Sunday, October 17, 2010

Texas Book Festival: "Pink Ribbon Blues"

As an acolyte of Dr. Devra Davis and a committed skeptic of corporate interests in health, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to hear Dr. Gayle Sulik speak at the Texas Book Festival yesterday about her new book, Pink Ribbon Blues.

Sulik spoke about "pink ribbon culture" defining the breast cancer experience based on an idealized woman (the "She-Ro") who does not exist. She spoke to survivor after survivor who did not identify with--and were insulted by--the assumption that having cancer was "life changing" and "eye opening" and "made me focus on what was really important."

Even though I have breast cancer in all the important places in my family, attended one of the very first Races for the Cure in Washington, DC when my mom had cancer in the early 1990s, went through counseling for the BRCA gene a few years ago, and care deeply about women's health, I am disgusted by the increasingly tacky and ubiquitous pink ribbon garbage that I see everywhere in October.


While I'm all about survivors (female and male) having an outlet to get support and find solidarity around their disease, when I see pink "awareness" nail polish, beer, NFL teams, wine, tacky grocery store baked goods, vacuum cleaners, rubber gloves, and so on, I want to punch someone in the face. And I love pink.

To me, this "pinkwashing" is a targeted distraction on two levels. First, products that are at best only moderately healthy (sugary yogurt) and at worst actually likely to increase your risk of breast cancer (alcohol and tacky baked goods) are made to seem beneficial because, oh can't you see how much they care about "the fight against breast cancer"? They cared enough to put hot pink frosting and ribbon-shaped confetti on their doughnut so surely they aren't actually trying to sell you something that could contribute to cancer.

The NFL cared enough to make all the players wear pink cleats so, no, honey, I can't turn off the game--they're supporting breast cancer awareness!

On a broader social level, government and corporate interests "supporting" breast cancer "awareness" demonstrate a nominal commitment to "women's health" (as though breasts are the only thing we need to keep healthy--and for whose benefit?) and distract from the continued reality that women earn less money, suffer in a patriarchal system, and face other emergent health threats--like environmental chemical exposures that we KNOW cause cancer--that are ignored. Breast cancer provides a convenient "women's issues" bona fide to politicians and companies who couldn't possibly care less about the real problems women face.

Now I've gotta buy the book.

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