, we've laid some pretty great groundwork for you, talking about our diseased breasts in public for the last 80 years. And consider the statistics; if you want airtime, you can have it. 74% of journalists are men. 90% of televised sport focuses on men. Women have been trying, and failing, to share some of that stage for years. So speak up boys. The world will listen; it always does, to you.