Pretty in Pink

Pink Ribbon
Image via Wikipedia

Unless you have been living in a cave lately, you probably noticed it’s Pink Ribbon time again. National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is once again painting the town pink. Everyone seems to be getting in on the act — from the wristbands worn by the New York Yankees, to the pink knee high socks worn this afternoon by the NY Giants and all of the other NFL teams.

Pink socks on a football player? Who would have thought that when the public push for breast cancer awareness began gaining momentum 30 years ago that a 260 lb running back or a 6-foot-seven pitcher would be using pink as his accessory color.

Let me be clear – the awareness raised by Pink Ribbons can’t be praised enough. This was a disease that was once only talked about in whispers. Now, it’s become a true public health cause. This openness that has occurred over the last 30 years or so really links back to First Lady Betty Ford, one of the first “celebrity” figures to openly discuss her disease and urged women to take charge of their breast health.

But the pink ribbon has also been the focus of much criticism. It is tied into well known cause-marketing events, such as the Komen Race for the Cure.. In tying the symbol with a corporate sponsored event, Komen made a conscious decision to go mainstream, partnering with businesses, government, and the scientific establishment. They say it is the best way to keep the issue of breast cancer in the forefront of the publics’ and policy makers’ minds to change the course of the disease. Their sponsors include mega corporations like American Airlines, Bank of America, New Balance, and Walgreens. This support has helped to turn Race for the Cure into the world’s largest 5K event and has made Komen the largest nonprofit funder of breast cancer research anywhere.

Not all women’s health advocates are happy about this approach. Queens University Health Studies professor Samantha King began questioning this type of marketing-oriented approach to breast cancer in her book,  Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy. In it, she reminds us not to forget the ugly, but very real elements of breast cancer: this is a hideous disease that still kills thousands of people every year. King said It’s not the pink ribbon so much as the way it’s been taken over by corporations that are manipulating the symbolism to help sell products. In an interview with Canada’s McLeans Magazine, she argued that too much money is being spent on publicity and “feel good” items like teddy bears and T-shirts, and not enough is being funneled into prevention.

“What my research and the research of others shows is that the experience of breast cancer is profoundly different for different women. Not all women experience breast cancer positively. They might feel anger, hopelessness, fear. And profoundly alienated by pink ribbon culture.”
— from McLean’s Interview with Queen’s University professor Samantha King on her controversial new book, ‘Pink Ribbons, Inc.’ 

For years, advocacy groups like Breast Cancer Action have also voiced loud concern over what they call “Pinkwashing.” That is when companies that claim to care about breast cancer also profit by making products linked to the disease or tie-in with campaigns. BCA believes current research and funding are dictated by politics, not by science or need — that the “commercialization” of breast cancer is doing real harm to millions of women desperate for a cure or hoping for a treatment that isn’t almost as awful as the disease itself. Other women’s advocacy groups like National Women’s Health Network and the Boston Women’s Book Health Collective (the organization behind Our Bodies Ourselves also support the push against the mainstreaming of breast cancer.

Raising awareness is a good thing, no matter what color anyone wears. What’s not so pretty is spending dollars on marketing instead of on science. What’s not pretty is letting corporations and certain key players influence the direction of research efforts, as many of the less conventional advocacy groups contend. Getting the public’s attention about this devastating disease should not be limited to one month a year. If you are going to “think pink” then it needs to be top of mind for women, and for the men that love them, every single day. Pink about that.

There’s a whole lot more to say about breast cancer awareness, screenings, research funding, and public policy. Stay tuned.