Glad to Spot a Pink Ribbon

This morning I walked into a Starbucks and noted a woman wearing a little pink ribbon on the lapel of her suit. She appeared to be in a meeting, speaking seriously with a small group of people dressed for business.

How great is that, I thought, that she wears the pink ribbon unabashedly, in this October of 2011. She sees nothing wrong with raising awareness about breast cancer, or expressing her concern about this killer of women. Kudos!

In some circles now it’s fashionable to bash pink symbols, to say how breast cancer shouldn’t be prettified, or commercialized, or overblown. What I’d say is, of course, the disease isn’t beautiful, or good, or inherently profitable, or to be perceived as a gift. It’s none of those things.

But we take for granted, lately, how open people are about breast cancer and its complications. Twenty years ago, and even ten, many women I knew took their treatments silently. Few disclosed their illness to others in the community. Many lacked open sources of information or support. For some, breast cancer was a source of shame.

Times have changed, indeed.

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  • I don’t personally support bandwagons of any color. They are not useful. If it has become “fashionable to bash pink symbols,” and I’m not sure that it has, I certainly would not support it. Careful critique, however, is a different animal, and the ongoing and mounting critique of the pink ribbon culture and industry is quite valid. It goes far beyond personal choices to wear, or not to wear, a particular shade of pink.

    I’ve written the comment below previously on this blog, but it seems to be just as relevant here. I only include it again because I want to be clear to readers that while there may be pink-bash out there somewhere, it is not in the world where I live.

    There appears to be a dis­con­nection between the feel-good activ­ities sur­rounding some breast cancer awareness and fund-raising activ­ities com­pared to the harsh real­ities, not only of many people who are living with breast cancer, but also to what is on the horizon in terms of breast cancer pre­vention and cures. There are many of us who have strong con­cerns that activ­ities such as the fashion show and many others feed the pink ribbon industry without pro­viding a mean­ingful return on that investment.

    It’s true that over the past five years espe­cially society has seen the devel­opment of “pink fatigue.” This is largely because some of the most visible activ­ities in the name of awareness provide inac­curate or mis­leading infor­mation, mar­gin­alize groups of people, do not fund research, or are counter-productive in other ways. But the basis of the anti-pink cri­tique, for many including myself, is not about what color a person chooses to wear.

    I still have the first pink ribbon I ever wore. It was one of those cloth ribbons put together with a safety pin. Now I wear it to remind myself of why I got involved in breast cancer advocacy, to remember the people I’ve lost to this disease, to honor those who are striving to make a dif­ference, and to stand for thoughtful con­sid­er­ation of what is working and what is not working in pink ribbon culture.

    I agree with you that wearing pink is a per­sonal choice. But the out­comes of what has become of the pink ribbon as an industry and a culture are more social than per­sonal. These con­se­quences inevitably impact where this war on breast cancer is going, and whether there is any real hope that we’ll make progress toward the erad­i­cation of breast cancer or other cancers. Anti-pink is a call to “think about pink” – to look at all of the out­comes of how we as a society are orga­nizing around the cause of breast cancer, the pos­i­tives and the neg­a­tives, so that we might recal­i­brate our actions to make the most of the pos­i­tives and min­imize the negatives.

  • Gayle,

    Thanks for writing in. I suspect we agree more than we disagree.

    Still, I worry about a spillover effect, that pink fatigue and some fair criticisms of BC commercialism lead to a blasé attitude about the disease itself.

  • Hi Dr. Elaine,

    I’m not so sure that the avalanche of pink ribbons out there will lead to a “blasé attitude” towards breast cancer itself (no woman – or her friends/coworkers/family members – touched by a breast cancer diagnosis could ever be accused of such an attitude, as Gayle illustrates here).

    What does concern me is that we are increasingly bombarded with inane commercial examples of pinkification. Last year, for example, we saw pink buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken, pink-handled Tasers and (yes, seriously) pink Smith & Wesson handguns.

    How in God’s name do these items help ‘raise awareness’ of breast cancer issues, other than, of course, boosting sales of such items?) Where will it all end? I suspect THAT’S what pink-bashers seem most fed up with.

    Consider the Lean Cuisine frozen dinner packaging featuring the ubiquitous pink ribbon of Breast Cancer Awareness Month last year. But consumers who bought their Lean Cuisine frozen dinners believing that a portion of the purchase cost would benefit breast cancer charities learned upon reading the fine print on the package that they actually had to visit the company’s website and order a Lean Cuisine lunchbag. Only then would a portion of that lunchbag’s purchase price be donated. Brilliant marketing campaign – resulting in all those colourful Lean Cuisine lunchbags helping to freely advertise the company’s brand in staff lunchrooms all over North America!

    I recommend that, pink ribbon or not, every consumer should visit Think Before You Pink to learn more about questions to ask before you jump on the pink bandwagon.


  • Hi Carolyn,
    I agree that the pink culture has gone overboard. (As an aside, I find the sale of any guns terrifying, pink or otherwise.) And you’re perfectly right that many of the BC awareness sales aren’t truly benefiting patients or anyone else besides the companies that promote them.

    Which maybe is why I liked the simple pink ribbon the woman wore the other day. It was a simple, non-commercial expression of her concern.

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