I ♥ boobies. They nourish children. They define a woman’s silhouette. And sometimes, they turn toxic.
It’s the latter that’s the subject of Monday’s free-speech lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania on behalf of two local schoolgirls who were suspended for wearing “I ♥ Boobies! (Keep A Breast)” bracelets.
Kayla Martinez, a seventh-grader at Easton Area Middle School 7/8, and Brianna Hawk, her eighth-grade pal, elected to wear the $4 rubber bracelets on Oct. 28, their school’s breast cancer awareness day, despite their school having banned the jewelry days before. Even though their mothers had okayed it, the girls tucked the bracelets under their shirtsleeves at first. By lunchtime, however, they wore them openly. Then, bam!, a lunch monitor pounced. (More on Time.com: Breast-Feeding after Breast Cancer Is O.K.)
It was the ultimate irony: getting suspended on breast cancer awareness day for wearing breast cancer awareness bracelets. So the girls’ moms phoned the ACLU. “We don’t think our girls should be punished for this,” they said. “We don’t think the bracelets are offensive.”
Far from it, according to the lawsuit, which makes the case that “seeing a bracelet with ‘I Love Boobies!’ on it is a conversation starter that leads to discussion and awareness of issues affecting young people.”
The school system disagrees. Boys were making inappropriate comments about the bracelets, approaching girls wearing them to proclaim, “I love your boobies,” and some teachers complained the message trivializes the seriousness of breast cancer. Schools across the country have restricted the bracelets, which have joined the ubiquitous yet less controversial Silly Bandz in being designated classroom contraband. (More on Time.com: Silly Bandz Banned — What’s a Schoolkid to Do?)
The bracelets at the center of the controversy are produced by the Keep A Breast Foundation, a small California nonprofit that aims to educate young people about how to lower their risk of breast cancer. They began selling the cheeky magenta, bright blue, green, black and white rubber bracelets in stores 18 months ago, part of a blueprint to “speak to young people at places they’re at in voices they know,” according to Kimmy McAtee, spokesperson for Keep A Breast.
But others wonder whether the attention-grabbing bracelets really serve much of a purpose. In The New York Times, Peggy Orenstein calls them part of a trend: “the sexualization of breast cancer. Hot breast cancer. Saucy breast cancer. Titillating breast cancer! Sexy breast cancer tends to focus on the youth market, but beyond that, its agenda is, at best, mushy.” Of Keep A Breast’s mission to “help eradicate breast cancer by exposing young people to methods of prevention, early detection and support,” she astutely observes: “If only it were that simple.”
Yet McAtee says Keep A Breast’s game plan is working, pointing to Kayla and Brianna’s daring stand. “They really became advocates for the cause,” says McAtee.
Kayla rightly points out that one of the youngest women to have developed breast cancer was not even a woman; she was a 10-year-old girl in La Mirada, Calif., who was diagnosed last year. “Everybody needs to know, like, to check yourself,” says Kayla, who is 12. “The best cure for breast cancer is early detection.” (More on Time.com: Special Report: Advances for Breast Cancer Patients)
Meanwhile, this whole activist (or new-fangled lactivist) thing is taking some getting used to. Suspension, for example, is far from the worst thing to befall a middle schooler; social exclusion is far more unsettling. As part of the girls’ punishment, they’re being barred from the school’s Snow Ball dance this Friday.
“All their friends are going to be there,” says Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney for the ACLU who is part of a team representing the girls. “They went shopping, bought a dress. Of course they’re bummed. It’s their middle school dance.”
In deference to their social life, the ACLU has asked the presiding judge to make a preliminary determination in the girls’ favor and order the school district to allow them to attend the dance. Roper is unsure if the judge will go for it; it would necessitate a quicksilver decision. While preliminary determinations may be subsequently amended, they’re generally good indications of which way a judge is leaning, and the judge may simply not be ready to lean one way or another yet. (More on Time.com: Another Use for Breasts: Medical Experiments)
Kayla, for one, isn’t holding out much hope. She’s already made alternate plans, with Brianna and another friend, to have their own Snow Ball at her house, “doing what girls do”: watching movies and indulging in manis/pedis.
“If it means fighting for the cause,” says Kayla, “then I guess it’s worth it.”
More on Time.com: