Remembrance

An Excerpt from Pink Ribbon Blues

In the early 1990s, it seemed as though society was ready to confront breast cancer. Breast cancer activism was starting to gain momentum in extending public outreach, increasing research funding, and gaining a seat at the public policy table. In August 1993, the New York Times Magazine published a story about the achievements of the breast cancer movement with the title, “You Can’t Look Away Anymore.” The caption referred both to the success of the movement in agitating for change, and to the photograph on the cover.

“Beauty Out of Damage” is a graphic self-portrait in which the artist and activist, Matuschka, bared her mastectomy scar. Unlike typical images of breast cancer survivors, the explicit nature of the photograph sparked significant controversy about how breast cancer should be presented to the public.

Matuschka, who was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1991 and learned later that her mastectomy was unnecessary, focused on increasing awareness about the prevalence of the disease. Frequently unveiling work that revealed her post-mastectomy body, she was devoted to issues of body image for women, and especially for women who had had mastectomies. With a circulation of 1.8 million, the Times Magazine article with its shocking cover called out to the public to pay attention.

Matuschka’s now-infamous photograph has appeared in hundreds of international publications, books, television shows, and documentaries. Some of the commentary about the photograph accused her of exploitation, but Matuschka told interviewers that her photographs were not created with the expectation of financial gain. So, why did she do it? The artist says why in a response in Glamour Magazine later that year:

I have always adhered to the philosophy that one should speak and show the truth, because knowledge leads to free will, to choice. If we keep quiet about what cancer does to women’s bodies, if we refuse to accept women’s bodies in whatever condition they are in, we are doing a disservice to womankind.

Since its cover debut, “Beauty Out of Damage” received 12 awards, including a Pulitzer Prize nomination. The silence that once surrounded breast cancer had been broken. Fifteen years after the Times Magazine confronted the “anguished politics” of breast cancer, representations of breast cancer are everywhere. Pink ribbons and talk of breast cancer awareness in everyday social spaces must mean that, unlike the dark and quiet past, we now have an exhaustive number of ways to show and speak the truth about breast cancer.

Regrettably, women and their support networks are now hidden beneath a barrage of pink ribbons and silenced in a cacophony of pink talk. The accepted discourse of pink ribbon culture—solidly lodged in war metaphor, triumphant survivorship, pink consumption, and narratives of quest and transcendence—limits the words, plotlines, and imagery available to communicate women’s varied experiences of breast cancer and ways of coping.

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4 comments to Remembrance

  • I can’t tell you the number of times people have said to me that staying positive and happy will keep me winning my “battle” with breast cancer. People always ask me how I’m feeling, but don’t really want to hear the answer, unless I’m upbeat and sunny. People are always saying to me “Oh you look great”, but they don’t really see what is going on, and nor do they really want to. So many people say “Oh we must catch up”, but then never call or just simply ignore me. I now surround myself with a few very trusted friends and even now there are only a couple whom I feel completely comfortable talking with, and who “get” me. If I’m feeling off, I just don’t see people.

    For me, the pink ribbon culture has created standards of “strength”, “inspiration, “beauty” and “survivorship” that make it very difficult for me to express what I’m truly thinking and feeling. I highly doubt that Matuscka’s photo would ever be published now in the mainstream media. No one wants to hear it, see it or think about what a breast cancer diagnosis really means unless it’s tied up in a pretty pink ribbon and living happily ever after.

  • Thank you for sharing that, Anna. You are not alone in having that experience.

    It would be interesting to propose republishing “Beauty Out of Damage” in a mainstream publication at this point. I have a feeling that you’re right, and it would never happen.

  • This is incredible. Thank you.

“Pink Ribbon Blues”

Paperback includes a new Introduction on fundraising controversies and a color insert with images of, and reactions to, the pinking of breast cancer (2012).


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* GAYLE IN THE MEDIA *

"Seeing clearly through the pink haze" Toronto Sun

*Sad face*: Being happy does not help you live longer" New Scientist

How should we address breast cancer when norms continually change? The Guardian

Your Fun 'No Bra Day' Photos Are Overshadowing Terminal Breast Cancer Patients Broadly

Backlash against “pinkwashing” of breast cancer awareness campaigns BMJ

Breast Cancer to Rise 50 Percent by 2030? Hey, Not So Fast! Health News Review

Breast Cancer: The Flaws in the Cause iafrica.com

How to Make the Biggest Impact With Your Breast Cancer Donations Money

The Very Pink, Very Controversial Business of Breast Cancer Awareness Racked

NFL, Pink Ribbons Not Enough to Win over Women CNN

3 Questions We Need to Answer for Breast Cancer Awareness Month Chronicle of Philanthropy

The problem with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month Women's Health Magazine

Pink Ribbon Envy: Living with an Uncool Cancer The Nib

A Year After Bombings, Some Say 'Boston Strong' Has Gone Overboard NPR, All Things Considered

Canadian Mammogram Study KCRW, NPR Affiliate

Time to Debunk the Mammography Myth CNN

Breast Cancer: Awareness, Activism & Pinkwashing NPR Charlotte

Buying Pink Al Jazeera's The Stream Watch »

The Pink Backlash Orlando Sentinel

Why Jolie's Test Costs So Much CNN

Preventative Mastectomies: Disease and Deception BlogTalkRadio

Angelina Jolie and the 'Breast Cancer Gene' KCRW

Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer The New York Times Magazine.

The Story Behind the Pink Ribbon Campaign Sisters Talk Radio

WISH Interview Women's International Summit for Health

Making Cancer About The Patient, Not The Body Part CBS Pittsburgh

Sexy breast cancer campaigns anger many patients USA Today

The perils of pink The Daily

Komen pink campaign creates breast-cancer blues for some Dallas Morning News

A yellow flag for the NFL's pink New York Daily

Gayle Sulik named #7 in SharecareNow’s Top 10 Online Influencers in Breast Cancer

Breast cancer cancer causes so easily derailed Philly Inquirer

Komen Charity Under Microscope for Funding, Science Reuters

The Fight Against Cancer - And Abortion? Salon.com

Susan G. Komen For the Cure defunds Planned Parenthood. In Deep with Angie Coiro

Amid Breast Cancer Month, Is there Pink Fatigue? NPR's All Things Considered

How is Breast Cancer Culture Undermining Women's Health? America’s Radio News Network

Pink Ribbon Culture and Breast Cancer The Kojo Nnamdi Show

The Big Business of Breast Cancer
Marie Claire

Does Breast Cancer Awareness Month Crowd Out Other Diseases? Slate

Pink Inc. Has Many Starting to See Red The Sacramento Bee

Get Your Pink Off Ottawa Citizen

Komen Pink Ribbons Raise Green and Questions USA Today

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** MORE RADIO INTERVIEWS **