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.

"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

“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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Pink Ribbon Envy: Living with an Uncool Cancer The Nib

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