(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.