“When was the last time you wore a bra that actually fits?” asked the mailer I received in my mailbox from ThirdLove this week. “When I actually had breasts,” I said automatically, throwing in an expletive or four. And now, there’s more to get off my chest.
In 2017, I had a double mastectomy. To avoid multiple surgeries, potential complications, and the finally recognized cancerous hazards of implants, I joined the ranks of women diagnosed with breast cancer who opt not to reconstruct. Our numbers are growing; 100,000 U.S. women have one or both breasts removed each year.
One in four double mastectomy patients will make the decision to go flat.
That’s a lot of women inadvertently receiving mailings for bras we don’t need. Says Catherine Guthrie, author of the new memoir FLAT: Reclaiming My Body From Breast Cancer, ”Online marketing is a ridiculously blunt instrument. I’m active in breast cancer communities, I use the word ‘breast’ a lot, therefore, I get ads for bras. I’ve been flat for 10 years. Our culture erases women who deviate from normative femininity.”
Those of us adapting to newly non-normative bodies naturally navigate a world full of bras and breasts. And don’t get me wrong–I’m just as gripped as everyone else by that sheer gold bra priced at $24k worn by Zoe Kravitz at Vanity Fair’s Oscars after party. But I’m more gripped by this: As the number of women “going flat” increases, so, too, have the online marketing campaigns selling bras to the breastless. It’s not just the occasional ad. It’s a deluge bordering on harassment. In a group I’m part of, dozens of women responded recently to a query one member posted about the steps we could take to stop the torrent appearing in our Facebook feeds. The larger problem remains: Why must each one of us solve the problem ourselves?
I avoid the myriad Facebook ads for bras served to me by ignoring my feed entirely. But the hard copy mailer is a new smack. Inside is an image of ThirdLove’s online “FitFinder,” asking: “Which breast shape most resembles yours?” I look—and obviously don’t find—a flat chest. This is not just unwelcome; it’s bad business. If ThirdLove ever plans to expand beyond bras, they’ve lost a customer in me.
To be sure, my response would have been different had I received such a mailer prior to 2017, when I would have tossed it aside as junk mail.
But I didn’t start receiving intrusive snail mail from ThirdLove until I no longer had breasts.
Surely I’m not the only person missing something I started with who gets inadvertently targeted. How we negotiate bombardment is a matter of individual fortitude. In a few years, I may not be bothered. But right now, I am. I’m no snowflake. I’m as tough as any other woman who has fought off a killer and gone through hell and back. I’m physically healed, blessedly healthy, happy with my decision, and grateful to be alive. But still, I mourn my chest.
Companies that hawk bras to unreconstructed survivors are not alone in crossing a line. Health care centers send women, who have no breast tissue, postcards reminding them to schedule their mammogram. In a culture where profit prevails, full-coverage marketing is the norm. Popular culture and advertising have yet to recognize the diversity that falls under the category “woman.” When the assumption is made by marketers that someone with a female name needs a bra, they play into the invisibility of women with bodies that deviate from the pro-natalist fertile norm. This comes as no surprise. So why be taken aback?
Because no one is driving this bus. In the age of the algorithm, no human is accountable. In an era of niche, consumers are addressed in bulk. And where algorithm rules, it can err catastrophically. As the title of a recent book declares, it’s a moment of Technology Run Amok. The bra companies can blame the bots.
While it’s easy to blame Facebook (and I do), the Facebook folks are not the only humans abdicating responsibility for the ills that they’ve let loose.
It’s high time for humans high up at these companies to reclaim some decency lost.
ThirdLove claims to be all heart and signs off with the phrase, “Love, Guaranteed.” If companies that aspire to be women-friendly value women, then their marketers will go out of their way to ensure that recipients of their mailings opt-in. If ThirdLove seeks to brand itself as a purveyor of “miracles,” it will immediately take me—and all the others who did not request the intrusion—off the list.
We survived cancer. We deserve better. We did not sign up for this.
Deborah Siegel, PhD is a Visiting Scholar in Gender & Sexuality Studies at Northwestern University and the author of Sisterhood, Interrupted. She is currently working on a book about gender and childhood.