(un)happy pinktober: or, how i hate cancer, pink-washing, and sexual objectification

I love pink.


My kitchen is pink (and green). I wore hot pink heels at my wedding. My office floor rug: pink. Notebooks: pink.


You might think, then, that I love October, and the constant reminders to think, wear, and consume pink. Companies peddle limited edition pink goods, and even the first-down line is pink on TV during NFL games.

Instead of feeling awash in the power of pink, I feel queasy. I dodge pink. I don’t participate in campaigns to turn the campus pink. I resist the special pink products.

I hate cancer.

I’ve watched a best friend grapple with her father’s decline as cancer ravaged his body. I’ve sat with a relative as she received chemotherapy. Friends, family, and colleagues are survivors. I’ve waited for results from ultrasounds for myself, family, and friends. I know that cancer is a devastating scourge that can happen to anyone. I fear it.

But I hate pinktober.

I hate one-dimensional awareness. I want action. I want more cancer research, and I want high-quality affordable healthcare for all.

I hate how pink-washing covers over more serious concerns, like toxic chemicals in our environment that might contribute to breast cancer. (Check out the Breast Cancer Action website “Think Before You Pink” for information on cause-marketing, and critical questions to ask about all of the pink products offered for sale this month.)

I hate cute sayings about saving the boobies, boobs, ta-tas, racks. I cringe when I see t-shirts emblazoned with “Big or Small, save them all!” Such slogans smack of sexual objectification and the overall sexualization of an un-sexy disease. (Check out The Scar Project Blog: Breast Cancer is not a Pink Ribbon).

I hate the uncritical gendering of breast cancer as female and feminine. Men have breasts. They get cancer.

I don’t want to diminish anyone’s experience with breast cancer, and I speak only for myself. But I want us to be more critical of such campaigns. Who is benefiting from Pinktober? If we’re focusing on women’s health, why are we more concerned with breast cancer awareness than including concern about breast cancer with other diseases and social ills that affect women? (Did you know that October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month? Ann Friedman writes more on this topic here.)

As a women’s studies professor, I ask that my students critique the world around them through the prism of gender. What are the underlying assumptions? Who has power? How does this situation reinforce gender inequality? How does this situation affect women of color, women of low-income? Who is benefitting from the pinking of American culture? If we’ve poured so much additional money into breast cancer awareness, where is that money going? What research is being funded? What developments have been made?

Want to learn more? You can read a range of opinions on pinktober at the Huffington Post. Writer Barbara Ehrenreich has been a vocal critic of the “breast cancer cult.” And Peggy Orenstein captures some of the evolving debate over both detection and treatment. All of these writers raise interesting questions and critiques, deepening the issue beyond what I’ve explored here by, for example, discussing how significant public awareness campaigns of breast cancer originally were, and also exploring the motives and mixed messages behind major breast cancer charities.


3 thoughts on “(un)happy pinktober: or, how i hate cancer, pink-washing, and sexual objectification

  1. I didn’t always love pink. I was exposed to a lot of pink when I lived with my first college roommate. She was/is obsessed with pink. I do love pink now, but not as part of breast cancer awareness. Please don’t misunderstand me: breast cancer – any kind of cancer – sucks. Trust me. I know. I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when I was 28 and had to have a complete hysterectomy and went through surgical menopause. Which, btw, totally sucked. And still sucks, frankly.

    Is part of my dislike envy? Maybe. Maybe. Because while teal in September has seen a big uptick, unless you know someone diagnosed with ovarian or cervical cancer, you probably don’t even know that teal is the color for that cancer.

    Most of my dislike, however, comes from the fact that I’m a cynic. If all these companies and organizations donated 80% of the money they raise during pinktober, there would likely be a cure. Or at least better treatment. Or free mammograms for all. But most of the companies and most of the stunts are for corporations to profit with very little – sometimes as little as 5% – of profits actually being donated to cancer research.

    I guess, for me, the take away message is this: it is great to want to help people, and to support cancer patients and survivors. My advice is to call the hospital near you and find out which volunteer groups work there. Then contact those groups and find out what you can do to help. When you’re in the hospital and can barely move and someone rolls in a cart full of donated books and magazines that you can pick from, it is a beautiful thing. I’ve also witnessed volunteers reading to patients through their chemo treatments because sometimes, it is too hard to read. I guess it comes down to the tried and true saying: think globally, act locally. Be part of building a community of support for cancer patients and survivors rather than part of corporate profits exploiting cancer.

  2. Loved your read. Just found out this summer my breast cancer metastasized to my bones, etc. etc. I was doing really well until October hit. Felt very positive and hopeful, then , inundated with TV commercials and Pink pink pink everywhere. A commercial on our local station kept playing over and over again, that every 64 seconds a woman dies from BC. Okay, shut up!! Didn’t need to hear that. How does that help in my healing and hope? Suddenly fear entered in. Didn’t want that and working hard now to make it take the door out. Okay, but to some defense of the pink campaign, I did get a free mammo/ultrasound via Susan Komen funds. For that I was grateful, being uninsured with a disabled husband not working. But then I see such a decline in our medical world, especially here in AZ compared to where I come from, CA. They lost my Ultrasound. Would have known over a year ago that I had cancer where I had my mastectomy, but because it was free, I felt I didn’t have an argument. I realize know, shame on them. Shame on me for not standing up. Guess I was in denial, to be honest. But now confront, and being in the midst of it all once again, this time a little more dim, I want to have a voice. If I could say anything, the most important message would be, if you are going to adorn the color pink this month, be it in your hair, or your shirt, ribbon, etc, please be kind and loving towards others. It’s such a contradiction to be anything but. By being loving you can bring on so much healing, more than research dollars are collecting. Stress contributes to cancer, but love helps those cells to be diminished, I do believe.

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