Gentle readers, I have a confession to make: I hate Breast Cancer "Awareness" Month.
I hate it with such a flaming passion that I spend every October in a lather of (pink, of course) rage-induced foam. And thanks to the growing commodification of the breast cancer “awareness” industry and the subsequent spillover, I’m starting to spend more and more of the rest of the year in a state of apoplectic rage over pink ribbon-bedecked crap marketed to unwitting consumers who seriously think that buying a fucking yoghurt with a pink lid will somehow accomplish something meaningful.
My dislike is rooted in a whole lot of things, but let’s start with the origins of the breast cancer movement, because I want to begin this article with some props to some seriously fierce ladies. The thing to know is that it wasn’t that long ago that breast cancer was a totally taboo gross topic that no one discussed. Women weren’t aware of breast cancer and feared even saying the words until First Lady Betty Ford got a mastectomy while her husband was in office.
And she did the unthinkable: She talked about it. And women started getting angry. Really angry. The breast cancer movement was born, and it became a juggernaut of women who would not shut up, wanting to know why funding for breast cancer was so limited, why breast cancer care totally sucked, why so few women had access to preventative care, early diagnosis, and treatment. They totally changed the medical landscape for breast cancer patients, and they kept pushing and pushing for more, and better.
That’s when something really sad started to happen: people recognized the potential commercial appeal of breast cancer “awareness” as an abstract concept. That’s when the pink ribbon started to be developed, originally as a symbol of solidarity, but eventually as a fiercely defended property. Suddenly it became less about actually fighting breast cancer and more about selling “awareness” but not really explaining what that meant.
My friend Vicki Soloniuk is fond of saying that “awareness is not action,” and that’s the point the mainstream movement has reached. Many of the products marketed as part of the movement are actually carcinogens, in a rare stroke of absurdity. Organizations like Breast Cancer Action are finding themselves fighting a war on two fronts: one, to get better breast cancer care, and two, to get “awareness” campaigns in check.
At this point, it’s safe to say that most women are aware of breast cancer, and that the focus needs to shift to reaching populations who think it’s not a problem for them, and to improving cancer prevention, treatment, and management. We need to be fighting carcinogenic pollutants, the dismal rates on screening and treatment for women of color and low income women, and the sluggish diagnosis rate among men, who, yes, get breast cancer too. Perhaps one of the first and last times you’ll hear me saying, “but what about the menz?”
But these things aren’t sexy and easy to market, so they’re not what the industry focuses on. And in recent years, breast cancer “awareness” has taken an especially pernicious, gross, and exploitative turn that makes me want to hurl. I’m not the only one. A lot of survivors, patients, and families are just as grossed out by the way breast cancer campaigns frame women as jumbles of abstract body parts, not whole human beings.
It’s “Grope for the Cause” and “Save the Ta-Tas” and “Save the Titties” now.
Here’s the thing about breast cancer that’s awful: Sometimes, it kills people.
Here’s something else that’s a fact about breast cancer: Sometimes, patients lose their breasts in treatment.
These two things are not at all equal or comparable. Yet, a lot of “awareness” campaigns make it sound like the great tragedy here is not that people are dying, but that funbags go away. It’s so horrifically objectifying and appalling that every year, I brace myself with gritted teeth for the next iteration of awful “awareness” campaigns in the name of breast cancer that reduce people to a pair of sacks of fat-filled flesh.
Because that’s apparently what breast cancer patients are, is a pair of giant walking tits.
Randall Munroe pretty much nailed the problem with this kind of rhetoric last year:
Saying that we should work to cure this disease because it threatens breasts is really upsetting. For starters, it suggests that women are worth saving because they're attached to breasts, rather than the other way around. But worse, it tells any woman who's had a mastectomy to try to save her life that she's lost the thing that made people care about her survival. What a punch in the stomach.
This year, it’s Pornhub.com.
This October, user-generated, ad-supported, free online adult entertainment site Pornhub.com will celebrate Breast Cancer Awareness month by donating one penny for every 30 views of its "Small Tits" and "Big Tits" videos to the Susan G. Komen Foundation.
Watch porn, save titties! WOOOOOO!
This bothers me on a whole lot of levels, although it might surprise some of you to learn that the porn isn’t one of them.
I’m disgusted by the idea of once again reducing patients to a pair of tits. Because, seriously? Do we need to keep doing this over and over again? Do I really need to explain why objectifying people and turning them into body parts is completely gross and unacceptable?
I’m disgusted by the attempt to capitalize on breast cancer, a potentially fatal and very serious disease. Getting involved in any kind of breast cancer “awareness” is a GREAT PR move for companies that want to make themselves look socially responsible, and branding products with pink and the coveted licensed pink ribbon allows them to sell them at higher price points while not actually doing anything about breast cancer. Like, say, modifying their packaging or manufacturing processes to eradicate known carcinogens.
And I’m disgusted by the association with Susan G. Komen, which is a far from spotless breast cancer group despite their high profile name. You may recall that they were involved earlier this year in a dustup over pulling funds from Planned Parenthood, a decision they later reversed after a lot of very public criticism, but it wasn’t their first PR mistake, nor was it their last.
Komen has a specific culture, and that culture is one that not all patients are on board with.
Komen is a big part of what Barbara Ehrenreich calls the “pink ribbon culture,” in which breast cancer becomes both industry and a rite of passage. It promotes the chipper, happy, determined iteration of the breast cancer patient, the person who soldiers through and impresses everyone with her bravery. You’re not allowed to be furious, enraged, depressed in pink ribbon culture. You should view your cancer as an opportunity for redemption, the wake-up call you needed! Also, buy pink stuff! Tell your friends!
Advocate and patient Xeni Jardin, who famously live-tweeted her diagnosis, has been an outspoken opponent of pinkwashing and the idea of shopping your way to a cure. She, like many of us, fails to see how telling people to buy pink shit will lead to meaningful change in terms of reducing the incidence of breast cancer and helping people who have the disease currently. And she’s also disturbed by the objectification of patients.
You want to make an actual difference in the fight against breast cancer? Don’t buy pink shit branded with breast cancer "awareness." Don’t click on links that promise donations to charity when you don't know where they go or what the terms are. Don’t put a fucking pink ribbon on your car and, for the love of artichokes, don’t put on a “Save the Ta-Tas” shirt. If you’re a breast cancer survivor and you feel empowered by that stuff, more power to you, but if you aren’t, think long and hard before you pink. Research, research, research.
Donate to actual scientific research and groups that reach out to marginalized communities to improve cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. Contact your local breast cancer resource center to see if they need volunteers to help patients undergoing treatment. Be there for your friends with cancer, because once the initial flood of support fades there are months of lonely treatment and recovery. And make sure your friends know that you love them for who they are, not which body parts they do and do not have.
Some people say that anything is okay so long as it's for a cause. Sorry, but I disagree.