Illustration by Nicholas Luchak
It’s that time again, folks!
Perhaps you’ve noticed NFL players wearing pink gloves. Perhaps you’ve seen one of the many memes circulating on Facebook — the one with a picture of a rose, maybe, or one of those cryptically suggestive status updates (“I like it on my desk!”).
Or perhaps, like I did recently, you went to your local Safeway to do some grocery shopping, picked up a package of button mushrooms and noticed it now has a pink ribbon worked into its logo, put down said package of button mushrooms because of reasons that will soon be explained, then headed over to the checkouts where you were asked by the cashier whether you’d like to “donate to breast cancer.”
Yes, that’s right: October is breast-cancer awareness month.
Apparently, despite the annual deluge of pink products for sale (including some which themselves cause cancer — what a wacky coincidence!) and despite the myriad events and campaigns which implore that we run for a cure or walk for a cure or paddle for a cure or cut our hair for a cure or watch professional football for a cure or change our Facebook statuses for a cure or purchase button mushrooms for a cure, some people STILL aren’t aware that breast cancer exists.
[Insert dubious eyebrow raise here.]
This alleged lack of awareness is really quite surprising because breast cancer is not only extremely prevalent throughout our society — in Canada, for example, it’s the most common cancer diagnosis in women over the age of 20; one in nine Canadian women is expected to develop it during her lifetime, including the estimated 23,800 women who will be told this year they have it* — but also, compared to pretty much all other types of cancer, it’s the one we talk about ALL THE TIME.
No doubt this is because talking about breast cancer inevitably involves talking about breasts.
BREASTS, YOU GUYS.
Breast cancer is predominantly a women’s disease (though not entirely; men with breast cancer exist, making up fewer than 1% of all breast cancer cases). Certainly, however, it’s understood as such — and therefore, it’s treated accordingly.
First, it’s dipped in pink BECAUSE PINK IS FOR GIRLS! And/or women whose bodies are riddled with potentially deadly tumours! Pretty!
The now-inextricable link between breast cancer and the colour pink — pink ribbons, specifically — dates back only to the ’90s, and can be credited to cosmetics giant Estee Lauder which, in partnership with Self Magazine, stole the idea from an American woman named Charlotte Haley who had been distributing peach-coloured ribbons as a form of protest against the lack of national funding for cancer-prevention efforts.
Haley declined to associate her efforts with Estee Lauder when approached, so Estee Lauder simply changed peach to pink and co-opted her campaign for its own corporate interests.
I learned this infuriating piece of information from Pink Ribbons Inc., a 2012 National Film Board of Canada documentary which deftly explores the concept of “pinkwashing” — a term which refers to disingenuous cause-related marketing campaigns launched by companies that claim to care about breast cancer while acting in ways that suggest otherwise. I highly recommend it. You can watch a trailer below.
In addition to being pinkified, breast cancer is cutesied up in other ways.
A horrible disease that kills one in 29 women who contract it — that’s approximately 14 Canadians every single day — is presented to the masses in a way that’s as perky and cheerful and non-threatening as possible. (No one likes a buzzkill, people.)
Meanwhile, those who are actually suffering from its debilitating and potentially deadly consequences are not only infantilized (see: the ever-present use of the word “boobies” in breast-cancer-related marketing) but also encouraged to suppress any feelings of anger or fear and instead, face their diagnoses with an unwaveringly sunny disposition.
Wheee! Cancer is so fun! Let’s all wear goofy hats and boas and come up with cheeky, breast-related puns for our T-shirts! HOORAY FOR RAISING AWARENESS! (This “tyranny of cheerfulness,” as writer/cancer survivor Barbara Ehrenreich calls it, is also explored in Pink Ribbons, Inc.)
Last but definitely not least, breast cancer is, of course, sexualized. Because, in our culture, anything to do with women’s bodies must also involve the sexualized objectification of those bodies.
And so we find ourselves here: at a time when campaigns to prevent breast cancer have been usurped by campaigns which use the promise of curing it to sell things — including carcinogenic things — and, in doing so, treat the bodies of its victims as just another commodity.
Because hey, that’s what women’s bodies are for, right?
Make no mistake: a large proportion of the benevolent philanthropy cause-related marketing campaigns that pop up each October are nothing more than illusions of concern. In reality, companies want our money and they have figured out that manipulating our emotional response to cancer is an effective way to get at it.
Case in point: Susan B Komen is the world’s largest fundraising organization for various breast-cancer causes (it’s the organizer and primary recipient of funds raised from the myriad of ‘Runs for the Cure’ held each year, among other events, and now brings in more than $400 million in revenue each year**). Exactly how much of these funds are channelled into research for ‘the cure’ is an ongoing source of controversy, however, as is the questionable political agenda which led Komen to defund U.S. Planned Parenthood of some $600,000 last year (a decision that was reversed after a sizable outcry).
I encourage those interested in this subject to wander over to one of my favourite blogs, I Blame The Patriarchy. Run by Internet feminist extraordinaire/breast-cancer survivor Twisty Faster, you will find many insightful posts such as this one, in which she notes:
(A)ll these thons and pretty-pink branding campaigns benefit corporate interests way more than they do women. That’s because Komen et al are entirely focused, not on preventing cancer, but on normalizing cancer.
As if it’s more important to save a pair of breasts than it is to save the life of the person to whom those breasts are attached.
Women’s humanity doesn’t matter. Women’s lives don’t matter. What always matters most is tits. Always.
A person’s risk of being diagnosed with breast cancer increases with age (women over 50 will make up approximately 82% of new cases this year in Canada, for example). You’ll notice, however, that it’s not usually older women’s tits plastered all over the inane yay-for-boobies-related propaganda — nor, I would also like to point out, are non-white women’s breasts given much in the way of ta-ta love, even though Black and Hispanic women are more likely to die from the disease than Caucasian women.***
Yes sirree, we love our boobies — provided they are young, perky and white.
We live in a time when a campaign calling itself BoobieThon encourages female bloggers to submit pictures of their breasts to an online clearinghouse of tit pics — their choice as to whether they’re bare or covered (how thoughtful!) — to raise money for breast-cancer-related causes.
We live in a time when a bunch of men think it appropriate to pledge donations to a breast cancer-related charity in exchange for the opportunity to motorboat women’s breasts, with a further promise to make additional donations when the video of these sexual exchanges for money are viewed a certain number of times.
Prostitute yourself for the cure! Watch amateur soft-core porn for the cure! Raise awareness through the sexual exploitation of yourself and/or others! IT’S SO EMPOWERING.
We live in a time when people think they are helping the cause by participating in No Bra Day. (It appears to happen twice annually, on Oct. 13 and July 9. Because it’s such a great idea, obvs.)
The link I provided was the first one listed when I did a Google search; in addition to a slideshow of 13 “breastiful ladies” — JESUS CHRIST I CAN’T EVEN — it also encourages readers needing more sexy photos to visit one of its previous “boobies appreciation posts.” HOW HELPFUL.
At this point I’d like to turn things over to the author of Cancer In My Thirties, who wrote this thoughtful post about No Bra Day and the problematic nature of breast cancer awareness month.
How on earth could a day where girls and women are encouraged to post and share photos of their braless breasts and to walk around with their nipples poking through their shirts be ‘supportive’ for women who are living with or who have died from breast cancer, or who have managed to ‘complete’ the arduous treatments and disfiguring surgeries required to put them into remission? I think the answer is simple. It is not.
(T)he thought of seeing braless women flaunting two body parts that I have lost to cancer — more than I already see this on a regular day — does not feel all that supportive.
I know people who have lived through cancer and I know people who haven’t (may they rest in peace). You probably do, too. Cancer — regardless of where in the body it shows up — is not pretty or cute or sexy. It is horrible and scary and sometimes deadly.
It offends me deeply that corporations are willing to exploit people’s grief and fear and compassion and genuine desire to help stop this terrible disease from killing any more of our loved ones in order to make a buck. It disgusts me that people who have made it to the other side of cancer are used as pawns by companies who don’t give a shit about them or their health.
In conclusion: fuck your pink football gloves, fuck your useless Facebook memes, fuck your button mushrooms, and fuck everyone who treats the suffering and death of women as just another opportunity to sell some stuff or ogle some tits.
* Unless otherwise noted, all stats quoted in this post were sourced from the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation
** source: The Chronicle of Philanthropy
*** source: Breast Cancer Action