I’m not a big fan of the whole “awareness ribbon” thing, but if I had a pink ribbon, I’d be dyeing it red – a deep crimson – to express how pissed-off I am at the increasing trivialization of breast cancer. “Awareness” substitutes for the fury that ought to drive the search for effective and innovative cures and prevention. (Ditto for other cancers, too, though none of them have reached quite such dizzying heights of awareness.)
Just what is breast cancer awareness, anyway? We hear about it every year, and most of us probably think, “Early detection. Better funding for research. Support for women who are fighting the disease.” A few of us might think: “Investigating environmental causes. Asking why the incidence of breast cancer is actually rising.”
Well, we’d all be wrong. Here’s how Evelyn Lauder describes it at HuffPo (and yes, I know only I am to blame for reading HuffPo):
In 1992, I co-created the Pink Ribbon with Alexandra Penney, then editor-in-chief of SELF magazine, and in turn started The Estée Lauder Companies’ Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign. Today, the Pink Ribbon has become the ubiquitous symbol of breast health, and I’m thrilled to share that, to date, The Estée Lauder Companies has distributed more than 110 million Pink Ribbons worldwide. The 2010 Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign theme is: “Connect. Communicate. Conquer. Prevent Breast Cancer One Woman At A Time. The Pink Ribbon. Wear It. Share It.”
In other words: All you have to do is wear a pink ribbon! If we all just pinkified ourselves sufficiently, we’d wipe out breast cancer.
(To be fair, Estelle Lauder also donates some pretty big chunks of change to research, as is explained at the end of the HuffPo piece. But still.)
My second peeve with the Lauder campaign is that this year, they seem to be hopping on the save-the-boobies bandwagon. They’ve recruited several bloggers to pose nude, their arms shielding their nipples. All in the name of breast cancer awareness, of course. There’s a gesture at inclusiveness, with one man and one woman of color, as far as I can see, and one older woman in a three-generations shot. But that gesture is really just a slight nod. The rest of the women pictured are all conventionally sexy, white, and young enough to be winning the fight against gravity. (To be clear: I’m not dissing any of the bloggers involved, who likely went out of their comfort zone to promote a cause they care passionately about. I’m objecting to the overall impact of the campaign and the assumption that a sexy breast – and not the whole person – should become a focal point of activism.)
As I was viewing the site while sitting next to my husband on the couch, he glanced over and his eyes grew wide. “What are you looking at?” he wanted to know. To him, at least, these pictures didn’t convey any anti-cancer message.
I griped last year about the sexualization and ageism of the Save the Boobs video and the Blogger Boobie-Thon. But they were bit players compared to Estelle Lauder, which is one of the biggest forces in “think pink” marketing.
I’m no prude. I’m quite fond of boobs, myself (especially my own). But let’s be honest: Most of us who get breast cancer are no longer dewy and perky. The “passion” that the Estelle Lauder photo gallery was supposed to convey with a hand on the heart? That could be accomplished with clothes on, too. And then there’s the basic problem that it’s an outrage to make breast cancer – any cancer – sexy. Does anyone think that chemo patients feel sexier without their hair? That one’s libido won’t take a dive after a mastectomy or during the rigors of radiation and chemo? That anemia makes a gal or guy feel positively smoking hot?
People with cancer are usually still sexy to their lovers. But they often don’t feel that way themselves. No matter how good its intentions, a campaign that reduces their life-threatening disease to their lost “hotness” isn’t just sexist. It’s cruel. No amount of pink ribboning can paper over that.