Pink-Washing and Productive Breast Cancer Awareness

Ashley Peel 

I would like to think that if someone had the gall to ask a breast cancer survivor her opinion of October 13 as “National No Bra Day,” as a way to bring awareness to this disease, she would reply, with just a hint of sarcasm, that everyday is no bra day for her, seeing as the disease caused her to have a double mastectomy. If I were the interviewer, I’d give her a high-five. Everyone is aware that October has been dubbed Breast Cancer Awareness Month. There’s no denying its existence, as pink ribbons litter anything magnetic and pin-able. Pink strands of fake hair are glued into women’s locks, NFL players are wearing pink socks and pink cleats, and products line the shelves with pink labels and tops and cans. But are we really raising awareness or commodifying the disease while lining companies’ pockets with our naïve donations?

Pinkwashing (verb): A term used to describe companies that position themselves as leaders in the fight against breast cancer while engaging in practices that may be contributing to rising rates of the disease.

When I was earning my undergraduate degree, I spent six months studying abroad in Australia. Half-way through my term, my mother Skyped me one morning (my time), right before I was heading to class, to tell me the unfortunate news that a family friend, whom had been fighting cancer for years, had passed. Her name was Carol. Her son was the first boy who ever tried to kiss me; her daughter, my sister and I cheered competitively together through middle and high school. We had spent a lot of time with this woman traveling to and from practices and competitions, or just spending time with her kids at their house. Until her cancer relapsed, this time in her abdomen, I never knew that she had only one breast, or that she had even had breast cancer more than ten years before. My mother had known, and she had known that Carol and her husband were having difficulties. Of course the entire blame can’t be put on breasts, but the intimacy of their relationship was lost with the mastectomy. She once told my mom that she felt repulsion from her husband when he looked at her naked chest; she couldn’t feel sexy and he couldn’t be aroused. In fact, it was after the separation and the need to feel womanly again that the second cancer was found. She wanted reconstructive surgery to replace her breasts. The initial surgery went well, she was on the path to rediscovering her sex appeal, but a small place wouldn’t heal. During routine post-op blood work, the doctors realized she was littered with cancerous cells.

I bet Carol would have had some choice words for the creators of No Bra Day, as did Huffington Post contributor Leisha Davison-Yasol in her post, “Please Put That Pink Can of Soup Down and Put Your Bra Back On.” “Are you kidding me?” Davison-Yasol says.

“How on earth could a day where girls and women are encouraged to post and share photos of their braless breasts and to walk around with their nipples poking through their shirts be “supportive” for women who are living with or who have died from breast cancer, or who have managed to ‘complete’ the arduous treatments and disfiguring surgeries required to put them into remission?”

Davison-Yasol is a breast cancer survivor who lost her breasts to the disease. She not only was repulsed at the idea of “seeing bra-less women flaunting two body parts that [she] lost to cancer—more than [she] already [sees] on a regular day” in the name of “support,” but in her post she continues to describe the frivolousness of Pinkwashing the month of October, because in truth most of the money consumers spend on the extra products that “support” breast cancer isn’t going anywhere near breast cancer research or awareness.

Breast Cancer is the most common form of cancer in women in the world. A New York Times article states that 182,460 cases were diagnosed in the United States in 2008, but it’s the most common globally, which means we aren’t the only population affected. In 2008, the African country of Burkina Faso had 907 cases, and with a population of only 14,784 people, that means roughly six percent of the population had breast cancer. I bet you didn’t even know Burkina Faso existed. In that same New York Times article, titled “Uganda Fights Stigma and Poverty to Take on Breast Cancer,” Jennifer Bakyawa describes the hardships of Ugandan women faced with breast cancer diagnoses. Bakyawa followed forty-eight-year-old Mary Namata on her journey from discovering she has breast cancer, (it took four years before she went to the doctor about her numerous tumors) through the process of treatment. In a country where access to medical treatment is beyond limited–many patients are in stage four before their cancer is discovered–cancer awareness is nearly nonexistent, clouded by malaria and AIDS prevention, and  clinics and hospitals that are littered with corruption, survival rates are low.

Uganda has only six oncologists for the entire country, all located in the town of Kampala. Compare that with the United States’ more than 10,000 oncologists in 2011. Uganda also has only one radiation machine that serves not only patients in Uganda, but Kenya, Rwanda, and South Sudan as well. Maybe more time and money should be spent helping underdeveloped countries with breast cancer awareness and treatment. This isn’t a domestic problem anymore, it’s worldwide.

Awareness has increased and foundations have been created to fight for a cure against breast cancer. But I think we can be doing more. We aren’t told the stories of women like Carol and Leisha and Mary, and we truly aren’t helping by dying our hair pink and using pink tote bags. Instead, Davison-Yasol’s article offers a number of organizations that are worth donating your dollar to, and asks for people to do their homework. We should care a little less about flaunting our perky, perfect, carefree boobies, and spend a little more time (and money) working towards a productive fight.

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