What if instead of wearing pink and “I LOVE BOOBIES” bracelets we got down to some nitty-gritty, non-consumer-based activism like Occupying Wall Street?

(originally posted as “What if you could buy social justice? Think Pink: Cancer Profiteering” in 2009)

The pinking of cancer is arguably one of the most well-known examples of the cultural misconception that we can buy social justice. Starting out with the pink ribbon, this consumerized think-pinking has, as Ayelet Waldman details in her Salon.com article, made us “awash in a sea of pink”:

“Pink ribbons, pink wristbands, pink Cartier watches, pink makeup kits, pink Tic Tacs, a pink Delta airplane, pink nail polish, a pink Montegrappa Micra Pen, pink bouquets, pink tweezers, pink candles, pink jeweled key fobs, pink totes, pink shower gel, pink tea, pink moisturizer, pink Lean Cuisines, pink teddy bears, pink Waterford crystal, pink Post-its, pink M&Ms, pink sneakers, pink umbrellas, pink yogurt, pink golf balls, pink pencil sharpeners, and even pink toilet paper. That’s right, wipe for the cure.”

Wipe for the cure?!? Ha! I wonder, are there pink condoms so we can also fuck for the cure?

While this pinking of cancer began with the pink ribbon, the history behind how the ribbon became pink is worth considering in more detail. In fact, the cancer awareness ribbon was originally PEACH. This peach ribbon was part of a GRASSSROOTS ACTIVISM campaign, not a corporate profiteering label. As Sandy M. Fernandez details in her excellent article “Pretty in Pink” (read it in full here):

The woman was 68-year-old Charlotte Haley, the granddaughter, sister, and mother of women who had battled breast cancer. Her peach-colored loops were handmade in her dining room. Each set of five came with a card saying: “The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 billion, only 5 percent goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.”

Haley was strictly grassroots, handing the cards out at the local supermarket and writing prominent women, everyone from former First Ladies to Dear Abby. Her message spread by word of mouth. By the time Liz Smith printed her phone number, Haley had distributed thousands.

Then Self magazine called.

“We said, ‘We want to go in with you on this, we’ll give you national attention, there’s nothing in it for us,” Penney says. Even five years later, her voice still sounds startled by Haley’s answer. “She wanted nothing to do with us. Said we were too commercial.”

At the end of September 1992, Liz Smith printed a follow-up to Haley’s story. She reported that Estee Lauder had experienced “problems” trying to work with Haley, and quoted the activist claiming that Self had asked her to relinquish the concept of the ribbon. “We didn’t want to crowd her,” Penney says. “But we really wanted to do a ribbon. We asked our lawyers and they said, ‘Come up with another color.”

They chose pink.

So, the real history is that pink was chosen as a way of STEALING and PROFITING from one woman’s idea. Holy pink crap! (And, if you need more proof that Wikipedia is NOT a reliable source, their entry on the history of the pink ribbon does NOT cover this information.)

As Fernandez writes,

“…because of Haley’s ribbon, Self and Estée Lauder had traded in a color that was merely peachy for one that was an icon, a semiotic superstar. “Pink is the quintessential female color,” says Margaret Welch, director of the Color Association of the United States. “The profile on pink is playful, life-affirming. We have studies as to its calming effect, its quieting effect, its lessening of stress. [Pastel pink] is a shade known to be health-giving; that’s why we have expressions like ‘in the pink.’ You can’t say a bad thing about it.” Pink is, in other words, everything cancer notably is not.”

While peach would have been problematic too, given its false associations with being skin color or “flesh” (thanks for nothing Crayola!), it might have been preferable to the bubble-gum faux-female-empowering and infantilizing pink.

Further, the shift from peach to pink, or from somewhat natural to neon, symbolically echoes the shift in cancer activism. As David Bollier notes in his article “The Pink Ribbon Juggernaut”:

“At one time, activists focused on the environmental causes of breast cancer and the importance of prevention. But as corporate marketers came to recognize that breast cancer awareness offers a great way to position one’s company as a champion of women, the ‘social meaning’ of the disease changed. The ‘pink ribbon’ branding of breast cancer has made the disease an upbeat, emotional celebration of ‘survivors,’ women’s fitness, civic voluntarism – and selling.”

Thus, when peach went pink, an activist movement became a consumerist movement. Yet, as noted by Barbara Brenner, executive director of BCA (Breast Cancer Action),  ”If shopping for pink ribbon products was truly the path to a cure, we’d have solved the breast cancer problem by now.”  Yeah, and if SHOPPING was a CURE for anything, we would have also saved the environment, the economy, and eradicated poverty!

However, instead of “shopping for the cure,” we are ironically “shopping for the spread.” Or, as Ayalet Waldman points out:

“There is a particular irony in this corporate sponsorship. Many cosmetics contain parabens, estrogenic chemical preservatives that can disrupt normal hormone functions, and exposure to such external estrogens has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer.

The link between environmental pollutants and breast cancer is also becoming clearer. When absorbed into the body, certain pesticides, plastics additives, and chemicals present in foods, household dust and air act like estrogen, possibly increasing the risk of breast cancer.”

Even more ironic, as pointed out by Professor Julia Mason, is that “The largest drug companies who make cures also make carcinogenic products, which cause cancer.” Wow, talk about lining your own pockets!!! Give em cancer, then sell em ‘cures,’ and THEN sell em PINK products that show just what a caring corporation you are!

Along with capitalizing on disease, the think-pink paradigm also works to “pink-wash” products. Akin to “green-washing,” pink-washing presents products and the corporations that make them as caring about women in general and preventing/curing breast cancer specifically.

Further, even people, it seems, can be pink-washed. As David Bollier reports, “after a series of prominent NFL players were involved in serious crimes such as rape, domestic violence and DUI, the NFL launched a “Real Men Wear Pink” campaign. This PR effort enabled the NFL to showcase its players as community-minded volunteers who care about women and children.”

As this example reveals, there is a serious lack of social critique accompanying the think pink movement. When rape and violence can be pink-washed away, we must question if the pinking of cancer is ultimately doing more harm than good…

In addition to allowing corporations to plaster their image with a pink happy face, pinking also obfuscates critical analysis in favor of feel-good consumerism.

Got cancer due to that toxic waste dump you live near? Forget about it! Put on some Avon pink lip-gloss, some pink tennies, and walk your way to feel good oblivion! Forget that you no longer have the time or energy (and never did have the money) to examine how poverty, racial inequality, and a rabidly unequal healthcare system contribute to unequal rates of breast cancer among different race/class groups. Forget about the economic injustice that translates into you living next to the toxic waste dump and put on your pink happy face already! If the pink ribbon people don’t advocate for federal budgets/laws to prevent cancer, and it they are not pressuring corporations to research and then stop using cancer-causing chemicals, who are you to complain? (A disclaimer – there are campaigns and groups that step away from unexamined pinking – notably Think Before You Pink launched by Breast Cancer Action).

So, while Kristin McDonald argues that the pink ribbon is “a symbol of the new spirit of activism that is changing the way we face breast cancer,” I disagree. I think instead it is a symbol of the new spirit of commodification that is consumerizing the way we face not only breast cancer, but ALL social issues and injustices.

Pinkwashing will not bring the cure let alone bring about prevention. What it will bring about is “healthier industry,” as noted by Penni Marshall in her piece “Pink to Green.” As Marshall indicates, this cancer profiteering is not about saving the planet nor the women who live on it, but about allowing industry to continue to use cancerous toxins as it claims to be working towards a cure. As Marshall argues, “Above all else, the bottom line on breast cancer has to be what’s healthy for the environment and for women’s bodies, not what’s healthy for industry.”

Perhaps in October, when we are again inundated with pink products, we can reflect on the peach history that has been forgotten, or on the ways in which cancer harms the flesh of individual bodies (and disproportionately harms bodies of color due to systematic poverty/unequal healthcare) and DOES not harm, but BENEFITS corporations – the very same corporations that have put on pink happy faces while their products and manufacturing practices rely on known cancer causing toxins…

Addendum:

This October finds many, many people participating in “Occupy Wall Street” protests. Hurrah! Now this in not only non-consumer-based, it’s anti-consumerist, anti-corporatizatoin, and pro-justice. Hurrah!!!

 

What if you could buy social justice? (Part 10: Avoiding the ATM: Breaking the Consumerist Mindset)

This series has been based on my conviction that green products, pink ribbons, rubber bracelets, political t-shirts, and Oprah give-aways are NOT going to bring about social justice. The consumer activism mindset that has taken hold in US society will not end genocide, war, poverty, racism, or anything else. In fact “consumer activism” is largely an oxymoron. Although one can be a “conscientious consumer” (and take an activist stance via NOT shopping/promoting certain corporations (i.e. Wal-Mart)), I don’t believe a socially just world cannot be bought – no matter how much is being spent.

Further, although many social justice organizations need money in order to do their work, donating money will not in and of itself bring about equity. Such donations are important no doubt, but what is just as necessary (if not more so) is using your voice, your brain, your pen, your keyboard, your body to PROTEST those things that are wrong in our world. (And NOT buying can certainly be a form of protest.) Besides, throwing money at a situation never works – it may make things look better on the surface, but dig a little deeper, and the problem will still be there.

In spite of this, justice through consumerism is being sold to the world citizenry at an alarming rate. Donate to this politician and your country will be saved. Buy this car and the environment will be healed. Purchase products with pink ribbons and breast cancer will disappear. Send money and the ravages wrought by Katrina will be fixed. Order a box of Thin Mints for a soldier and ameliorate the damages of militarization. These are the types of messages that we are inundated with. They vary in type and urgency, but all, at their core, have the same purpose: to make us, as humans, believe that through consumption we can make the world a better place.

This mass-delusion keeps the wheels of advanced corporate capitalism spinning us happily towards our doom as we go about lives driven largely by consumerist desires. Even more abhorrent though is the way the consumer mindset has infiltrated activist/social justice movements. I imagine many earlier visionaries are rolling in their graves. Emma Goldman certainly would take issue with consumerized voting movements such as Rock the Vote. Karl Marx would hardly endorse the push for re-usable bags over and above the push for worker’s rights (after all, how many of those Whole Foods shoppers with their cloth bags are thinking about the exploitive labor that picked that organic produce?) Virginia Woolf would see right through pink-washing. And I doubt if Sojourner Truth would be quick to buy a rubber bracelet claiming “Ain’t I a woman?”

Part of the reason that this consumerist mindset has taken such a strong hold is that consumerism has become the new one world religion, as discussed in parts 1 through 5 of this series. We are encouraged that with shopping comes salvation, that buying is the best form of worship. Yet, in spite of the ways consumerism has infiltrated every facet of life, including not only religion but also activism and protest, there are a number of indications that the world populace is beginning to question justice through buying. Sites like Enough.org are good signs “enoughism” is gaining appeal. Enoughism, a concept that Berkeley Professor Wendy Brown describes as “a threshold of wealth and consumption above which no one needs more…a threshold below which no one can thrive” seems to be the type of system that combines socialism with capitalism in a productive way – a system that would allow for capitalism with a social conscious and a collective world view (Brown quoted in Ms., Winter 2009, p.37). Perhaps one positive outcome of the global economic crisis will be more people saying “Enough!” to the corporatist greed that got us here. Perhaps it will lead people to break their ATM habits, to a switch from a consumerist mindset to an enoughism one.

Meanwhile, I believe that instead of heading to the ATM, literally or figuratively, we would do better to spend time, rather than money, doing the following:

  1. Reading/Writing
  2. Thinking
  3. Talking
  4. Listening
  5. Acting

To elaborate:

Reading/Writing: We would be better served by educating ourselves about the many problems in our world rather than running out to buy green/pink products. Reading about the complex history behind the problems that plague human society is vital. We cannot hope to change the world without doing our research first. Writing is the next part of this equation – whether it is writing a blog post, a letter to an editor, or a missive to Dear Aunt Hilda. The pen (or keyboard) is indeed mightier than the sword.

Thinking, an activity that is woefully under-rated, must occur both individually and collectively. We need to think about the changes that need to be made, examine what prevents these changes, and consider how we can make change a reality (rather than merely a rhetorical stance peppered in speeches). Buying is easier than thinking, hence many opt to purchase something in hopes this will bring about change (i.e. a politically hip t-shirt or a rubber bracelet) rather than THINKING about what really needs to occur for change to happen.

Talking, or raising awareness, is crucial. We cannot hope to change the world until the masses wake up from their slumbering sheep-state. However, as the conversation is currently controlled by the corporate owned BIASED media, most of the ‘talking’ that takes place on a societal level works to maintain and perpetuate things as they are. We must interrupt this conversation and CHANGE the subject(s)!

Listening to ALL kinds of ‘others’ regarding how to make the world a more socially just place is vital. Everyone deserves a place at the table, and the more diverse the voices the better. We must listen to others as their experiences will be different from ours – even if they share the same sex/gender/race/class/sexuality/belief etc. This is one of the reasons the big umbrella labels we use can be problematic – not all women are the same, not all queers are the same, not all trans people are the same. Each person, no matter how many ‘social positionings’ they share, will bring something new and different to the conversation. We must keep our ears open for to ALL types of voices coming from all types of places. We need to seek out others to listen to who have different “lenses” or experiences from our own.

Acting in ways both small and large to bring about the socially just world we envision is the essential culmination of these five steps. If we do the first four, and forget about the fifth, not much will be gained. We need to take action regarding all of the above, continually asking ourselves “What actions can I take to change things? What activism can I be a part of?” What we do NOT need to do is act in more ways that our bound up with consumerism!

(And, for a list of sites that encourage NOT buying, go here to find a number of great sources compiled by Dervish.)

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.

***http://main.acsevents.org/goto/jesseburns

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).”

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.

***http://main.acsevents.org/goto/jesseburns

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).”