By Kathy K on October 05, 2011
As you know, October is Breast Cancer Awareness month and from now until the thirty-first, we are deluged in all things pink.
This bothers me.
At first, I wasn’t sure why. I did not want to say this out loud, out of fear of appearing insensitive. In many ways, to speak against Breast Cancer Awareness is almost un-American. But I still feel this way.
I want to make clear that I am not against Breast Cancer Awareness. My uneasiness stems from being deluged with all this pink and feeling that I'm, in a way, forced to care by spending money for things I don't need and if I don't get on this bandwagon, then I'm a horrible person. I am not, much to my relief, the only person who feels this way.
There is the feminist argument that Pinkification is sexist. I can certainly see that argument. Female breasts are objectified, seen as ornaments, and their sole purpose is for sexual pleasure. The fact that we see “save the ta ta’s” on shirts, and Facebook profile pictures, but we have yet to see “save the gonads” emblazoned on t-shirts reeks of sexism. Aren’t the gonads worth saving, too? Male breast cancer survivors are also getting the shaft, so to speak. This annual campaign to bring awareness only focuses on female breast cancer, while men get ignored. In my view, I think the sexism argument is a very valid one, but I think its sexist against both women and men.
But that’s not at the root of why I am bothered by this.
There is also the argument from women who either beat or are currently fighting the disease that putting pink ribbons on breast cancer diminishes the severity of the disease and reduces a disease suffered by adult women into something girlish and cute. Cancer is not pretty, nor is it feminine. It’s not perky. Cancer is rotten. Cancer is exhausting. Cancer is a fight that the person with it may very well lose. The pink ribbons are a mask, according to Jennifer at No F****** Pink Ribbons.
At the end of the day, despite all the treatments and surgery. No matter how many Avon walks you participate in, how many yoplait yogurt lids you mail off, how many buckets of chicken you eat, how many stamps you purchase or pink sweatshirts you don, at the end of the day women still die from this disease. I may die from this disease. I am going to endure months of a chemotherapy treatment so intense that my hair will fall out, I will more than likely develop mouth sores, I am supposed to avoid knifes and other sharp objects because my blood will have problems clotting and I could bleed out, and there are numerous other side effects too personal to get into.
And all of this makes me angry.
Britta, a young woman with breast cancer, finds all the pink insulting and said so in her blog. (Emphasis mine).
In some ways, people argue, this commercialization of breast cancer is good, because more money is put into researching a cure, helping women access treatment, etc. However, things have really gone too far. Michaels, a craft supply store, has an entire pink/breast cancer awareness section during October. There are pink ribbons, stickers, paper, etc., including stickers that proclaim “LOSING IS NOT AN OPTION!” and other slogans common in the ‘fight against breast cancer.’ There are also Pink Parties, where you can pay $25 to take a class at Michaels and make breast cancer cards, banners, and scrap books. What the hell? We're supposed to happily make some lacy, pink, anti-breast cancer scrapbook, with pink-ribboned rosettes?? Think about how weird and wrong it would be if you went into a craft supply store and were confronted with a big display of, say, diabetes craft supplies, or alcoholism craft supplies. Can you even picture it?? There’s so much breast cancer paraphernalia to buy it almost seems like – as disgusting as this is – we’re supposed to find it “fun” to be a member of a special club and wear the cheerful, “FIGHT LIKE A GIRL!” shirts, the pink ribbon earrings, the promising perfume, while creating breast cancer art projects. It’s insane, and it doesn’t happen with any other disease. What about all the other types of cancer, huh? There are people who have cancer of the tongue, bladder, anus, brain. They don’t get t-shirts and baseball caps and jewelry and craft supplies. And I’m in no way arguing that they should! I’m saying that the energy that goes into creating and marketing and selling junk like pink toilet paper, pink alcohol, and pink buckets of fried chicken could be much better spent.
I can certainly see both arguments. I am positive that if I were in Jennifer’s shoes or Britta’s shoes, I’d feel the exact same way they do. But that’s not why I am bothered by this.
Then there’s the corporate opportunism argument. Breast cancer and philanthropy are now an industry. It’s also known as Cause Marketing. This is a horribly cynical viewpoint to have, but it’s the truth. Just look around you and see how many “pinkified” items you can buy. Most people don’t know that only a portion of the money from the sale of so called “pink” items goes towards research. Most people don’t know that many of these companies set a cap on the maximum amount they will donate. For example, a company sets a cap of 200K as the amount they will donate. Once they hit that amount, any money they make off of the sale of the remaining unsold pink items goes to the company and not the charity. You and I don’t know what that cap is or when they hit it. So when you go and buy a “pink” item and you think you’re doing your part and you’re feeling good about yourself for caring, your money may actually be just going towards the company’s profit margin.
That idea alone angers me, but that’s not why I’m bothered by this.
Then there is the “pinkwashing” argument. Pinkwashing is a term coined by Breast Cancer Action that refers to the "pinkification of products that are actually known to increase the risk of breast cancer or are thought to be linked to an increase in breast cancer." The term is a polite way of saying that pinkification stinks of hypocrisy. One good example of this is the “Promise Me” perfume. This perfume was commissioned by the Susan G. Komen foundation, the most well-known breast cancer charity in the world. The perfume sells for $59.00, with only $2.00 of that actually going towards charity. But, the perfume itself contains chemicals that are known to cause cancer. Breast Cancer Action commissioned an independent lab analysis of the perfume. The results showed “this perfume contains chemicals that are a) categorized as toxic and hazardous, b) have not been adequately evaluated for human safety, and c) have demonstrated negative health effects.” (Source: BCA-Think Before You Pink) Two of the chemicals that bring the most concern are:
Chemicals in Promise Me of primary concern include:
- Galaxolide, a synthetic musk that works as a hormone disruptor and is detected in blood, breast milk, and even newborns.
- Toluene, a potent neurotoxicant known widely as one of the toxic trio, has demonstrated a variety of negative health effects and is banned by the International Fragrance Association (IFRA).
(source BCA-Think Before You Pink)
I used to work with toluene on a regular basis. I worked in electronic assembly for many years and this chemical is used as a solvent. Certain types of circuit boards get coated with conformal coating. The coating is used to protect the boards from dirt, other contaminants, and the environment. The boards I worked with were IPC Class 3 and were used in devices where someone’s life may depend on the device working properly. (IPC is the organization that sets the accepted industry-wide standards in manufacturing of electronics.) This is not limited to medical equipment. Much of the aerospace industry relies on IPC class 3 circuit boards to power their equipment. The electronic brains of a flight data recorder, or black box, are considered IPC class 3. The navigation system in fighter jet or a Humvee or a tank must stand up to the harsh environment of a place like Afghanistan. Conformal coating must be removed if defects are found on the circuit board after the coating has been applied, and toluene is the solvent used to remove acrylic coating. Other types of coating, such as paralyne coating or epoxy coating must be burned off.
Toluene has a strong smell and, if you are not using proper ventilation, can make you feel dizzy. According to the material safety data sheet (MSDS) for the substance, it is also highly flammable, and it is recommended that someone working the chemical wear eye, respiratory, and skin protection.
Stop and think about this for a moment: You could be spraying something onto your skin that is used to strip acrylic coating from electronics and is considered a hazardous substance. And you’re doing this in the name of bringing awareness to a disease that can kill you.
This certainly bothers me on so many levels, but it’s not the reason why pinkification bothers me over all.
There’s the argument that breast cancer is now considered a “sexy” cancer and that there is such a thing as cancer snobbery. Somehow, your cancer isn’t “good enough” and you’re not a big enough “victim” if you are a woman who gets lung cancer or cervical cancer or even skin cancer. This attitude does go towards the sexism argument, but it also stands on its own.
My grandmother died from cancer of the lymph nodes. It broke my heart to have to watch her waste away and die from this. Her cancer could not be cured because of her age, her overall health, and the severity of her cancer. When she was faced with the choice of two different kinds of possible death when the chemo was not working, she had two choices. She could switch to a stronger chemo drug that could kill her or she could stop receiving chemo all together and die slowly. She chose the second. One of the effects that this cancer had on my grandmother is that there was calcification going on in her lymph nodes, which in turn, caused her to no longer recognize people around her nor know where she was. This was one of the symptoms that in fact, lead to her cancer diagnosis in the first place. But it really tore me up inside to go and visit her and have her looking so blankly at me and not recognize me. I am the oldest of the grandchildren. I was eighteen at the time, and it was not even two months prior that I went up to her house in my graduation cap and gown so she could see me in it, since she was too sick to make the trip to see my actual high school graduation.
I know that there are others out there who have had to watch their loved ones go through the same thing my grandmother went through and to know that their form of cancer isn’t considered “sexy” enough to warrant attention really rubs me the wrong way.
But that’s not why I am bothered.
When it comes right down to it, pinkification is slacktivism. Slacktivism is defined as a term that describes "feel-good" measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction. And this form of slacktivism bothers me because it's a cop out.
I am a "put up or shut up" kind of gal. It's not enough to say that you will do or that you care about something or someone. I want to see you back that up with action. Meaningful action. Buying things or putting ribbon magnets on the back of your car are empty gestures if that is all you are doing to support the cause.
Now I don’t mean to sound cynical. I know that people who go out and buy all things “pink” have the best of intentions at heart. Some are motivated by their own or their friends’ struggle with the disease. Where I get cynical is when the “breast cancer industry” steps in to cash in on both the suffering of people with cancer and the good intentions of those who want to help in order to make money for themselves. I find it immoral to profit from other people's suffering. But overall,it is easier to buy something you don’t need, with the best of intentions, than it is to actually get your hands dirty, so to speak.
And that is why I’m bothered by "pinkification".
For as long as October has been Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we should all be aware by now that breast cancer exists. So by this point, shouldn’t we be working towards bringing awareness towards and eliminate the actual causes of breast cancer? Shouldn’t we be working towards making cancer treatment available for all women and not just those who can afford it or have health insurance? Women still die from this disease and while early detection is important, all the free mammograms in the world won't matter if a woman can't afford to get treatment. Cancer rates are still climbing every year. People can buy all the pink mixers or shirts or ribbons or cups of yogurt they want, but we are no closer towards a cure than we were before all these pink items showed up on the store shelves.
Instead of buying things you may or may not need, donate money directly towards charity. Then you know for sure that your money is going towards the cause. Cancer patients don’t need you to buy things; they need your support. Volunteer. Offer to help someone with cancer out by coming over to cook a meal or clean their house or pick their kids up from school for them. Do something that has a direct impact on someone with cancer. Donate hair to Locks of Love. If you are crafty, make a chemo cap. Many knitting and sewing groups make hats and donate them to cancer wards and hospitals so that cancer patients can have something to wear that keeps their heads warm. Small, direct gestures can mean more to someone with this disease than buying a product from a shelf. There are many things you can do and those small gestures can have a great impact.
You can also make larger gestures. Work to bring awareness to all types of cancer. There should be no such thing as "cancer snobbery". Don’t buy products that are known to contain cancer causing substances, ESPECIALLY those being sold in the name of breast cancer awareness. Look at the bigger picture; that is, the world around us. Certain lawmakers wish to eliminate or gut the Environmental Protection Agency, which in turn, will mean that companies can dump chemical waste into our lakes and rivers and release chemicals into the air we breathe. This isn’t about hugging trees or saving whales. This is about our quality of life. We need to take charge of our own health and one way to do that is to hold those accountable who are poisoning the air we breathe and the water we drink.
I’m not suggesting that people never, ever buy pink in October. But if you do want to buy pink, ask yourself some questions before you make that purchase so that your good intentions go a long way.