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Pretty in Pink: Is This Women’s Health Activism?

“I ‘Heart’ Boobies,” “Pink Pony Charity Event,” “I like it on the _____,” KFC’s “Buckets for the Cure.” These are just a few of the slogans and campaigns that are trying to raise awareness of breast cancer during this year’s Breast Cancer Awareness month. Many journalists and activists have already issued pointed critiques of such efforts. Some, especially the organization Think Before You Pink, have examined whether money raised by breast cancer charity events contributes to the cause in a meaningful way. Others have questioned the value of continuing to urge women to undergo mammograms when the scientific literature is beginning to reevaluate the cost-benefit analysis of this approach.

In addition to looking critically at the financial and scientific underpinnings of the modern breast cancer movement, it is also important to recognize that these campaigns contain numerous narratives – narratives not just of illness, but of gender and sexuality, too. Deciphering just what these cultural narratives are telling us matters because it is largely through these narratives that we come to know what breast cancer means.

The products and events that are used to raise money for breast cancer often have as much to do with traditional femininity as they do with women’s health. As I walked down Main Street in my small town this weekend, I was especially struck by posters in half a dozen shop windows for a “Stiletto Stampede” – a breast cancer walk in which participants wear their favorite high heels – geared toward raising funds for breast cancer. Similarly, while I was stocking up my kitchen this summer, I was overwhelmed by the array of kitchen products – electric mixers, food processors, hot mitts galore – that are sold in pink to raise money for breast cancer.

The breast cancer movement was initially a staunchly feminist movement. As such, it was not only concerned with women’s health per se but also with conceptions of gender and sexual politics at large. The early movement challenged the medical institution’s objectifying and patriarchal lens and insisted that doctors listen to women’s voices about their own bodies.

The “Stiletto Stampede” and pink Kitchen Aid mixers hardly evoke that feminist zeal. Rather than confronting women’s health issues by critically assessing women’s position within a gendered world and examining the social determinants of health, such events and products seem to reinforce problematic stereotypes of and expectations for women. While perhaps raising money for breast cancer research and educating women about the risk of breast cancer – claims which need to be examined themselves – they do so at a cost: in such campaigns, participation in women’s health activism is paradoxically positioned alongside the symbols of unattainable beauty and the burden of domestic duties that have all too often held women back, both personally and politically.

Breast cancer campaigns can additionally reinforce the state of childlike dependence women have had to push back against in their struggles to become full citizens. I am inclined to believe that efforts of groups promoting breast cancer awareness are well intentioned. Yet despite the good intentions and the potential funds raised for breast cancer research, the gendered scripts that underpin such campaigns are arguably not beneficial to women.

For example, the firefighters of the small city where I grew up were recently photographed for our local newspaper in pink tee shirts with the aim of raising awareness about breast cancer. The emotional currency of such a campaign hinges on the image of these strapping men coming to the rescue – that is their profession, after all – of women in need.

Breast cancer is in many ways a convenient cause for groups such as these firefighters to champion. It “provides a way of doing something for women, without being feminist,” said Cindy Pearson, director of the National Women’s Health Network, quoted in Barbara Ehrenreich’s iconic piece, “Welcome to Cancerland.”

While the firefighters’ campaign may raise money for breast cancer and serve as a source of strength for those personally affected by the disease – two undoubtedly important aims – it does so without needing consider the ways in which the social environments in which men play a huge rule can negatively impact women’s health and well-being. Were these men to raise awareness about domestic violence or sexually transmitted diseases – which perhaps they do during other months of the year – they would need to reckon more directly with relations between men and women.

Perhaps even more problematic than the relentless stream of stereotypically feminine products sold in pink for breast cancer and the paternalistic subtexts of many breast cancer campaigns is the tendency of certain segments of today’s breast cancer movement to reveal a disturbing fascination with women’s breasts and sex lives. One of the most egregious examples of this is a breast cancer awareness campaign proposed for high schools across the U.S. that features bracelets with the phrase ‘I ♥ Boobies’. Rather than promote meaningful breast cancer education – whatever that would be for such young girls – these tantalizing bracelets, provided by an organization called the Keep a Breast Foundation, fixate on women’s breasts as sexy objects rather than promote women’s health and well-being. Even if such a breast cancer campaign did raise millions of dollars for breast cancer research, is it excusable to objectify and sexualize women in the name of women’s health?

Along similar lines, a particularly troubling Facebook meme is spreading across the Internet on women’s Facebook profiles as yet another flashy attempt to raise awareness about breast cancer. They are writing “I like it on ____,” inserting a place in the space, for example, “I like it on the table.” You think they are referring to sex, do you? Get your mind out of the gutter! The “it” refers to their purses. I had noticed the proliferation of these Facebook statuses over the past few weeks, but until I read an article on the trend, I was completely in the dark as to their purpose. Rather than compelling other women to receive their yearly breast exam, I suspect these posts simply got a lot of people – most especially men – thinking about these women having sex.

My critiques of these numerous breast cancer campaigns might suggest that I am not concerned about breast cancer, that I do not appreciate the good intentions of those trying to raise awareness about women’s health and to support women with breast cancer, or that I am too uptight to find the humor in playful sexual banter. None of these assertions is true, however.

Rather, what concerns me are the ways in which our social world, including the ways we talk about sex and structure gender norms, can become mixed up with public health and health activism efforts. In discussing so many health issues, ranging from obesity to end-of-life care, we use health as a justification for talking or not talking about certain delicate subjects. In this case, problematic ideas about women’s sexuality and femininity are wrapped up in efforts to actually help women. And when problematic gender expectations are integrated into campaigns to raise money for or awareness of women’s health, those problematic gender expectations are all too often excused, ignored, or simply unnoticed.

But even if we excuse, ignore, or miss them all together, cultural narratives are part and parcel of health activism. In some cases, such narratives can be empowering and can play a key role in changing social relations and personal behavior. We ought to recognize that breast cancer awareness month is not only a month for raising money for breast cancer research and encouraging women to get mammograms. It is also a time to shape the sorts of narratives we tell about breast cancer and women. Breast cancer awareness campaigns might then better serve women if they could resist narratives of women as merely sexualized, dependent, and frivolous.

Colleen Farrell is a research assistant at The Hastings Center.

Published on: October 19, 2010
Published in: Activism, Health and Health Care

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