October, as many readers are no doubt aware, is ‘breast cancer awareness’ month in the United States. The tide of pink-branded products, courtesy of a campaign started in the early 1990s by the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, might have been a tipoff. Of course, pink branding is also spilling over into other months of the year—it really started to ramp up in September this year, but you’d be hard-pressed not to find some pink-branded products, or witty ‘breast cancer awareness’ slogans, at other months of the year as well.
This term, ‘awareness,’ is very nebulous. Awareness is not action, and it doesn’t necessarily translate into action, depending on how such campaigns are framed. Many people, at this juncture, are aware of breast cancer. They know it exists and they know that some people are more at risk of getting it than others. What they may be less sure of is what to do about it; some campaigns do promote early diagnosis through screening, for example, but not all do. Fewer campaigns discuss what people can do for breast cancer patients and people in recovery, although some organisations (including Komen) are actually very active in providing support to breast cancer patients through activities like educational resources, grants, and other assistance. There’s also the vague idea of researching for a cure, which also raises the spectre of the ‘funding race’ and debates about whether some cancers are overfunded.
Breast cancer was an extremely taboo topic until the 1970s, when then First Lady Betty Ford started openly discussing it. Before, it was something ‘not nice,’ something people didn’t address, and women died because they weren’t aware and couldn’t access treatment. It continued to be treated as a ‘women’s issue,’ receiving contempt and disinterest from the medical establishment, long after Ford came out about her mastectomy. One of the reasons that changed was the work of feminists and other activists who took to the streets to demand justice for breast cancer patients, to demand attention for the disease.
‘Women’s diseases’ receive less funding and attention, because they are deemed of lesser importance despite affecting half the population. This continues to be a problem with conditions like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and chronic pain, all of which disproportionately impact women. Not only are these conditions underfunded, they’re also maligned and stigmatised by suggestions that they are ‘fake’ and thus doesn’t require research, let alone treatment. Women are less likely to be able to receive adequate pain control for chronic pain conditions, for example, despite the fact that they are more likely to be affected by them.
And then came the pink branding. Which, initially, was designed to create a rallying point and a form of solidarity; the pink ribbon created a single, distinctive symbol to associate with breast cancer, and to associate with the disease in awareness campaigns. Komen became quite aggressively defensive of its pink ribbon, but it’s too late. The tide of pink has been unleashed, even though a recent study suggests that pinkification may actually alienate the audience it’s attempting to reach, as discussed at Sociological Images. The very cuteification has become its undoing.
The cuteification of breast cancer through pink ribbons has been heavily criticised, as has its increasing association with cause marketing. Breast Cancer Action is so concerned about the use of cause marketing that it started an entire campaign, Think Before You Pink, to, yes, raise awareness among members of the general public about this issue. Slapping a pink ribbon, or pink branding, on something doesn’t necessarily mean the proceeds go to breast cancer. Furthermore, a number of pink-branded products are actually known to contribute to the development of breast and other cancers.
Lovely. Incidentally, Think Before You Pink has a good checklist of critical questions to ask before buying pink-branded merchandise, if your goal is to contribute to breast cancer research, treatment, and support through your purchases. Given the ubiquity of cause marketing for breast cancer, it’s actually getting challenging to not buy pink branded products, which makes it especially important to be able to buy wisely, since if you’re going to be forced to contribute to cause marketing, you might as well make sure some of that money ends up in a good place; at the grocery store this weekend, I noticed that all the yeast was branded with pink ribbons for vague ‘breast cancer awareness’ purposes, for instance, which forced me to do a quick Google to find out which would be the best option for me to buy.
Pinkwashing, as it’s known, is big, big business, and it’s getting bigger every year. It generates substantial corporate profits at the same time that it’s a superb public relations move. Companies believed to be involved in social causes enjoy a better reputation among members of the public, encourage people to think of them as socially responsible. It’s a great two for one deal, for companies interested in increasing their bottom line and expanding their market base.
There’s also a deeply sinister twist to a lot of ‘awareness’ actions around breast cancer; for one thing, they focus almost exclusively on cis women, excluding other sectors of the population at risk for the disease. For another, many are deeply dehumanising. They’re centred around subjects like ‘saving second base.’ Breast preservation is often core to these catchy little mottos around breast cancer; ‘save the boobies,’ ‘save the ta-tas,’ etc. There’s no mention of the bodies under those breasts, just the breasts. And some breast cancer marketing goes beyond dehumanising and into exploitative. ‘Grope for the cause.’ ‘You check them or I will.’
Breast cancer survivors and people at increased risk for breast cancer, like myself, have spoken out about these campaigns. Have talked about how these measures ‘for a cause’ make us feel dehumanised and worthless, reduced to a set of mammary glands and nothing else. And, in my case, if I am take the framing of these campaigns literally, despite being a 32DDD with variant BRCA1 and 2, I’m not at risk of breast cancer, because I’m not a woman, and it’s a women’s disease. Yet, defenders insist that the cause is ‘too important’ to worry about feelings, and that too much good work is done to be stressed about possibly alienating some of the people these campaigns are supposedly trying to reach, let alone actively harming people who have expressed deep unhappiness with these objectifying campaigns.
‘It’s all for a cause’ and ‘it’s for your own good’ are two claims that are often repeated to justify harmful actions. In ‘breast cancer awareness’ where such campaigns don’t appear to actively contribute to anything meaningful, it’s a slap in the face to people who dare to voice opposition to the framing or handling of such campaigns when they’re told that they should sit down and shut up. Despite valid concerns not just about how the campaigns are conducted, but what they actually do, they’re steamrollered by people who suggest they’re somehow pro-cancer if they have a problem with cause marketing and objectification that don’t appear, in any concrete way, to benefit the very cause under discussion. Does posting your bra colour contribute in some way to support for breast cancer prevention and treatment?
Breast cancer has transitioned from an underfunded, neglected disease to a juggernaut, and in the process, campaigns around the condition have warped from their original purpose. It’s become a popular cause for all the wrong reasons, like the idea that it’s important because breast cancer might cause people to lose their breasts, and that would be terrible indeed. Breast cancer also causes people to lose their lives. People. Not just cis women, but people.
Breast cancer rates are directly connected with issues like poverty and racism. This tends to get minimal coverage. The fact, for example, that toxic wastes are routinely dumped in low income communities of colour is rarely discussed. As is the fact that the safety of numerous chemicals in common use still remains uncertain, and some of these may be contributing to breast and other cancers. Or the fact that many people, despite efforts on the part of charities, can’t access early screening, let alone treatment and followup care, because of the state of health care in the United States.
‘Their hearts are in the right place,’ people say, dismissively, when people criticise breast cancer ‘awareness’ campaigns. And to some extent, they are right. We all care about breast cancer, and we all want to do something about it, and that’s at the core of all these campaigns. Which makes it all the more sad when cause marketing and objectification don’t even accomplish their stated goal.
Comprehensive public campaigns should be inclusive and incisive. For cause marketing, which, yes, does generate a lot of money for research, clear information should be provided about the percentage of each purchase that goes to breast cancer, and whether companies have minimum or maximum contributions. Branded products should indicate which organisation they support, and how that organisation uses funds; for direct patient support? Treatment/cure research? Increasing access to treatment? Preventative screening? Education? This information should be disclosed up front on the packaging; after all, if a campaign really is as great as it claims, it shouldn’t be afraid to tell people exactly what it’s doing.
Campaigns should have clearly stated, transparent goals that include all people at risk for breast cancer, which is all people, everywhere. They should target specific populations at higher risk with campaigns sensitised to their specific issues. They should include all the things they already include, like raising funds for research into screening, prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and patient support, without the objectification and cuteification. It’s possible to make that happen, to push back on the pink tide, if people are willing.
Because it’s going to be a lot easier to tell the difference between a legitimate breast cancer campaign designed to generate actual results and a spurious attempt at capitalising on breast cancer when the legitimate campaigns are presented seriously and honestly. That doesn’t mean they can’t be fun, that doesn’t mean they need to be all serious business, all the time. All I’m asking for is a little harm reduction and responsibility. Because the cause is too important.