Where's the Feminism in the Awareness?

Nancy Stordahl lost her mother to breast cancer in 2008. Two years later she too was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her blog Nancy’s Point tries to make sense out of these life-altering situations by sharing her personal experience, advice, and thought-provoking commentary. With precision and gentle humor, Nancy has written about treatment, survivorship, grief, loss, and some of the real concerns she has about current forms of breast cancer awareness and advocacy. Nancy Stordahl is also a featured blogger on Huffington Post. With permission, Pink Ribbon Blues publishes an edited version of Nancy Stordahl’s essay on “feminism and breast cancer awareness” which was originally posted on Nancy’s Point on October 17, 2011, one year ago today.

Everywhere you look it seems there is pink stuff being marketed and sold in the name of breast cancer awareness.

There are pink lights, pink teddy bears, pink trucks, pink newspapers, pink M&M’s, pink potato chip bags; you name it. If you can eat it, drink it, play with it, make something with it, drive it, wear it or even put your trash in it, you can probably find a pink version of it.

Some people seem almost giddy with all the pink and all the ribbons. I’m not so sure it warrants such enthusiasm.

Sure, I can deal with the pink. I actually like it as a color. And ribbons aren’t so bad either. But seriously, what happened here? How did a Cause that’s supposed to help and empower women end up exploiting a disease that contributes to their disfigurement, sickness, and too often their deaths?

It seems that women’s efforts to level the so-called playing field have in this case been replaced with the NFL’s version of pink ribbon half time shows and trite displays of support, many of which objectify and trivialize women in the process.


“Honk if you heart tatas?”

At one point in our history women struggled to be recognized as thinking beings, not just body parts. We still do.

Now we also have to struggle to be taken seriously as human beings in breast cancer awareness campaigns that allegedly care about women’s health.

“It’s all about the boobs?”

Not only do women’s bodies become the focus of many campaigns, when did breast cancer awareness become quite literally about saving breasts (or in this case “boobs” thanks to the trivializing language) rather than about the realities of cancer and saving lives?

Breast cancer is NOT all about the the boobs! But advertising is. Especially when it involves using women to sell a product, a service, an organization, or a public health message. Would a slogan for anal cancer use such a strategy? Not likely. How about colon cancer? The breast cancer movement that caved to an ultra feminine pink ribbon also fell prey to the common “sex sells” excuse used almost everywhere to sell almost everything. But you know what? Some things are not for sale. Not my disease. Not my body. Not a part of my body.

“Big or small save them all?”

After carving us up into our body parts, some breast cancer awareness campaigns then openly judge those parts. Big or small? I imagine one of these measured assets is more valuable than the other for the demographic this t-shirt aims to please. A facebook meme adds to the mix, “even Grandma’s, save them all.” The average age of a breast cancer diagnosis is 61. How nice of you to consider Grandma’s aged bosoms to be worth saving! Is it necessary to demean women’s bodies under the guise of breast cancer awareness? As I’ve said before, this seems like a step backwards for all women, not just those diagnosed with or at risk for breast cancer. Would this strategy work in an environment where women’s bodies and lives were understood and taken seriously?

“Feel Your Boobies?”

The Feel Your Boobies campaign is demeaning to women with its trivializing language and use of a basic promise that is not evidenced-based. And lets not forget that if women don’t want to feel their own boobies there is no shortage of men who will offer to do it for them. And of course, getting to second base rather than saving it as other trendy t-shirts claim seems to be the end in mind. What happened to basic human dignity? And shouldn’t evidence be the basis of any public health communication strategy?

Where is the feminism in breast cancer awareness?

What happened on the road to equality? Have women forgotten how hard others had to fight for rights we enjoy today? Have we forgotten women were clamoring for equality and demanding to be taken seriously not all that long ago; that in fact, we still are? Have we forgotten it hasn’t even been a hundred years since women earned the right to cast a vote? Have we forgotten that women are not just body parts to be ogled and judged? But that we have hearts, minds, and capabilities that warrant more than trite soundbites and t-shirts? Have we forgotten that breast cancer awareness greatly benefited from feminism?

Feminists helped to bring breast cancer out of the closet. The stigma of the disease was clearly and thankfully diminished as women spoke up and took took action. “When organizing took a more political tone in the mid-1970s and early ’80s,” writes the Breast Cancer Consortium, “breast cancer survivors started to formalize their networks in order to influence public policy and medical practice, and institutionalize funding streams for research and support systems. What transpired was a vibrant and successful health social movement that was committed to de-stigmatizing breast cancer, increasing awareness, promoting informed decision-making, distributing accurate and accessible information, providing emotional and practical support, challenging medical authority, and exposing medical practices to public scrutiny.” But somewhere along it lost its feminist edge and “pink ribbon culture” emerged. It started off slowly, gained momentum and morphed into something so huge and well funded, it almost seems unstoppable now.

And if people think that feminism is a dirty word, or something we only needed to worry about in 1920 when we wanted to vote, or in the 1960’s and 1970’s when we wanted more equality in the work force then maybe it is unstoppable. Unless we start expecting, no demanding more. Politically and socially conscious women and men working for dignity and equality within and outside the feminist movement need to revolutionize the breast cancer movement and confront pink ribbon culture. We need you.

Would the feminists please stand up? Women’s lives are at stake. So is their dignity.

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3 comments to Where’s the Feminism in the Awareness?

  • Great post Nancy! I too find it quite concerning that we seem to be going backward in terms of feminism and the breast cancer movement. I am surprised more women (and men) haven’t noticed and been bothered. We should all be bothered and speaking up. Thanks for your words.

  • Nancy,

    This is an excellent posting! You really capture a lot of what is wrong with our society, which somehow gets its thrills by demeaning women. There’s nothing sexy about people dying.

  • Claudia

    I’m sorry it took me so long to find this. This is exactly how I feel about the waves of pink washing over us. I am a breast cancer survivor, and I can certainly confirm that there is nothing sexy about post-lumpectomy breasts, or radiation, or the pain and then soreness that linger on for months afterward. Yet breast cancer is always represented by an improbably perfect breast (for example, on the cover of Time magazine, which I stopped subscribing to once I realized it would be an annual event at minimum), leading me to question whether the motivation for covering the issue was preventive or just an excuse to show a naked boob.

    Another reason for hating Big Pink: It is a constant reminder of something I’d like to put behind me (except for regular check-ups, of course). There is actually a Pepto-Bismal-pink bucket truck in my community! Every time I see it trundling down the street, I think, “Gee, I almost had a day without thinking about breast cancer. Thanks for reminding me!”

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