Sharon Blynn and JaneRA: The Constraints of Gender, Commercialization, and Pink Culture

Sharon Blynn is beautiful. And, she’s bald. Diagnosed with ovarian cancer at the age of 28, Blynn lost her hair to chemotherapy. What was initially an emotionally devastating experience turned into a mission to expand notions of beauty to include bald women. After completing her treatment she started Bald is Beautiful to “flip the script” and show that women could boldly, and baldly, go where few women have gone before. To this end, Blynn targeted the fashion industry, hoping to diversify the images used to depict women’s beauty. On her website, Blynn writes:

“I want to send a message to women that they can…embrace every part of their journey with self-love, empowerment, and a deep knowing that their beauty and femininity radiate from within and are not diminished in any way by the effects of having cancer.”

Sharon Blynn took the industry by storm. Weighing in at 115 pounds on a 5’10” frame, her sleek style and intriguing look piqued the interest of producers, writers, and fashion designers. She’s been featured in Glamour, Marie Claire, Bust, Lifetime, several independent films, commercials, and television shows.

Blynn is also a cancer advocate, speaker, and inspiration to many women patients who have lost their hair to chemotherapy and dare to walk out into the world with head stubble.

It is clear from the photos though that Sharon Blynn might have an easier time fitting in with the modern day fashion and modeling industry than most. Aside from the baldness, there really is no difference between Blynn’s photos and the ones we see filling fashion magazines every day, and the beautification of cancer in mainstream culture is demoralizing for many patients.

Jane RA was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003 at the age of 54. She completed treatment in 2004, had a recurrence in 2007, and had 37 additional cycles of chemotherapy by 2009. Cancer and treatment damaged her eyes and her voice, caused swelling and pain in her arm, and put her at risk for stroke. Jane’s “booming loud voice ha[d] been replaced by a hoarse and unreliable somewhat croaky squeak.” Her website was where she hoped her voice would still be heard. With more of an essay style of writing that stemmed from her 30-year career in higher education, Jane addressed issues that many other cancer blogs did not. The beautification of cancer was one of them.

Beneath Pink October, a post that discusses the commercialization of breast cancer, Jane wrote a second post called Fashion Show that addresses the stylishness of beast cancer survivorship during Pinktober. Honing in on a fashion show fundraiser for a breast cancer organization, Jane writes about the imagery and meaning of triumphant survivorship:

The 22 female models are, if not all young, youthful, and if not all size 10, well only one looks size 18. They smile out at us from the website, reinforcing the stereotype of what the good breast cancer survivor must be: she smiles, she’s brave, she looks after her body, she shows a subtle cleavage, nice make up, good hair. Two blokes remind us that yes men get breast cancer too but this is essentially the girls’ night.

One model writes, as though speaking for everyone with breast cancer: “This exciting event shows friends, family and the country that surviving breast cancer is an opportunity to walk, with heads held high, onto a new platform of life’. ‘

Oh yes’ says my little cynic voice…easy to say when two thirds of the models are but 2 years from diagnosis and can hardly know they are ‘survivors’ yet. Will there be a moment’s silence tonight for the dead and dying models from the last eleven shows? Or even a moment of thought for the women struggling with the hard times: failed reconstructions, painful lymphedema, loss of fertility, premature menopause, recurrences, more treatment, permanent fatigue.”

The fanfare not only sets a standard that excludes people like Jane, it erases people like Jane. In so doing, it erases her experience and the viability of support within the very movement that set out to provide it.

Jane’s final post was on December 22, 2009. In it, she speaks to the young women, the newly diagnosed, and those with the most aggressive types of breast cancer for whom “early” detection never really applies.

“I want to imagine that you are going to be all right and that after your treatment is over you will decide to get involved in cancer campaigning.

But not for you are the appearances in Fashion shows, not for you fundraising at pink pampering parties, not for you airbrushing the reality of this disease into some designer must-have condition. You will decide on a harder more radical route … and a movement will begin to challenge governments, and research scientists, the medics and the charities.

You won’t be smiling sweetly about good 5 years’ survival statistics … you’ll be saying that 12,000 deaths a year is not good enough, that effective prevention and treatment, let alone a cure, is barely off the starting block, that this is awful and it has to change. There was the whisper of such a movement recently … I hope the movement promised comes to fruition with determined committed campaigners.”

Jane won’t be part of this movement. She has passed. But, in Sharon Blynn’s boldness and JaneRA’s clarity and vision, we see the constraints of gender, commercialization, and pink culture. We see another side of pink.

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4 comments to Featuring Sharon Blynn and JaneRA

  • I ‘knew’ Jane RA. Only through the forum we both used, a breast cancer forum. This last post you quote from Gayle was written to be posted after her death. Loud opinionated Jane, loudly spoken even after death. I too hope there is a new movement, a movement that comes with determined committed campaigners. And you know when I read her post I wondered – who is going to ask the difficult questions? Who will take this ‘radical route’? Well, I can tell you now, I’m glad that you are asking these sorts of questions Gayle. Jane would have liked your post. Thank you.

  • I’m glad Jane’s words live on. Thanks for sharing that you knew her.

  • PamelaP

    Like Being Sarah, I knew Jane RA from the same forum and am so pleased to read this. So often I find myself thinking, “Hmmmm! Jane would have something to say about this” and hate it that she is not around for us to chew over things which outrage us. We needed her around for much longer.

  • Thanks, Pamela. I imagine Jane would have A LOT to say about all this. “Chewing over” is such an appropriate phrase for what needs to be done here. My hope is that those who have already been thinking about these things quietly will voice their positions and concerns, and that those who have not thought about them deeply will start chewing.

"women urged to get screened because it might save their lives. But that’s only 1 possible outcome, and it’s the least likely one" @cragcrest

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