Pink Ribbon Culture as a Form of Psychological Denial

Dr. Linda Rubin, professor and licensed psychologist, is today’s Pink Ribbon Blues contributor.

While reading the first few pages of Gayle Sulik’s book, Pink Ribbon Blues, it hit me: I had never heard any public accounts of women’s breast cancer experiences that were anything but positive, triumphant, and uplifting. I asked myself, how could this be? How is it that I had never noticed that the public discourse on women fighting breast cancer did not match the overwhelming psychological distress that so many women describe in their personal stories? I have been a licensed psychologist for 20 years. I have listened to thousands of women’s stories of personal distress and psychological agony. I know of the profound depression, anxiety, fear, and shame associated with health and mental health problems. Being submerged in the fishbowl of Pink Ribbon Culture, I had missed the obvious. I had missed the huge gap between the festive, cheerful, public discourse on breast cancer and the distressing emotions, negative outcomes, and fears of death experienced by vast numbers of women.

In previous scholarly publications, I have discussed a shield of denial that human beings construct to provide psychological protection from thoughts and feelings that are too devastating to contemplate for prolonged periods of time. Consider our own inevitable deaths. Normal, high functioning women and men will reflect on their own death for finite periods of time, but not too often and not for too long, as thoughts and feelings of our own death are uncomfortable and painful and terrifying.

This shield of denial is necessary for effective human functioning. It enables people to proceed with their lives, without being constantly burdened by intolerable thoughts, images, and feelings. The downside to this shield of denial is avoidance. That is, most of the time, people will prefer not to experience ideas and emotions that are psychologically uncomfortable. Instead, people will routinely push that which hurts to contemplate as far out of their awareness as possible, allowing the most comfortable existence possible. There is nothing unusual about this human process; people prefer to feel good, not bad. There are times, however, when it is important, even necessary, to look directly at that which is difficult. Consider the creation of a will. Individuals must face the reality of their own mortality when planning for a future that will follow their own death. While this is hard for most people, they do it because it is believed to serve a useful purpose.

I suspect that this shield of denial is operating in Pink Ribbon Culture. The painful reality of a breast cancer diagnosis is that it is frightening, not cheerful. It is negative, not festive. It forces individuals to face their own mortality, not to celebrate. Using this shield of denial, people will predictably avoid experiencing the fear and emotional pain associated with a breast cancer diagnosis. It is just too psychologically untenable to think about the reality of a breast cancer diagnosis and its potential relationship to death, if we do not have to. While this psychological self-protection is completely understandable at both the individual and cultural levels, there are moments in time when it is important, even necessary, to examine individual and cultural expectations and messages, instead of denying them. Are we actually communicating the message to women that they are expected to feel happy and positive about a breast cancer diagnosis? In reading this book, I realized that Pink Ribbon Culture may actually serve as an effective and profitable shield of denial, imposing joyfulness, when terror is much closer to the reality for most women.

During the time period I was considering the ideas posited in Pink Ribbon Blues, I noticed that the National Football League’s (NFL) players and coaches were wearing pink accessories as part of their uniforms. Football players and coaches wore pink shoes, caps, gloves, and sweatbands during the games in October of 2010 to draw public attention to Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It is widely understood that the color pink is associated with girls, women, and femininity, with pink ribbons being associated with breast cancer. Displaying pink, as the NFL did, represents the breast cancer cause and the social awareness of goodness associated with supporting the cause, and supporting women vis-à-vis the pink as feminine. I noticed that hypermasculine, professional, football players have now become “warriors in pink,” who serve the crucial war metaphor of fighting breast cancer, which is well-articulated in Dr. Sulik’s book.

A war metaphor obviously fits within the context of the violent sport of professional football. But, I began to grapple with the idea of a relationship between professional football and breast cancer awareness. The idea of NFL teams donning pink accessories, as part of a corporate sponsorship of breast cancer awareness, seems to be Pink Ribbon Culture in action. In the context of the NFL, pink is not just about femininity.  Pink becomes a notable element on the battlefield of the hypermasculine football warrior. Pink becomes acceptably masculine, temporarily, as long as it is associated with Pink Ribbon Culture. When the month of October ended, and Breast Cancer Awareness Month was over, these hypermasculine men ceased to wear pink.

Baltimore Ravens v Pittsburgh Steelers

As I watched these football games, I had mixed feelings and contradictory thoughts.  I was genuinely delighted to see football players wearing pink. I have been an advocate for breaking traditional, restrictive, gendered stereotypes for decades. The epitome of traditional masculinity can be easily seen in football players, who are aggressive, competitive, and tough. Watching these hypermasculine men wearing the traditionally feminine pink was an exciting violation of the traditional feminine gender roles associated with pink. Masculine men wearing pink is great; pink may no longer be associated almost exclusively with feminine women. In wearing pink, the NFL and these masculine men were supporting women by breaking a sexist barrier and advocating for women and breast cancer awareness.

Then, just as quickly, I found that I was not delighted to see football players wearing pink. The players and coaches, as representatives of the institutionalized world of violent, professional sports, were selling the Pink Ribbon Culture.  The positive experience of selling breast cancer awareness, which is in reality anything but a positive experience, was being marketed by the National Football League.  Now, breast cancer awareness and its tyranny of cheerfulness is playful; it is part of a game.

Atlanta Falcons Cheerleaders

I now find myself filled with questions as I think about Pink Ribbon Culture.  Do hypermasculine men, such as NFL football players and coaches, wearing pink further the feminist cause by breaking down long-standing gendered stereotypes linking pink with femininity? Is breast cancer awareness now a game, making in the cause? Are we, as a culture, encouraging the shield of denial to remain in place at a moment in history when it would be useful to lower it and examine the expectations of cheerfulness being imposed on women with breast cancer? What happens when a normal psychological mechanism of self-protection is commercialized? It is my hope that others reading Pink Ribbon Blues will make these questions, as well as their own ideas and questions, part of an ongoing dialogue on this issue.

While I remain confused about the role of football in the advocacy of gendered issues and about the commercialization of breast cancer awareness, I am not confused about the impact of Sulik’s book.  I am certain that Pink Ribbon Blues opened my eyes to a Pink Ribbon Culture, which had surrounded me for years, existing outside of my awareness.  From conceptual explanations, to medical research, to personal accounts, Pink Ribbon Blues presents an important issue, embedded in a feminist perspective, in a highly accessible and interesting way.

Brief Biography:

Dr. Linda J. Rubin is a Professor and Licensed Psychologist in the Counseling Psychology doctoral program at Texas Woman’s University.  Her clinical, teaching, and research interests focus on psychological trauma, relational violence, and the psychology of women.

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"Seeing clearly through the pink haze" Toronto Sun

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Marie Claire

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