So last night I became aware of this dumb Facebook meme telling women to post the colour of their bras in their statuses with the supposed aim of raising breast cancer awareness. On the face of it, this is moronic: it’s hardly raising awareness if the entire thing is based on a secret code only familiar to the people already posting (and therefore already “aware”). Not to mention that the target audience here was really ineffectively chosen. The vast majority of women arealready aware of breast cancer and how to check for it, and men – who, yes, can develop breast cancer! – were deliberately kept out of the loop on this one, despite perhaps having a greater need for breast cancer “awareness”.
On other levels, though, the whole thing is symptomatic of an unhealthy and unproductive approach to the breast cancer problem. Years ago, raising awareness of breast cancer was a real and pressing concern. It was one of those diseases that simply wasn’t talked about, and as a result women were dying without ever understanding or confronting the cause. Now, breast cancer is the superstar of incurable diseases. Everyone and their dog has a pink product for sale, “with a portion of proceeds going towards breast cancer f*ckery”.
“F*ckery?” you may say. “Isn’t that a little harsh?” And yes, I will concede that there are, in fact, breast cancer related campaigns that are not full of fail. However, there are also lots and lots that are.
Let’s start off by talking about the fundraising runs. I acknowledge that getting people involved this way can be a fun way to raise money. Unfortunately, the amount of money required to organize these events often means that more than a third of money raised goes towards event costs. Getting people to just hand over cheques would be far more effective. Still, I understand the perspective that the cheques wouldn’t get signed if not for the runs, so I won’t give these an F. Maybe a C+, and a “More effort needed”.
Now then – the awareness campaigns. Does anyone remember that episode of 90210 where Brenda finds a lump in her breast and thinks she’s dying of cancer? And then she goes to the doctor and finds out that it’s nothing? Because less than 7% of breast cancers occur in women under 40? Yeah. While it’s great to be informed, it’s not good when that information is causing unnecessary anxiety and healthcare costs. In fact, while the revised US Preventative Services Task Force recommendations on breast cancer screening are framed in a way that’s super-patronizing, they do emphasize an important point: screening is good if it’s helpful. If it’s not – if pushing breast cancer awareness over and over and over again is scaring women instead of informing them – then it’s not helpful, it’s harmful. Hell, the only carcinogen definitively linked to breast cancer is the ionizing radiation used by mammography machines. Stick THAT in your pipe and smoke it.
Now let’s talk pink. Thinkbeforeyoupink.org does a great job of asking some critical questions about whether or not pinkification programs are effective, so I won’t repeat that here. What I do want to talk about is the phenomenon of “pink-washing”: where companies will wear pink while pushing products that may actually cause cancer in the first place. In the words of Cindy Pearson, director of the National Women’s Health Network, “Breast cancer provides a way of doing something for women, without being feminist.”
Avon is a major sponsor of breast cancer causes, while producing make-up containing toxins (parabens and phthalates) that may contribute to breast cancer. Yoplait sold pinkified yogurt that contained rBGH-stimulated dairy, another potential cause of breast cancer (though, through the efforts of Breast Cancer Action, they are now rBGH-free). Traditional car exhaust contains toxins linked to breast cancer, but this doesn’t stop Ford, Mercedes, and BMW from using breast cancer to promote their products. Cause-related marketing also means that the money raised by pinkified products is often minimal (think American Express’ one cent per credit card transaction) and subject to limits (likeEureka capping its annual contribution from sales at $250,000). Cause-related marketing raises money for awareness and cures, but avoids any mention of cancer’s causes. In fact, the real causes of breast cancer are mostly unknown, despite breast cancer’s position as the most popular girl at the dance. But breast cancer rates have increased by 46% since 1988, so something is clearly wrong.
Finally, there’s the fact that breast cancer campaigns are often egregiously sexist. Check out the photo above, which evokes images of violence against women more than violence against cancer. By focusing on breasts, instead of the women attached to them, women’s concerns are removed from the equation entirely. Cancer victims – and women as a group – are sexualized and dehumanized when we’re reduced to just boobs. The pink products, which are almost uniformly infantilizing and domesticating (teddy bears and pink vacuums, anyone?) make the disease seem harmless and easily conquered, while also reducing women to passive, uncritical children/patients. Cancer “survivors” are uniformly portrayed as calmly inspirational, framing their disease as a “life-changing experience” that allowed them to “refocus” on the “important things in life”. Is there any other life-threatening disease out there that’s actually promoted as a good thing to have?!
So what can we do? Read “Welcome to Cancerland” by Barbara Ehrenreich. Support Breast Cancer Action’s “Think Before You Pink” campaign. In fact, check out Breast Cancer Action’s other campaigns and do what you can to support them. Donate directly to reputable breast cancer organizations, after taking the time to figure out where your money will actually go.
Most of all, consider whether your action is helpful or harmful. Hint: posting your bra colour doesn’t fall in the “helpful” category.