What if we didn’t parcel out awareness in months/weeks?

As the joke goes,

Question: If February is Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month, what happens the rest of the year?

Answer: Discrimination.

I do wish we didn’t have to parcel out awareness into months and that issues like sexism, racism, homophobia, cancer, etc could be on the radar all year long. However, there are some benefits to pick certain social justice issues to focus on during certain months/days. That being the case, in honor of Breast Cancer Awareness month, I am going to re-post a piece I wrote over the summer. I also want to alert readers to the great site Feminist Peace Network, which regularly covers breast cancer and other pressing issues of feminist concern.  Happy boob health month people!


What if we cared about boob health as much as we care about boob size and boob-induced profits?

A former student of mine has been working on a breast cancer fund raising project over the summer with the organization Making Strides Against Breast Cancer. His personal goal is to raise a thousand dollars, and he asked me if I was willing to help him achieve this goal via spreading the word. Being the caring professor that I am (even though I have reputation for being “hard”) I wanted to link to his fund raising page here.*** But, being the ever-questioning-can’t-turn-the-analysis-off professor that I also am, I wanted to use this opportunity to examine breast cancer fund raising in general and the commodification of boobies via the think pink mentality.

As Jesse writes,

As far as the consumerist “think pink” mentality goes … the truth is it really was just a marketing ploy that was slapped on issues surrounding breast cancer about a decade ago and was so successful it just never really went away. The whole pink ribbon campaign and all things pink, marketed directly at women (white, middle-class, with a bunch of fund raising free time on there hands) was such a success because it took what once was such a horrifying disease and physically deforming for everyday women (because in our society one of a women’s greatest assets is her rack, don’t pay attention to her ideas or thoughts), and was able to make it something beautiful and finally shed some light on what once was a social taboo.

The truth is I do not agree with the notion that breasts are the most important feature of a women…or even that breast cancer is only a women’s issue…but I do believe that if it had not been for the “think pink” mentality attached to breast cancer awareness today…we would be nowhere near as close to finding a cure as we find ourselves today.

I think Jesse makes very valid points here – namely that while “Think Pink” has its problems, it did help to create social awareness and put breast cancer on the map. However, now that breast cancer is on the consciousness desktop of our culture, it seems maybe we could move beyond the “buy it for the boobs” mentality and into a more nuanced approach – one that would examine how toxic dumping/radioactive waste is linked to rising cancer rates (dumping done by the very same corporations that want to make a profit off you thinking they are pink), how poverty is linked to cancer rates (because guess where you get to live when you are poor – near the toxic dump sites), and how the fetishized sexualization of breasts does not translate into caring about healthy breasts, let alone healthy women.

According to Judy Brady, one of the worst offenders in what she calls “the marketing of breast cancer” is the Susan G. Komen Foundation and its annual 5K ‘Race for the Cure. As Mary Ann Swissler reports,

Now held year-round in 110 U.S. cities and abroad, the festivities offend Brady and the group Toxic Links Coalition. The races, they say, merely focus women on finding a medical cure for breast cancer, and away from environmental conditions causing it, the problems of the uninsured, and political influence of corporations over the average patient.

The Toxic Link Coalition, unlike other mainly for profit organizations, aims “to educate our communities about the links between environmental toxins and the decline in public health.” As their website reads:

Toxic Links Coalition works to stop the proliferation of chemical, radioactive, and industrial substances that threaten human health and the health of the planet. The Toxic Links Coalition believes we all have a right to health and environmental justice; views cancer and other environmentally linked diseases and disorders as human rights abuses, not as individual medical problems; targets companies that perpetrate irresponsible production, use, and disposal of carcinogenic and toxic wastes and products; demands accountability from corporate and agricultural polluters; works against environmental racism, and recognizes that people of color, immigrants, and workers bear a disproportionately high toxic burden.

TLC has renamed a public relations gimmick created and hosted by pharmaceutical and chemical giant, Zeneca, known as “Breast Cancer Awareness Month” (October), to “Cancer Industry Awareness Month.” TLC educates the public about companies with questionable ethical and environmental track records who hold a vested financial interest in maintaining the current cancer research, treatment, and prevention strategy standards.

In her excellent essay, (read the entire piece here) “Welcome to Cancerland” Barbara Ehrenreich examines this deep-seated hypocrisy of what she terms “the Cancer Industrial Complex”:

…by ignoring or underemphasizing the vexing issue of environmental causes, the breast cancer cult turns women into dupes of what could be called the Cancer Industrial Complex: the multinational corporate enterprise that with the one hand doles out carcinogens and disease and, with the other, offers expensive, semi-toxic pharmaceutical treatments. Breast Cancer Awareness Month, for example, is sponsored by AstraZeneca (the manufacturer of tamoxifen), which, until a corporate reorganization in 2000, was a leading producer of pesticides, including acetochlor, classified by the EPA as a “probable human carcinogen.” This particularly nasty conjuncture of interests led the environmentally oriented Cancer Prevention Coalition (CPC) to condemn Breast Cancer Awareness Month as “a public relations invention by a major polluter which puts women in the position of being unwitting allies of the very people who make them sick.” Although AstraZeneca no longer manufactures pesticides, CPC has continued to criticize the breast-cancer crusade — and the American Cancer Society — for its unquestioning faith in screening mammograms and careful avoidance of environmental issues. In a June 12, 2001, press release, CPC chairman Samuel S. Epstein, M.D., and the well-known physician activist Quentin Young castigated the American Cancer Society for its “longstanding track record of indifference and even hostility to cancer prevention . . . Recent examples include issuing a joint statement with the Chlorine Institute justifying the continued global use of persistent organochlorine pesticides, and also supporting the industry in trivializing dietary pesticide residues as avoidable risks of childhood cancer. ACS policies are further exemplified by allocating under 0.1 percent of its $700 million annual budget to environmental and occupational causes of cancer.

Similarly, in her article “Breast Cancer Sells,” Lucinda Marshall notes the hypocrisy of promoting people to “buy for the cure” when what they are buying is actually part of the cause:

A Pine Sol ad in Essence features motorcycle riders Aj Jemison and Jan Emanuel “driving for the cure,” which is awfully hard when your vehicle is spewing cancer-causing exhaust. On top of that, Pine Sol contains 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE), which has been linked to fertility disorders, birth defects and other medical problems.

Marshall also points out that while most women with breast cancer are over 50 and are disproportionately represented by poor women and women of color, that ads indicate breast cancer is an affliction of the young and hot. As Marshall details, a Vogue ad, featuring Ralph Lauren’s polo shirts that have bull’s eye’s above the breasts (supposedly to indicate we need to ‘target breast cancer’) “shows a group of young, mostly white women wearing skimpy thongs, the polo shirts and nothing else. Subtle, huh?” Yes, because thong underwear really hits home the seriousness of the disease.

Ads are not the only young-centric arena though. News coverage of breast cancer focuses on the young, white, and hot. As Marshall writes:

Unfortunately, while most breast cancer victims are over the age of 50, not one of the nine magazines I analyzed focused on those women and the impact the disease has on their lives. Far more typical is a piece in Vogue discussing a very attractive young woman’s agonizing choice to have a preventive double mastectomy because she carries the genes that can cause breast cancer. And with the exception of Essence, whose target audience is black, most of the women in these survivor stories are white, even though black women are more likely to die from the disease.

This links to the recent massive coverage of Christina Applegate’s breast cancer. If it were Whoopi Goldberg, or Margaret Cho, or Doris Roberts would there be as much coverage? Doubt it. Who cares about saggy boobs? Who cares about boobs of color? Not the media, that’s for sure.

In fact, as Ehrenreich’s essay reveals, we don’t approach cancer as an affliction affecting humans, but rather in a way that dehumanizes and objectifies the person with cancer. When Erhrenreich’s surgeon announced to her that “”Unfortunately, there is a cancer,” she shares that it took “all the rest of that drug-addled day to decide that the most heinous thing about that sentence is not the presence of cancer but the absence of me — for I, Barbara, do not enter into it even as a location, a geographical reference point. Where I once was — not a commanding presence perhaps but nonetheless a standard assemblage of flesh and words and gesture — “there is a cancer.” I have been replaced by it, is the surgeon’s implication. This is what I am now, medically speaking.”

As Ehrenreich’s piece conveys, her experience with breast cancer was profoundly dehumanizing and the perky think pink ads do nothing to convey the batteries of tests, the psychological and emotional ramifications, the reality that one’s body is turning against itself:

The endless exams, the bone scan to check for metastases, the high-tech heart test to see if I’m strong enough to withstand chemotherapy — all these blur the line between selfhood and thing-hood anyway, organic and inorganic, me and it. As my cancer career unfolds, I will, the helpful pamphlets explain, become a composite of the living and the dead-an implant to replace the breast, a wig to replace the hair.

Noting that breast cancer is “the biggest disease on the cultural map,” Ehrenreich shares that:

breast cancer has blossomed from wallflower to the most popular girl at the corporate charity prom. While AIDS goes begging and low-rent diseases like tuberculosis have no friends at all, breast cancer has been able to count on Revlon, Avon, Ford, Tiffany, Pier 1, Estee Lauder, Ralph Lauren, Lee Jeans, Saks Fifth Avenue, JC Penney, Boston Market, Wilson athletic gear — and I apologize to those I’ve omitted. You can “shop for the cure” during the week when Saks donates 2 percent of sales to a breast-cancer fund; “wear denim for the cure” during Lee National Denim Day, when for a $5 donation you get to wear blue jeans to work. You can even “invest for the cure,” in the Kinetics Assets Management’s new no-load Medical Fund, which specializes entirely in businesses involved in cancer research.

Her characterization of breast cancer as a popular girl at the prom seems particularly fitting given that the whole think pink culture is gendered in the extreme. From teddy bears to bubblegum pink lipgloss, breast cancer culture wraps the disease not only in buying for the cure, but also in the infantalization of women with breast cancer. As if declining boob health led to a reversion back to childhood, breast cancer cards, gifts, websites, etc. abound in girly images decked out in baby pink. As Ehrenreich details,

A tote bag distributed to breast cancer patients by the Libby Ross Foundation (through places such as the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center) contains, among other items, a tube of Estee Lauder Perfumed Body Crème, a hot-pink satin pillowcase, an audiotape “Meditation to Help You with Chemotherapy,” a small tin of peppermint pastilles, a set of three small inexpensive rhinestone bracelets, a pink-striped “journal and sketch book,” and — somewhat jarringly — a small box of crayons.

As she quips, “Certainly men diagnosed with prostate cancer do not receive gifts of Matchbox cars.” No, and can you imagine anything close to similar if we had a testicular cancer culture? Of course not, because this culture would never exist in the first place – men’s bodies (and their parts) are coded as private. No “think prostate” campaigns with accompanying Bermuda shorts designed by Ralph Lauren with arrows pointing to the male genital region are forthcoming I am quite sure… No, because commodifying the male body is not the norm. This is exactly why we have embraced a think pink breast cancer culture while no such fluffy, makeover/survivor narratives accompany AIDS, tuberculosis, or that boringly prosaic killer of millions, malnutrition. It’s do much easier to package breasts in feel good pink and to market ‘cures’ to that part of the populace that has already been taught the “I shop, therefore I am” mantra from birth.

Furthermore, breast cancer can “sell” partly because it is based on a product that is so popular – BOOBIES! As breast shaped cakes, cupcake pans, lamps, pencil sharpeners, etc. attest, breasts sell (see some sample ‘breast products’ here). However, the phallus and its testicular sidekicks are not near as marketable. Nor, as this story from Jesse attests, are the penis/balls allowed to be put on public display and commodified in the same way as breasts:

In high school I started a cancer awareness club on campus, and during prostate cancer awareness month I wanted to host an event to promote awareness and encourage young men to get themselves checked. What I proposed to my club was that we print out a bunch of little pieces of paper that read “get yourself checked. prostate cancer” and tie each piece to little sacks with gumballs inside to look like male genitalia. It made sense to me, I mean we gave out cupcakes with boobs on top for breast cancer awareness month and no one seemed to have a problem with it! But, to my surprise everyone voted not to do it. That was the first time I think I ever came face to face with sexism in cancer awareness.

Sexism in cancer awareness indeed! Seems part of this “awareness” is making the populace buy into the belief that boobs are a REALLY important part of being female, and that being female involves loving pink jewelry, make up, and teddy bears – of, in short, being infantalized and sexualized and objectified all while wrapped in a pretty pink bow.

Yet, in spite of the commodification of breast cancer, and the huge boob induced profits raked in by corporations that poison water and earth with one hand while hawking pink products with the other, there is of course still a desperate need to care about boob health. And, for now, those doing the most productive caring, if you ask me, are feminists. As Ehrenreich shares, “Like everyone else in the breast-cancer world, the feminists want a cure, but they even more ardently demand to know the cause or causes of the disease without which we will never have any means of prevention.”

However, mainstream pink boob culture perpetuates narratives about ‘bad genes’ and ‘risk factors,’ even though such genes account for fewer than 10 percent of breast cancers and only 30 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have known risk factors. As Ehrenreich relates:

suspicion should focus on environmental carcinogens… such as plastics, pesticides (DDT and PCBs, for example, though banned in this country, are still used in many Third World sources of the produce we eat), and the industrial runoff in our ground water. No carcinogen has been linked definitely to human breast cancer yet, but many have been found to cause the disease in mice, and the inexorable increase of the disease in industrialized nations — about one percent a year between the 1950s and the 1990s — further hints at environmental factors, as does the fact that women migrants to industrialized countries quickly develop the same breast-cancer rates as those who are native born. Their (feminists) emphasis on possible ecological factors, which is not shared by groups such as Komen and the American Cancer Society, puts the feminist breast-cancer activists in league with other, frequently rambunctious, social movements — environmental and anticorporate.

Aaawww, but it wouldn’t be near as fun to “race for the cure” if that race involved feminist activism instead of cute little bears in pink tutus. It wouldn’t be as uplifting to focus on the ways in which the toxicity of our environment along with institutionalized poverty and lack of adequate clean drinking water (let alone adequate healthcare) mitigate the possibility of healthy boobs (or a healthy body). It’s far more fun, if less effective, to come up with zippy slogans and cute pink products all in the name of big boob profits. Because who really cares about boob health when unhealthy boobs create ballooning triple D boob induced profits?

To close, I know someone who does care about boob profits, and he is the person who prompted me to write this post. A tireless crusader against cancer, he is well aware of the problems with the think pink mentality. However, as he writes, “I do these walks and fundraise my ass off, because in a society that views breast cancer as cute pink ribbons and bears in pink tutu’s…what is a boy to do? My hope is that one day people will tear away from the think pink mentality of breast cancer and instead focus on the disease itself.” I am right there along with you hoping. Jesse.


Jessie notes that “As for any questions anyone may have for the events disbursement of the funds raised…I have all the answers. Making Strides Against Breast Cancer is an American Cancer Society event and as such the money is divided up 3 ways: 82% goes completely back to cancer research and clinical studies, 14% goes to putting on the event (rentals, fees, supplies), and only 4% goes back to administrative costs (staff payroll).”


9 thoughts on “What if we didn’t parcel out awareness in months/weeks?”

  1. “…the fetishized sexualization of breasts does not translate into caring about healthy breasts, let alone healthy women.” I couldn’t agree more with this post.

    A few years ago, a local radio station “107.7-The Bone” embarked on a campaign called TTT, “TA-TA Tuesday,” asking that, on Tuesdays, women flash their breasts to drivers whose cars don the TTT bumper sticker. If the driver calls in and provides enough of a description of the woman and his location, then the station would make a donation towards breast cancer research. This type of “save the boobies” marketing is just gratuitous and shamelessly sexualizes the problem, the cancer.

  2. Very interesting about Astrazeneca as a pesticide manufacture, etc–had not thought about that dichotomy. !!

    Also, this may be semantics, or it may not be, but I don’t like the word “boob.” Maybe because it’s also used to indicate a stupid person. I wonder why the two words are the same? I guess I could head to the Oxford English Dictionary, but do I want to know the answer?

  3. Question: If February is Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month, what happens the rest of the year?

    Answer: Discrimination.

    I know this post is about breasts but I feel that that the beginning really needs to be commented on. In fact having those two months dedicated to women and blacks is discrimination. Deciding that only need to talk about blacks in February and Women in March means that for the rest of the year it is okay talk about white males. If we truly meant to be inclusive these would be issues that we talked about 12 months a year. “Special Months” are not a sign of tolerance they are a sign of discrimination.

  4. CulturePress,
    Wow, Ta Ta Tuesday. Was this a Howard Stern brainchild by any chance? This is, as you suggest, only in keeping with the sexual objecification of women and the commercialization of breast cancer awareness. Thanks for sharing this — as disturbing as it is.

    Good point about the word ‘boob’ and how it is used to mean a stupid person. I personally never use it in this way (to mean stupid or incompetent) and don’t know the etymological history. However, as you suggest, it does seem to smack of sexism in our language…

    Excellent point and I agree with you. I do think, though, the joke can also be interpreted to mean that the necessity for ‘special’ months and their very existence is in fact a form of discrimination.

    Yet, as your comment more strongly indicates, such months almost work as a form of segregation — as if black history or women’s history is only ‘allowed’ at certain points rather than all year long.

    In the ‘preamble’ to the re-post, I meant to indicate that I too see a problem with awareness months and feel that we should not be parceling these issues out, but examining them EVERY month. Yet, pragmatically, I know more people will read the post due to the fact October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

  5. Limitations of Screening Mammography

    An eminent radiologist, Leonard Berlin MD says we have failed to disclose the limitations of screening mammography, namely that mammography will miss 30-70% of breast cancers, and leads to over diagnosis and over treatment.

    Dr. Berlin says disclosures of these limitations should be mandated, just like the cigarette and drug warnings that appear on their ads.

    Dr. Berlin also points out that 57% of the American women believe that mammograms prevent breast cancer, a misleading message from Breast Awareness Month.

    Mammograms are designed to detect cancer, not prevent it. Thinking that a mammogram can prevent breast cancer is like thinking that checking your house annually for broken windows prevents robberies.

    To read more: http://jeffreydach.com/2007/11/04/the-untold-message-of-breast-cancer-awareness-month.aspx

    The Untold Message of Breast Cancer Awareness Month by Jeffrey Dach MD

    Jeffrey Dach MD
    4700 Sheridan Suite T
    Hollywood Fl 33021
    954 983 1443

  6. Howard Stern wasn’t involved this time… sadly, there are many such disc jockeys whose demeaning, sexist verbage fills our local airwaves, even here in the San Francisco area…!

  7. And from the land of actual infants and cancer … the sight of a pink ribbon has made more than one parent of a child with cancer burst into tears. We say, “where are our ribbons and fundraisers?” It’s not for a lack of trying — we contact businesses, begging for a gold colored M&M for Childhood Cancer Awareness month (September), only to be told, “We do breast cancer.” Even items made for children, like Huggies diapers, bear the pink ribbon. We are told, confidentially, that people don’t “like” childhood cancer. Breast cancer awareness is about empowerment, strong women running to the finish line. Childhood cancer awareness is bald, freaky looking children with big eyes that just make us feel saaaaaaad.

    So we shave our own heads to raise funds, and hold lemonade stands. And when we walk into Target at the end of September and see that the pink ribbons are already up, on this, *our* month … we burst into tears.

  8. Lizard Eater,

    This is an excellent point. The fact that child cancer is ignored only serves as further proof that breast cancer SELLS. The cynic in me believes the breast cancer awarness movement is not so much about trying to cure/prevent/educate, or even to empower, but to PROFIT. And, as your comment suggests, childhood cancer is not too marketable — not near as marketable as boobs. (Yet, there are breast cancer and child cancer awareness groups that are doing great work — they are sadly overshadowed by the likes of Avon and Target.)

    And, what cruel irony that breast cancer awareness month is directly after childhood cancer awareness month. How horrible it must be to see the pink ribbon BUY BUY BUY frenzy hit the scene in late October…

    Thanks so much for reading, and for your very important comment.

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