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On Julyna (or: How I’d Like to be Cancer AND Patriarchy Free)

July 11th, 2011     by Beth Lyons     Comments

July is apparently now “Julyna.” I found this out a week ago, when the word popped up on my Twitter feed. Initially, I ignored it (I ignore a lot of stuff on Twitter). Then it kept appearing. When I finally muttered “What the fuck is Julyna?” out loud, I realized the word rhymed with vagina and figured I was going to have to read up on it.

And read up I did! Julyna actually owes its inception to Movember, an event in which (typically) male-identified people grow moustaches throughout the month of November–hence the charming portmanteau “Movember”–to raise awareness and funds for men’s health issues such as prostate cancer and depression. Movember has proven to be very popular, especially with we young folks who are into ironic fashion. Anyway! Last Movember, a group of women were discussing how cool it be would be to start a similar charity to raise money for cervical cancer. Enthusiasm and word play ensued; months later, Julyna was born!

But what is exactly is Julyna and how does it work? It’s basically a campaign in which women raise money throughout the month of July and donate the proceeds to the Canadian Cancer Society in order to combat cervical cancer. What exactly must fundraisers do throughout the month to raise said money? Well, since the campaign cannot copy Movember’s commitment to facial hair (ladies aren’t supposed to have any of that!), Julyna’s cheeky solution is to have women groom their pubic hair (or, as the site says, the hair “down there”).

Ack. Here’s the thing: some ideas, no matter how brilliant, simply don’t translate from their original context (Sady Doyle pointed that out, quite well, in regards to the SlutWalk phenomenon). I think Movember is another one of those instances (and not just because the lovely “changing the face of men’s health” slogan doesn’t translate). Just because a hair-grooming fundraiser worked for dudes, doesn’t mean it can or should work for women (saying this makes me feel like Dr. Malcom from Jurassic Park when he says “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should!”).

Of course, my irritation with this campaign isn’t that I feel that it’s riding on the coattails of Movember; I get it, they’re just trying to capitalize on Movember’s popularity to do good work. My issue with Julyna is that in trying to emulate the spirit of Movember, it has become yet another women’s health initiative that is built on a foundation of titillation. You see, Julyna exists in a context of other women’s health initiatives, a context that has some shown distinct and worrisome patterns of sexualisation in recent years.

When it comes to women’s health issues, the issues that are blessed with the most visibility are those that are linked to parts of our bodies that are heavily sexualized (e.g. breast cancer). This sexualisation is explicitly reproduced in awareness and fundraising campaigns for these issues. In fact, the sexualisation is often the focal point of these efforts.

Take, for instance, the Facebook meme for breast cancer awareness in which women simply posted the color of their bras as their status. That was it. No information on breast cancer rates, research, prevention, charitable foundations etc. Now, I’ll admit that even jaded ol’ me felt a little tug on my heartstrings when I saw my newsfeed flooded with those statuses. Read as an act of simple solidarity between women, it moved me. That moment quickly passed, however, as it became clear to me that the meme wasn’t about solidarity, but titillation (to be clear: at no point did I think it would actually raise awareness). My discomfort only grew when, some months later, I received a message from a friend on Facebook about the newest “fun little game” to raise awareness of breast cancer, inspired by the bra-color meme: I was to post where I leave my purse lying around the house (e.g. “I like it on the floor”) as my status, then see what the men on my friends list would think (S-E-X) I was talking about.

Moving from the sexualisation of breast cancer to straight up sexual objectification, we have the ubiquitous “I (heart) boobies” bracelets that all the kid are wearing, and affairs like the Save the Boobs campaign. These campaigns shift the focus from saving lives to saving tits, making the case that the tragedy of breast cancer isn’t that it hurts and kills women (and men and people of all genders!), but that it messes with a part of women’s bodies that straight dudes are supposed to really like, sexy-wise.

And now there is Julyna, in which we groom* our pubic hair (as society generally pressures us to do anyway) and tell people about it for a good cause. It is further sexualisation of women’s health issues.

The sexualisation of women’s health issues is problematic because it not only reflects the deplorable way in which women are treated and (under)valued in society, but also perpetuates and further normalizes such treatment. This approach acknowledges, operates on, and thereby validates the premise that women are only as attention-worthy as they are sexually appealing (according to patriarchal standards of femininity, of course).

That’s why these campaigns cannot simply be written off as sassy ways to do good: because they’re reproducing attitudes and values regarding women’s bodies and worth that are unhealthy for women.

Taking issue with these campaigns isn’t just about proffering ideological critique, it’s about health. Part of a healthy life, for me, is a life in which I am valued as a human being, not as a set of breasts. A healthy life is one in which I don’t feel that the only way to get men to care about my health is by making it about sex. A healthy life is one in which I don’t have to cringe at the fact that men’s health campaigns involve growing funny moustaches while women’s involve shaving one’s pubic hair and telling people about it. Being healthy isn’t just about being free of cervical/breast cancer by any fundraising-means necessary, it is very much about being as free from the poison of patriarchy as one can be.

(*Though, to be fair, I don’t know that Julyna would begrudge anyone the option of growing 70’s bush, so long as it’s a departure from your personal norm and you told people about it.)

Tags: body politics, in my opinion...

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