washing away the pink!

This October echoes a different tone.

While in years past I would look forward to picking up a pack of pink peanut M&M’s, this year, whenever I see pink, I stop and remember the women I know who have faced (and are still facing) what the pink represents: breast cancer. What I’ve noticed more than ever is that Pink Washing”  seems to have taken the place of personal testimony and instead of actively advocating for a change, people find themselves enabling a passive reaction without even realizing it. I’m not against wearing a pink ribbon, because it does remind us of the epidemic that is breast cancer, but what I am against is a consumer-driven industry that encourages people to buy rather than visit, to adorn rather than mourn and to cash out rather than reach out.

Many bloggers, writers, activists and celebrities are asking: “Should we hate breast cancer awareness?”.

Could our answer be both “Yes” and “No”?

During my research on the history of feminine hygiene, I looked closely at how women’s health issues are transformed into a successful marketing strategy, a commodity that can be bought and sold. From my findings I learned that oftentimes the reality of a disease, condition or een monthly experience very quickly gets pushed to the background of a promotional/advocacy campaign.

Look closely at any corporate social awareness campaign and you will see what it really is about: money. Yes, money fuels research, but it also lends to a consumer society that could benefit from buying less. How do we not find it ironic when cosmetic companies make a philanthropic effort for women’s health, but still sell products that contain toxins?

In my brief time writing for The Canadian Cancer Society I quickly learned the value of research (and necessity) to discovering a cure. At the same time, I learned that if the budget allotted for designing the latest “ribbon” marketing strategy was actually sent directly to research, there would be a lot more research taking place. In fact, what many don’t know is that the signature “Pink” ribbon, often attributed to Estée Lauder, that spurred the pink ribbon campaign, is really a copy cat of the original, peach coloured breast cancer awareness ribbon designed by Charlotte Haley – a woman who wanted to draw awareness to breast cancer through the simple sign of a fish tail ribbon. When approached by Estée Lauder to share the ribbon, Haley politely declined. And so Estée Lauder created their own ribbon… and you guessed it, it was pink! I guess if you wanted to take a stand against “pink washing”, you could start by simply sharing the story of Haley and pinning a peach ribbon to your jacket. 

Deep down we all know that nothing can replace actual and active advocacy and awareness, but somehow buying coloured consumer items seems to be taking precedence over actually doing something.

But it isn’t all bad is it?

Maren Klawiter’s (2008) The Bio-Politics of Breast Cancer explores how activism can be both disabling and enabling. By tracing the history of the breast cancer awareness movement Klawiter highlights how different historical moments lent to new discoveries, while others hurt the movement and still others helped to reclaim it. Others shed some light on the history of marketing breasts and ask the question: “Is there really a positive side to pink washing?”. 

While presenting at a conference in June I learned about a trending genre called “Sick Chick Lit”. This emerging genre seems to be etching out a new realm for breast cancer advocacy. These novels depict what the everyday women with breast cancer actually experiences versus the narrated forms many of see in popular television series and film. Cathy Bueti’s (2009) memoir, Breastless in the City, is just one example of many that are bringing the “reality” of sickness into the mainstream through narrated form.

And there’s more.

Since 2007 Breast Cancer Action has been trying to rewrite the wrongs of “pink washing“. They are not simply telling women what not to do, they are challenging the safety of treatments, trying to reduce the emissions of toxins in our environment and drawing attention to the challenges faced by patients.

In reading through their website I’ve realized that it is not enough to encourage women to do self breast exams. Every woman needs to know some simple truths; they need to know that quite possibly the milk they are drinking or the birth control they are on, may put them at risk.

In these final weeks of October, whether you wear pink or not, I want to encourage you to donate your time or money to a charity that is researching a cure for breast cancer, or one that provides services to breast cancer patients. So rather than investing in a company’s product why not invest directly into a woman’s life?



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