Censoring Speech to the Detriment of Women’s Health (“Boobies” Is Not a Dirty Word)

Breasts are part of our bodies; they nourish our babies, give us pleasure, and even bring us pain, from bouts of mastitis to life-threatening cancer. This week, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that the incidence of advanced breast cancer has increased in young women ages 25 to 39, demonstrating a need for early detection in a group in which many members do not realize their risk. To fight this disease, we have to draw attention to it, and in order to do so, we have to be able to talk about breasts using the words we are the most comfortable using, the words that will best convey our feelings about cancer, and the words we believe will spread the message most effectively.

I am in the middle of reading Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, a sobering look at cancer from a historical and personal perspective. In this book, Mukherjee gives the example of a breast cancer survivor’s unsuccessful attempt to place an advertisement in the New York Times for a breast cancer support group in the early 1950s. The Times informed her that they “cannot publish the word breast or the word cancer in its pages” and recommended that she “say there will be a meeting about diseases of the chest wall.”

While such outrageous censorship of supposedly “dirty” or “embarrassing” words is less common now than it was in the 1950s, it still exists to some degree, particularly in arenas related to adolescents and young adults.

For example, recently, we saw a group of researchers decry the use of mild profanity — including the word “boobs” — in adolescent literature (even for the age 14+ crowd), and just last week, I attended the oral argument before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in B.H. and K.M. v. Easton Area School District, a case stemming from a middle school’s ban on breast cancer awareness bracelets containing the word “boobies” (“I ♥ Boobies! (Keep A Breast)”). The Third Circuit, sitting en banc, will have to decide whether the word “boobies” as part of a breast cancer awareness campaign is lewd in a middle school setting and therefore unprotected speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

If the Court allows the ban on the word “boobies” to stand, the ruling would send the message that breasts are taboo and a shameful part of our bodies. It would suggest that a school’s interest in preventing an immature response from a handful of adolescents to the term “boobies” is more important than young women’s ability to talk about their bodies and raise awareness about a disease that affects almost a quarter million new women each year.

Breast cancer awareness must start with young women. With more attention given to this disease among adolescents and young adults, the hope is that fewer of them will develop advanced breast cancer in their 20s and 30s. Silencing this speech only places women at risk.

*The bracelets are available through The Keep A Breast Foundation.

***Here’s the UPDATE on B.H. v. Easton Area School District.

29 thoughts on “Censoring Speech to the Detriment of Women’s Health (“Boobies” Is Not a Dirty Word)

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  4. As usual, a very useful, interesting & timely post which elicited thoughtful responses. I live in a country where Breast Cancer Awareness is being promoted (campaigns etc) and the terminology is not at issue. What is at issue is getting the message across – in a country where literacy is not universal, this is more important than the wording.

    1. Interesting. Literacy is an issue here, too, and I wonder whether “boobies” is better for less literate adolescents because of how common the word is in this young population (whereas many families don’t use the word “breasts”). Thanks for your comment!

  5. I think the word is juvenile but it doesn’t actually bother me. It’s certainly not lewd! Sometimes using a juvenile word helps keep a serious situation from being too much to bear. And this is something that NEEDS to be talked about, not hushed up. People feel differently about it, and that should be okay. It’s important to remember the greater purpose is to raise awareness.

    (Btw, thanks for the thoughtful comment on my blog, I replied over there!)

    1. I agree! It’s certainly not a lewd word, and allowing a school to ban such an innocuous word would give them too much power over student speech. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. I expect to be howled down by this comment, but I’ll make it anyway. My question is: why don’t parents just teach their children, from the earliest age, the correct anatomical names for all body parts… breast, penis, vagina, womb etc…?
    We don’t give a leg, arm, nose etc a pseudonymn so why the difference when naming genitalia, and other body parts related to sexuality?
    With respect, Catherine.

    1. I agree with you. We use the correct anatomical names for genitalia in our house (which I talked about briefly over the summer in a post about a children’s book people thought depicted mating sloths: https://misfortuneofknowing.wordpress.com/2012/07/30/is-the-childrens-book-adorable-or-lewd-and-unsuitable-for-small-children/).

      I see the issue in the “I heart Boobies” breast cancer awareness case as different. There is a difference between disliking a word and banning it. The issue is whether a school district can prohibit students from using diminutive words for body parts in the context of a health awareness campaign. The fact that so many families use the word “boobies” instead of breast is probably one of the reasons the campaign appeals to a younger audience and is probably part of what makes it an effective message.

      Thanks for your comment!

  7. I understand what you are saying, but boobies is a word that I’m not fond of.
    Who says Boobies? Kids under 10 or lecherous old men. If a teenage boy is wearing a bracelet that says I ❤ Boobies, I'd be offended because he's not saying it to raise awareness for Breast Cancer – he's ogling a girl's body. The word is juvenile, and I guess I'd rather see it one of those words that goes the way of other offensive words. Use breasts instead.
    And do women says Boobies? I only picture men and little boys.

    I don't think it diminishes the fight against breast cancer or raising awareness to not have a room full of middle school kids giggling over boobies.

    1. If someone is using the word “boobies” inappropriately, then the school should discipline him, not silence the young women who are using the word to raise awareness about health.

      I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t agree that the word boobies is inappropriate. I see nothing offensive about it when used in this context. It’s no more offensive than the word breast is and probably no more likely to elicit an inappropriate response from the most immature members of a middle school class. We can’t base legal rules about censorship for everyone on the behavior of a handful of immature individuals.

      PS. I’m happy to see dissent here. Thanks for commenting!

      1. I’m not sure I’d agree with the banning of the word, but to my mind, the particular bracelet mentioned above uses the word “boobies” because, rhetorically, it is more controversial than just saying “breast.” Perhaps, if “boobies” became a commonplace word, the awareness campaign may feel the need to use a yet-more-provactive word, and then another line must be drawn. Is the T-word OK? The J-word? (Sorry to be so teachery here, but I’m a little afraid of using those words myself in a public forum.) It’s a tricky issue in a high school setting, like where I teach, because what many students precisely want to do is aggravate the disciplinary figures, and so students keep trying to push the boundaries (my school has stopped students from wearing “Hooters” restaurant t-shirts, alcohol-brand shirts, marijuana shirts, etc.). Part of me applauds the students for being willing to challenge authority, but another part of me wishes they’d take on a more-substantive issue, like the actual health issues discussed above. (Which some of our more-involved students do.)

        1. I disagree that “boobies” is more controversial than the term “breast.” The WLP amicus brief in this case (linked in the second to the last paragraph of my post) argues that “boobies” is an innocuous word that stems from its use in childhood. It’s the term that many families use instead of the word “breast.” Its common usage is part of what I believe makes this breast cancer awareness campaign an effective one for this young age group. As for the slippery slope argument, the court has to rule on the facts before it and the question is whether schools have the right to ban words that are, at most, ambiguously lewd. I don’t believe the T-word or the J-word are particularly offensive, but I haven’t seen the record in such a case.

    1. I agree. It’s ridiculous that people are so uncomfortable with such innocuous words for parts of the human body that they believe it should be censored. It’s one thing to teach your own children not to use such terms; it’s another thing to permit a school to ban everyone from using terms in an otherwise appropriate way (to raise health awareness).

  8. I am forever mortified by anyone that in this current culture climate can not just let some things just rest. 11 years ago my sisterinlaw died of Breast Cancer at the age of 33. She fought a couragous fight for 6 years. She and I were both having our children at the same time although she was abit younger than myself. When she died she left two boys that were 6 and 9 years old. They hardly remember her, but I remind them how wonderful a mom she was to them. They get it. Who cares if we call our breasts boobs or knockers or whatever else? Just make sure you know it is a part of the body that commands respect when it comes to our health. This rings true not only for women, but men too. I remember a few men who came in with “boob” cancer when I worked surgery..It was as traumatic for them as the women.

    1. Thanks for providing your perspective, Alesia. I’m sorry to hear that your sister-in-law died from breast cancer and at such a young age. You’re also right to make the point that it’s not entirely a women’s issue.

    1. Thank you! I think it’s a very good breast cancer awareness campaign, one that gets people talking about the issue and reduces the stigma associated with breasts.

  9. wow crazy stuff, didn’t realise people could take the use of a word in a school to court!!
    Really important message to get out there, health is so important.

    1. Thanks! This case is in federal court because public schools in the US are subject to the First Amendment (students have fewer rights in private schools). So, public school restrictions on student speech must meet constitutional standards.

    1. Isn’t that awful?! We’ve definitely come a long way since the early 1950s, though I do wish it weren’t necessary for our federal courts to determine whether “boobies” is lewd in 2013. I can understand how someone might dislike the word, but banning it is far too extreme.

I appreciate your comments (respectful dissent is welcome)!

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