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Movember

Last week marked the end of a month that many on college campuses loathe. On Nov. 1, boyfriends, male friends, friends with benefits and crushes begin a 30-day de-evolution from handsome, friendly looking guys to unshaven louts. Their upper lips grow sparse hairs; their necks become covered with patchy, itchy-looking beards, and being seen in public with them usually entails explaining that, no, he’s not homeless, he’s just participating in Movember to raise awareness about prostate cancer.

Similarly, breast cancer awareness campaigns attract attention with events not obviously related to the cause they support. A popular attention-grabbing method in recent years has been the posting of sexually provocative Facebook statuses, such as “I like it on my [blank],” where women list where they like to keep their purse (“I like it on my floor,” “I like it on my bed”).

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Putting my personal issues with the manipulation of sexual attraction in order to garner attention for a disease that my relatives have fought aside, I think the fact that men make an unappealing cosmetic choice for attention while women use overtly sexual language reveals an important truth about how men and women interact. Additionally, the relative effectiveness of these campaigns in generating awareness for their respective cancers illuminates some realities of the way gender works for and against us.

Movember is put on by the Movember Foundation, which, in addition to promoting moustache cultivation, encourages men to see their doctors. Because of societal discomfort with the technicalities of these examinations, men fighting prostate cancer face stigmas about homosexuality that women fighting breast cancer do not. Movember raises awareness without actually talking about any of the sensitive aspects of the disease and is very successful; this year, the foundation raised over a $100 million for cancer research. (The popular No-Shave November is not affiliated with any philanthropic organizations.) Women, on the other hand, don’t hesitate to identify explicitly where the cancer is, as the popularity of “I heart boobies” paraphernalia illustrates.

Typically for these awareness campaigns, the connection between facial hair and prostate cancer is unclear, just as it’s hard to determine what breast cancer has to do with purses, which calls attention to another problem: The more successful the gimmick is, the less attention people pay to the cause behind it. The moustaches get attention because they weren’t there in October, not because people know to connect them with prostate cancer. A conversation with a dude sporting a trash ’stache might bring these issues to light, but that is not guaranteed. Plus, a moustache doesn’t compel the kind of instant interest that a friend posting a suggestive status does. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to attribute the proliferation of moustaches around campus to personal preference or the beginning of a new trend. Moustaches happen, even when cancer isn’t the reason, but — excluding when a girl leaves her Facebook open and her friends hijack it — sexual statuses do not, and the rarity of such a status compels Facebook friends to turn to Google, where they discover what the status actually means.

Both campaigns share the same goal: awareness for a cancer that largely affects only one gender. But the responses are as gendered as the cancers, and the differences between them are significant. A female friend of mine pointed out that if there were something like No Makeup March, few women would do it. Another friend interrupted to inform us that there is such a thing as No Makeup March, which promotes internal beauty. Though we agreed that it sounded like a good idea, we rolled our eyes at the idea of actually participating. This instantaneous rejection means that on some level, yes, we’re vain and yes, we care about how others perceive us. But it also means that we are members of a society where the consequences for being unattractive are more detrimental for women than for men.

For guys, the decision to participate in Movember is the decision to become what most people find unattractive. There are men who can pull off facial hair and there are those who like it, but — judging by the Princetonian participants this November and my friends’ reactions to them — the moustaches are usually unpleasant to look at. The prospect of repelling people doesn’t seem to factor into guys’ decisions to participate in Movember, which is a marked contrast to statuses that deliberately attract attention by being overtly sexual.

These campaigns are about cancer awareness, but they are also about gender. As Movember illustrates, a man has much more freedom to present himself in a way that makes him physically unattractive without confronting any of the social risks that a girl who chooses not to wear makeup faces, but he also cannot talk openly about prostate cancer without making people uncomfortable. A woman can make herself an object of sexual attraction, but willingly making herself unattractive would break a societal rule more influential than law. In some ways, the participants in these campaigns are manipulating these rules, but on a deeper level, men with moustaches and women with Facebook statuses are the ones being manipulated.

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Susannah Sharpless is a freshman from Indianapolis, Ind. She can be reached at ssharple@princeton.edu.

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