academic cancer fashion fail

***Disclaimer. This is an off the cuff response. A more formal one is coming. 


So when I was on chemo, I became aware of this painfully horrendous academic project that UBC funded with $10,000, a project in which Dr. Firkins partnered with a scientist, to look at cancer cells in various stages and craft them into dresses. Yes, you read that correctly. She made ball gowns out of cancer cells. So when I was on chemo, all I could think of was, what happens to the ball gown when the cancer cells are pumped full of poison and all the other cells are collateral damage, and the body with cancer feels like it is dying? Is there a dress for that? Does the dress transform, do the fabrics whither and lose colour, do they shrivel and morph and warp and make the person who is wearing them feel like they are dying? What happens to the person wearing the dress when the chemo unravels the cancer-cell threads? Do they end up naked?

So really? The Wall Institute  gave $10,000 to this prof for this? And she made some ball gowns, based on cells, acting under the assumption that “all conversation is good conversation,” that getting people talking about cancer is inherently going to do something good? She says in the extensive press she has received that she hopes to incite conversation about cancer, and with people who have had cancer. I assume she’s talking about breast cancer, since she refers to the pink ribbon, but can find nowhere where she makes the link explicit. She does say, though, that ‘Many women who have battled cancer express a disconnect with the fashion imagery that commonly represents the disease,’ and she is talking about the pink ribbon context. Does she acknowledge why? I can’t find out where. Does she talk with women who have breast cancer? I don’t see any research, and I haven’t heard about anyone being interviewed in the breast cancer community. 

Making ball gowns out of cancer cells and hoping they serve as an alternative to pink ribbons is kind of like taking the bruise patterns from abused women and making dresses out of those patterns. Hey, find the beautiful, right? Rings kind of hollow when you think about finding the beauty in bruises on abused womens’ bodies. Yah, rang kind of hollow to me, too, when I, a woman who has had cancer and will live in an uncomfortable relationship with it always read the articles, again, tonight, when StupidCancer posted them on Facebook. It makes me shudder that $10,000 that could have gone to metastatic breast cancer research, or research on the creative and alternative narratives women under 35 tell about breast cancer, or research on the uneven adjustment to sex after cancer went to fund someone making whimsical ball gowns from images of cells- it sounds like mostly from brain cancer- of mutating cancer, especially since there’s the unstated acknowledgement she’s talking about women with breast cancer even though that doesn’t always add up with the cells she “crafted” from. Firkins explains that  ‘My hope is that somehow through fashion, I more closely tap into what a woman might be feeling about her body as she undergoes [cancer].’ Really? I feel like you just took some pictures of cells, rode the wave of this hot-button topic for funding, and purported yourself as an expert. As a young academic from the same institution as you, I feel like you were not careful, like you wanting to tap into my experience is more like you ripping what I know to be true from my hands in order to appropriate it for your research project. 

Firkins writes that, “One of the purposes of the project is to get some response from the dresses.” Again, I feel like she is riding the wave of breast cancer, letting the energy around pink ribbons lift her up for all to see, and the energy will lift her up precisely because this project does very little- or nothing- to challenge the patriarchal, heteronormative, extraordinarily gendered nature of the pink ribbon breast cancer wave. Firkins project might not be a pink ribbon, but there is no critical engagement with the pink ribbon, and it certainly poses no threat. Firkins writes about her “friends” who have had cancer who had body image issues, and who’s experiences instigated this project. 

See, I got body image issues from cancer, too. I got body image issues withy breast cancer because the patriarchal world I live in over-values my breasts, positions them as the property of men I  come into contact with. After all, how many people have asked, in relation to my mastectomy and reconstruction decisions, “Well, what does your man think?” Mostly they ask it without asking the twin question, the question that’s WAY more important, “What do you think?” I have body image issues from cancer that have to do with feeling, with sensation, with being me, with how I can be sexual. There’s really not a lot of space for me to talk about sexual agency, as a woman, in this patriarchy. And your dresses don’t give me the space. In fact, your dresses miss the point entirely. I’m not angry about pink ribbons because they mis/represent my cancer experience, I’m angry at pink ribbons because they totally obscure the political bent to how I feel about and experience breast cancer. Giving me another alternative that takes what shattered my world and makes it into a ball gown over which to be oohed and aahed, a gown that may incite conversation but not critical, political conversation and action simply acts in concert with the same heteronormative patriarchal capitalist tendencies that made me pissed off at the pink ribbon in the first place.

OH, I am angry. I have pages to write about how this is totally, wildly, not OK. I am so sad you’ve gotten this much press, though I realize, when you play into the system and ride the waves, that is what happens. You know, though, those waves drown people. People die of cancer. People are crushed by cancer. People struggle with cancer. 

It’s big, it’s dark, it’s complex. You are correct, in that we need conversation. But the kind of conversation we have is critical, and it can’t be this easy, celebrate the dresses, look what I made that’s pretty to make survivors feel good about their bodies, kind of conversation.

We are starved for conversation about power. Don’t distract us. 


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