For girls and women, physical attractiveness and good beauty habits are crucial to living up to gender norms in society. Pink accoutrements symbolize an ideal vision of femininity that routinely equates women with their bodies. In fact, restoring the feminine body after breast cancer, or at least normalizing its appearance, has become a sign of victory in the war. Wigs, makeup, fashion, prosthetic breasts, and reconstruction help women to maintain a socially acceptable feminine appearance.

Example 1, Look Good and Feel Better

The Look Good, Feel Better program literally equates beauty with hope, courage, and survivorship. The program features before/after photos of cancer patients to stress the importance of outward appearances. Though the women in these photos looked good before the makeover (with or without much hair), the after photos further feminized them with wigs, makeup, jewelry, and clothing.

Pink femininity sets the aesthetic bar high, and every day women face scrutiny based on appearances. The beauty quotient puts additional pressure on cancer patients to normalize their appearance for the sake of others also has the potential to hide what breast cancer and treatment does. Seeing a bald woman or a mastectomy scar exposes the truth about the impact of breast cancer on women’s bodies in a way that is very different from the imagery of those who appear to be restored.

Example 2, Feminine Accoutrements

The marriage of femininity and consumption as the ultimate means for “doing good” for the cause of breast cancer is the cornerstone of pink ribbon branding. Multitudes of advertisements suggest the ideal approach to the “war” on breast cancer: Look good; feel good; buy the brand. This prescription is meant for survivors and supporters alike.

Whether it is Sephora’s Breast Cancer Awareness Makeup Palette or Komen for the Cure’s Promise Me perfume, the linking of idealized femininity with both hope (i.e., if you look good, you will feel better) and the promise of a cure (i.e., if you support the Cause by purchasing this product you are directly contributing to a future without breast cancer) uses the constraints of gender for its own purposes.

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Example 3, Inspired to Fight

Pink ribbon culture relies on imagery of pretty, happy, optimistic survivors who wear their survivorship with pride, elegance, sensuality, and the perfect blend of cosmetic enhancements.

The “Inspired to Fight” advertisement for the 2010 Dallas Race for the Cure features a gorgeous bald woman made up to have eyebrows, eyelashes, and a healthy complexion.

With head tilted back, a flawless smile, and a pink ribbon streaming around her neck and bare shoulders, this sexy “survivor” with moxy looks back at the camera as if she hasn’t a care in the world. She is “inspired” to wear a ribbon, “fight” the good fight, and showcase the beauty of her survivorship. In this ad, she could just as easily be spritzing herself with Promise Me perfume.

The image of the triumphant breast cancer survivor, or she-ro, creates stories of women warriors who kick cancer’s butt and look fabulous doing it. In addition to aesthetics, she-roic stories share the same basic features on the road to victory: hope, courage, inspiration, and optimism. With a familiar plot line, the diagnosed woman faces tremendous difficulties, keeps a positive attitude, learns from the experience, changes as a result of it, and seeks to share the lessons learned. Narratives emphasize how breast cancer helps women to salvage failing relationships, establish new friendships, rethink priorities, gain self-confidence, get in shape, and find happiness.

The Limits of Airbrushing

Jane RA was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2003 at the age of 54. An active writer, Jane wrote an essay called Fashion Show that addressed the stylishness of beast cancer survivorship. Honing in on a fashion show fundraiser for a breast cancer organization, Jane wrote 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 describe 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.

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