A Look at the Ribbon in Pink

By Evelyn Gonzalez '18
Feminism Columnist

As October draws to an end, it’s important that we step back and examine how social media campaigns and slogans geared towards breast cancer have crafted a movement that simultaneously raises awareness and often misrepresents the struggles of affected individuals.

Since its conception in 1991 by the Susan G. Komen Foundation, the pink ribbon has become a universal symbol for breast cancer and a representation of the movement itself. There are many benefits to having a recognizable “brand,” as it can easily incite conversation and participation, which is essential if the goal is education. Many aspects of the breast cancer campaigns have been successful, such as the Peoria Memorial in affiliation with the Race for a Cure, which has been a very lucrative and empowering fundraising event that has raised $7 million for Central Illinois agencies for breast health awareness, education, screening, and treatment. In this way, campaigns that require community involvement help to bring attention to the issue while generating much needed funds.

The issue, however, is that the pink ribbon campaign is as much of a marketing ploy as anything else. According to thinkbeforeyoupink.org, “In 2010, Reebok marketed a line of pink ribbon emblazoned footwear and apparel at prices ranging from $50 to $100. Though it heavily promoted the fact that some of their pink ribbon product sales would be donated to the Avon Breast Cancer Crusade, they set a limit of $750,000, regardless of how many items were sold, and there was no mechanism in place to alert consumers once the maximum donation had been met.” The website added, “It is [also] not clear what breast cancer organizations would benefit, how much money they would receive, and what programs or work would be funded by the donation.”  In order for these campaigns to be beneficial, we have to be conscious about what kind of support that we’re giving, especially since most everything in this movement has become pinkified.

The campaigns that have emerged recently, such as the sloganed t-shirts and wristbands, are problematic in that their focus is often not on the individuals affected and the realities of breast cancer but often result in its sexualization and hyperfocus on the breasts themselves. According to a USA Today article, “A poster for the ‘Save 2nd Base’ fundraiser at a Tao restaurant in Las Vegas depicted a curvy model in a string bikini, noting ‘everyone in pink bathing suits receives open bar.’ Other noteable slogans include, ‘Feel your Boobies,’ ‘Save the Ta-Tas,’ ‘I love Boobies,’ ‘Save Motorboating,’ ‘For Guys, Every Month is Breast Awareness Month’ and ‘Big or Small, Save Them All.’”

It is easy to see that what is highlighted are the breasts rather than the cancer, and that what is insinuated is that the breasts — rather than the people — are the most important aspect of the illness.This is especially evident if we take a look at the multitude of misogynistic comments made by people that lamented the loss of Angelina Jolie’s breasts, after she decided to have a preventative double mastectomy. The reality is that for many mastectomies are often vital for a person’s individual health and comments like these distract from the damaging and detrimental realities of breast cancer. The conversation needs to shift if we’re going to have meaningful and impactful discussion around how breast cancer affects the lives of millions and the ways that we can provide support.

Organizing campaigns centered around specific illnesses is important in order to spread awareness and raise funds for research and treatment. However, not all campaigns are created equal and we need to be cautious about what kinds of images and slogans we spread.

As writer Peggy Orenstein said,

On one hand, women with cancer are told— or have to learn— that we are not our breasts, that our sexuality, our femininity are not located in the mammary gland[...] That’s a complicated, sometimes painful reckoning. Then these organizations come along and reinforce the notion that boobs are the most important things about us, particularly if they’re hot and apparently most particularly if they’re actually fake.

What these slogans do is redirect the attention and place the emphasis on the breasts and not those individuals affected with this illness. In order to create a movement that adequately addresses the needs and concerns of those affected by breast cancer, we need to stop thinking in terms of saving the breast and instead shift the conversation to the individual. This will allow us to generate positive change and create campaigns that refuse to trivialize their experiences.