By GABRIELLE HOYT-DISICK
November 3, 2011
Happy belated National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, everyone! And how did you observe? True, there was no Facebook bra-color sharing this year, but with so many breast cancer-themed teddy bears, t-shirts, wines, and menorahs out there and ready for buying, the pink-saturated October awareness fest was nearly impossible to miss. But as the month has passed, I have something somewhat shocking to say: I hate Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The realization didn’t hit me when I spotted a pack of carnation-shaded breast cancer playing cards at Walgreens. It didn’t even come as I ladled festive, salmon-tinted penne a la vodka onto my plate in the dining hall, nor as I sat down in front of a fuchsia and rosebud-colored tissue paper centerpiece. Instead, it struck me as I leafed through the October issue of Vanity Fair, idly searching for an interview with the preternaturally
aesthetically pleasing talented Johnny Depp. Right after the masthead, a full-page ad exhorted me in large, elegant script to “Together: Connect. Communicate. Conquer. For a Future Free of Breast Cancer.” Above it, a trio of slender, air brushed, bare-chested models hugged each other, two of them standing breast-to-breast, their lips bright magenta. The top of the page cut off their eyes.
Before I go any further, let me agree with the following statements: “breasts are awesome” (to quote Salon.com writer Mary Elizabeth Williams) and “cancer sucks” (to quote the aptly name Cancer Sucks! campaign). In the 1950s, neither “breast” nor “cancer” were acceptable words to say; in the 70s, doctors gave women “radical mastectomies,” removing breasts, lymph nodes, and chest muscle without their consent, causing a permanent handicap; in 2002, scientists found that hormone replacement therapy, once a common treatment for the symptoms of menopause, was linked to a higher incidence of breast cancer. According to our good friend Wikipedia, 1 in 8 American women will contract breast cancer in their lifetimes. This is a painful, frightening, and widespread disease, and the fact that it overwhelmingly affects women has disserved those afflicted by it in the past. But we have officially taken breast cancer awareness too far. Using a queasy mix of infantilization and sex appeal, advertisers, corporations, and even charities have turned what should be a month of research and reflection into a case study of our cultural obsession with commercialization, positive thinking, and sex, as well as our fear of messiness, death, and, well, sex.
Case in point: the Feel Your Boobies online campaign, a website that manages to combine a word I haven’t used since third grade with shirts that would make my mother pull me out of college and enroll me in a convent if she ever saw me wearing one. Its online mission statement asserts that “simply ‘feeling your boobies’…is just as effective…as the traditional step-by-step process of ‘breast self-exams,’” and that its “unexpected and unconventional methods” will reach young women who “tune out traditional messages about breast cancer because they don’t believe they are at risk or the messages are too clinical.” Leaving aside the absurdity of the word “boobies,” ignoring the apparel that essentially reduces women to a pair of breasts (try having a conversation with the words “Boobies: Feel Yours” emblazoned across your chest), and forgetting about the statement’s dubious usage of quotation marks, the idea that young women need a gimmicky catchphrase or a pretty color to catch and hold their attention is simply sexist. I don’t see many turquoise-tinted testicle t-shirts; do you? (Blue balls, anyone?)
Of course, that’s not an entirely fair comparison. Testicular cancer is not nearly as widespread as breast cancer, its survival rates are much higher, and men have never been ignored and mistreated by the medical world like women have. “Feel Your Boobies” was founded by a woman with breast cancer; she has suffered, and now she’s trying to help others. Far more egregious are companies like Avon, Eli Lilly, Yoplait, and KFC who, according to the organization Think Before You Pink, “pinkwash” many of their products during October. That is, they claim to support breast cancer research even as their own merchandise contains known carcinogens. These corporations are hypocritically slapping a pink ribbon onto anything they can sell—and reaping a profit while doing so.
Am I saying that the Susan G. Komen Foundation or Race for the Cure should refuse when Avon offers millions of dollars for breast cancer research and mammograms? No. Breast cancer remains the second-most common (after skin) and second-most deadly (after lung) cancer in the US. But honestly, can’t we pull back on the pink and the sex and the baby talk? In this sea of pink, of teddies and boobies, we are losing sight of the people for whom this whole month is meant: women with breast cancer. The truth is that cancer’s not cute. Cancer’s not sexy. And if positive thinking helps women facing a terrible illness and months of chemo, that’s great, but guess what: positive thinking does not cure breast cancer. So far, nothing cures breast cancer. Breast cancer is terrible and upsetting, and those afflicted by it should be able to act and live however they choose, without corporations’ attempts to turn a moral and financial profit or our own attempts to pretend that cancer, somehow, is cute, pink, or glamorous.
Note: I am indebted to Mary Elizabeth Williams’ and Barbara Ehrenreich’s eloquent and courageous articles about their own struggles with breast cancer. For more on pinkwashing, visit: http://thinkbeforeyoupink.org
Gabrielle Hoyt-Disick is a freshman in Yale College. She is a staff writer for Broad Recognition.