Fashion Show

The high spot of fundraising in October for the charity Breast Cancer Care is its London Fashion Show happening today as I write. The afternoon event is sold out but you might still grab a ticket for the evening spectacular. A table for 10 at £1500 buys a champagne reception, four course dinner, live and silent auctions…the usual corporate charity bonanza. This iconic occasion is your opportunity to watch “24 inspiring models who had or are living with breast cancer. Come along and see the models for a night…enjoying every fabulous moment of their exciting journey to the catwalk and beyond. If you’ve been to one of the shows before, you’ll know that their courage and strength literally shines through.” (BCC publicity.)

Well no I haven’t been to one of the shows before and the only reason I can think for going might be to lob a few flour bombs as feminists did during Miss World in 1970.

The 22 female models are, if not all young, youthful, and if not all size 10, well only one looks size 18. They smile out at us from the website, reinforcing the stereotype of what the good breast cancer survivor must be: she smiles, she’s brave, she looks after her body, she shows a subtle cleavage, nice make up, good hair. Two blokes remind us that yes men get breast cancer too but this is essentially the girls’ night. One model writes, as though speaking for everyone with breast cancer: “This exciting event shows friends, family and the country that surviving breast cancer is an opportunity to walk, with heads held high, onto a new platform of life’. ‘Oh yes’ says my little cynic voice…easy to say when two thirds of the models are but 2 years from diagnosis and can hardly know they are ‘survivors’ yet. Will there be a moment’s silence tonight for the dead and dying models from the last eleven shows? Or even a moment of thought for the women struggling with the hard times: failed reconstructions, painful lymphoedema, loss of fertility, premature menopause, recurrences, more treatment, permanent fatigue .

For the women involved, this event is a significant one. I know because I’ve spoken to some who have participated, and to staff whose eyes mist over recounting emotional moments from earlier shows. The thought of breast surgery, mastectomy and breast loss is traumatic for many women and that fear is heightened after a cancer diagnosis. Surgery and the impact of treatments do have an impact on self esteem: both hair loss and weight gain are usual side effects of chemotherapy and few women feel confident being bald and fatter than they were. For many women therefore the opportunity to dress up in nice clothes, to have professional make up by Estee Lauder and hair done by Vidal Sassoon is a real confidence booster, and affirmation that it’s still possible to look good after breast cancer.

Blow up photographs of former models adorn the walls at BCC’s central London offices. You can’t miss the point that ultra feminine, attractive, youthful and happy is how you’re supposed to look after breast cancer. I do recognise the feeling of triumph and joy and achievement which can accompany getting through and going through treatment. I’ve felt it myself in Tesco’s Race for Life.

However, there is something deeply uncomfortable about the idea of celebrities paying to be voyeurs of ‘ordinary’ women (and two token men in evening dress) pretending to be models. The high price of tickets for the evening show even means that the families and friends of the models can’t get tickets.

More worrying than this though, is the subliminal and inaccurate messages about breast cancer that the parade of models signifies. Breasts sell everything from cars to newspapers, reality TV shows to cancer charities. Cancer usually kills when it becomes metastatic; this is true whatever the original site of cancer. One of the reasons for breast cancer’s much better survival statistics than other cancers: ovarian, lung, pancreatic, bowel, for example, is that it is easier to detect and therefore to treat in its early stages. Any primary surgery for cancer is likely to be traumatic. The removal of a breast can actually be a much less physically and psychologically traumatic procedure than say the removal of part of the bowel or oesophagus or a major abdominal operation such as involved in ovarian cancer. But these other body parts are not fetishised as breasts are and I don’t think people with colostomy bags get asked to walk the catwalk. It is not BREAST cancer which is the problem but breast CANCER. As Audre Lorde wrote, breast cancer and breast surgery have been depicted as though they are simply cosmetic problems. The real problem with breast cancer is that it’s cancer and cancer can and often does, kill.

Thousands and thousands of pounds will be raised today, and those twenty four models, and hundreds of celebrities and staff are going to feel real good. Pause a moment though and wonder if maybe next year BCC couldn’t come up with something different, something more inclusive, something more useful, something more real. After all a committee of twenty five people has organised this shindig…come on be original.

Lorde, Audre (1980) The Cancer Jounals. Aunt Lunt Books.

JaneRA 1/10/08