Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Pinktober Exploits Women with Breast Cancer

If you read my blog, it's probably no surprise to you that I vehemently oppose pink breast cancer marketing, where products, services and NFL games are decked out in pink, supposedly to support women with breast cancer, but the barrage of pink is actually just a marketing tool to support the companies who use it.

I have read countless blog posts, news stories, Tweets, Facebook posts and even a book called "Pink Ribbon Blues" about this infiltration of pink and how it hurts women. I studied pink culture a bit in university. A popular documentary called "Pink Ribbons Inc. was released earlier this year, coincidentally (or not?) around the same time as the Komen/Planned Parenthood scandal.

Much of this discourse has been written by women who have or have had breast cancer and want the world to know that: breast cancer is NOT sexy; it's NOT cute; it should NOT be for profit; affected women are NOT getting any benefit from it -- on the contrary.

I have nothing more to add to the discussion, really. I am so moved by what I've read and I couldn't write it better. I feel passionately that this pink marketing needs to stop, and I want contribute to the awareness of the damage it's causing, so I've decided to compile a list of points that are most important, in no particular order, many of which I had not been aware of until digging into the anti-pink discourse.

1. Pinkwashing - Many of these pink products contain ingredients that are actually linked to cancer or other health problems, promote unhealthy choices and/or perpetuate social inequities. Here, anti-pink non-profit Breast Cancer Action takes on KFC's much criticized, ridiculous "Buckets for the Cure":
"In terms of prevention, we cannot imagine feeding people carcinogenic grilled chicken that raises the risk of heart disease and breast cancer and then expecting them not to become sick."
2. Pink marketed products are sexist. They are almost exclusively related to stereotypical female roles: make up, kitchen supplies, etc. All the products and the marketing materials used to sell them are cute, silly and pink. It's infantalizing. Place these products in their packaging in the pink girls aisles of toy stores and I bet you'd have to look pretty close to distinguish them. Also the whole concept of shopping for a cure... Well you know us women! We love any excuse to shop! This quote from an amazing Harper's article really brought the point home for me:
"Certainly men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars." 
3. Breast cancer is not sexy. For some reason, it is okay to exploit women in the context of breast cancer awareness and fundraising. From pink cupcakes that look like breasts to "Save the ta tas" t-shirts... Most repulsive is #boobstagram, though at least it isn't associated with an actual charity and it didn't get mainstream support. What particularly baffles and saddens me about this exploitation is that it's often women who are participating. For me, this highlighted for me how engrained the problem actually is and how hard it will be to fight it off. I wrote a post on #boobstagram earlier this year:
"It's just an excuse to show pictures of breasts. It's an exercise in narcissism by the women who participate. I think that's what I hate most of all. Women are volunteering to be objectified. They are taking pictures of their breasts and sending them to Boobstagram."
4.  Pink culture, particularly marathons and other fundraisers and events, always features a strong survivorship narrative. Breast cancer survivors are portrayed as heroes who conquer cancer while looking great in her heels, make-up, wig, etc. and doing all the normal things. No stories of the traumatic treatments, the difficulties affording treatments, preparing dinner while ill and other harsh realities of breast cancer are ever told in the classic pink survivorship narrative. 

The absence of these stories may create a sense that we have made more progress in the fight against breast cancer than we already have (sounds pretty market friendly, don't you think?) That it's not such a big deal. This narrative also pressures women to be positive, to "do it all" if they want to get better, if they want to be brave.

In her book Pink Ribbon Blues and blog of the same name, medical sociologist Gayle Sulik calls the classic breast cancer survivor character  the "She-ro":
"The ultimate message is that breast cancer, though tragic, is a source for women’s personal transformation. What’s more, transformation is made possible through positivity. At the end of her ordeal, she explains not that her cancer is in remission but that her 'negativity' is."
5. Part of overcoming cancer in pink culture is restoring your femininity. To fight back, to survive, wear a wig, prosthetics; get a breast augmentation, wear make-up, dress femininely. I certainly have no issue with women doing these things, but it's the pressure I don't like. And it's the lack of support for other options -- and this is my own observation: breast cancer organizations and the companies that support them never (at least none that I've seen) provide advice or funds to help people who would like to be natural. Where do people buy one-cup bras --- do those even exist? And who will help women pay for them?

6. Why support breast cancer patients by buying a product, maybe 50 cents or some ridiculously low fraction of which actually goes to support an organization that might not even directly be helping your friend with breast cancer that you care about? Drive her to treatment. Cook dinner for her and her family. Set up a fundraiser just for her to help her pay her medical bills, her mortgage even if that's an issue. These ideas aren't mine. I've seen them a bunch of times, so I don't know how to attribute them. Lots of people want and need help. Pink culture isn't giving it to them.

7. Pink culture exaggerates the benefits of mammograms and self exams. It's a complicated issue and scientists don't fully understand it yet, but these diagnostic tools don't necessarily detect breast cancer or detect it early enough. Also, mammograms often produce false-positives. Also, survivor statistics are misleading.
"'The survival statistics they (Komen) present are eye-catching and compelling. They imply that a woman would be crazy and irresponsible if they didn't go for screening,' said Dr. Steve Woloshin, co-author of the article challenging the charity. "But the statistics are deceptive."
The "crazy and irresponsible" point reminded me of this guest post in the Pink Ribbon Blues blog, explaining how the onus in surviving breast cancer is often placed on the woman experiencing it: 
"Is breast cancer threatening your life? This Susan G. Komen for the Cure® ad leaves no doubt about who’s to blame —you are."   
This displaces what should be an institution or government's responsibility to figure out why you have cancer, how to fix it, help pay for it, help do away with social inequities that create barriers to diagnosis, treatment and prevention. I think most pink supporters, at least they would if they were better informed, want help for their friends and other people they are supporting.

8. Men get breast cancer too. Perhaps that doesn't get any "awareness" because their breasts aren't sexy. Companies can't market to men as well as they can to us shopaholics! Pink culture completely alienates them.

9. Pink culture focuses on the actual breasts too much and not nearly enough on the women they are attached to.

10. The "awareness" component is redundant. If there even is one. Using the phrase "breast cancer" alone in pink culture counts as awareness. No other information needed. Just a splash of pink and an image of a pair of large breasts. The name of the condition shared alone might be beneficial if this was an unknown disease -- maybe it would prompt people to learn more. But everyone knows that breast cancer exists and it's a problem. And most people know that self-exams and mammograms are important. We should be way beyond all this.

11. Even though other cancers and diseases kill and afflict more people than breast cancer, breast cancer completely trumps funding and "awareness."

I wish I had a big solution to do away with pink culture. I advise everyone to stop participating, but what will that do? As a society, we need to learn why commodifying and sexualizing breast cancer and women in general is wrong before people will realize why pink culture is wrong and, not only stop participating (both companies and consumers), but actually help people who have breast cancer.

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