First, it was the location of your purse. Then, it was the color of your bra. Most recently, if you spent any amount of time on Facebook this past October, you probably had a few friends reminding women to go braless for breast cancer awareness.
As October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, this latest meme designed to facilitate conversations about breast cancer with a sexy twist is both timely, and yet another example of how such awareness efforts are inherently structured to exploit women in order to turn a profit under the dishonest guise of advocacy.
It may sound cynical to deconstruct such a frightening disease that impacts one out of every eight women, and kills one out of every 36, particularly efforts to unlock a cure for such a condition. Yet the question here isn’t whether breast cancer is a worthy cause to find a cure for; the question is why our culture as a whole favors unlocking the secrets of breast cancer with completely pointless exercises that only serve to promote what fellow Adios, Barbie contributor Sayantani DasGupta terms the “sexy-fication of cancer.”
We’re told to “save the boobies,” “save second base,” and “save the ta-tas.” This emphasis on the breasts alone is extremely problematic. As S.E. Smith points out over at Tiger Beatdown, “There’s no mention of the bodies under those breasts, just the breasts. And some breast cancer marketing goes beyond dehumanizing and into exploitative. ‘Grope for the cause.’ You check them, or I will.” In fact, breast cancer activism appears to be the latest venue promoting our rape culture.
This is deeply problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the relationship between trauma and poor health has been established for some time. But what makes this so-called advocacy exceptionally galling is that survivors of sexual violence have a higher likelihood of developing breast cancer than women who haven’t been assaulted, and that risk increases significantly where survivors of multiple assaults are concerned. In other words, women who have survived sexual violence are a key population that would benefit from education about breast cancer, and yet the messages capitalize on the culture that created their rapists and, by extension, exposed them to the cancer risk to begin with.
But advocates for these cancer awareness efforts defend the messages as tongue-in-cheek attempts to get a dialogue going about a particularly frightening disease. This latter discussion veers into DasGupta’s own analysis, describing a “modern-day sex kittenish sensibility around cancer. A sensibility which is, yes, irreverent, fun, and accessible—but is also disturbingly connected to consumption. Forget marching, protesting, or lobbying—now a-days, we can ‘shop for the cure.’”
Consider the pink ribbon campaign, where everything from refrigerator magnets to handguns (yes, seriously) splashed a pale pink “for the cure.” The deeper look into pink campaigns reveals that “Thinking Pink” is big, big business, and at the heart of it all is Susan G. Komen. In fact, another title for this piece could “Everything You Know About Susan G. Komen is Wrong,” because this anti-cancer giant seems to be much more invested in maximizing profits than finding a cure.
In 2011, Emily Michele Benfit wrote an excellent article entitled, “I Will Not Be Pinkwashed: Why I Do Not Support Susan G. Komen for the Cure,” where she meticulously tracks the amount of funds donated to Komen since 1982, and where those funds ultimately went. She uncovers that the CFO receives half a million dollars just in traceable income, that one employee took home almost a quarter of a million dollars over a five-month period, and that ultimately, around 11 percent of Komen’s revenue goes towards employee revenue. Which, she rightfully concludes, “is a lot of money.”
She goes on to talk about Komen’s troubling partnership with companies shelling cancer-causing products, like TPR’s “Promise Me” perfume and Kentucky Fried Chicken’s “Buckets for the Cure”. In case you’re link-shy, let me sum up the findings: the perfume contains galaxolide, which some studies link to the development of breast cancer, and fried chicken as an advocacy and awareness tool is a bad idea because it contains acrylamides, a toxic chemical largely believed to promote cancer. In a nutshell, you might think you’re “saving the ta-tas,” but you’re actually upping your risk of ovarian cancer and heart disease, two of the leading causes of death among women. All in the name of “the cure.”
And there’s the fact that Komen appears to be in bed with companies linked to cancer-causing chemicals. Mother Jones had an exhaustive expose on Komen’s partnerships, highlighting that the foundation is happy to be a pocket rider for corporations who produce products linked to causing cancer while actively downplaying the risk involved, even in the face of evidence. In fact, Komen supports companies that no other cancer advocacy group will endorse, like AstraZeneca, the manufacturer of tamoxifen, a common drug used in breast cancer treatment. To put it into perspective, AstraZeneca, also a manufacturer of pesticides, a cancer-causing agent, funnels a portion of profits to a company which refuses to acknowledge what actually causes cancer, and then that company turns around to endorse AstraZeneca’s products to treat and cure the cancer. It’s a brilliant business model.
The same goes for General Electric (GE), a company that Komen owns stock in. After all, Komen’s philosophy argues that, “The best prevention is early detection.” And what better detection than mammograms? As it turns out GE is a major player in the manufacturing of these machines, which Komen endorses despite the criticism by modern medicine for unnecessary exposure to radiation, false positives, and total misses. Mammography Screening: Truth, Lies, and Controversy (2012) squarely targets the conventional wisdom of using mammograms to detect breast cancer. Written by Peter Gotzsche, the research spans 10 years, and reaches some startling conclusions: “Screening does not cut breast cancer deaths by 30%, it saves probably one life for every 2,000 women who go for a mammogram. But it harms 10 others.”
Despite the mounting body of evidence against the very methods Komen advocates for, these relationships also reveal the subtext to what their famous slogan actually means: if you contract breast cancer or die from it, it’s because you didn’t take advantage of the Komen’s hand-picked measures to address this disease. Your fault. Next breast—er, body, please.
But perhaps most bothersome of all is that Komen routinely sues smaller charities that utilize “Cure” in their name to the tune of approximately $1 million (of donor money, of course) each year. And that’s not counting what these smaller, Mom-and-Pop organizations have to spend on legal fees out of their own pockets just to prevent Komen from shutting them down. Komen’s legal team generally insists that their goal isn’t to edge out competitors, but employs the argument that they must protect their brand as part of responsible donor stewardship, seemingly implying that any search for a cure or pale pink ribbon will be easily mistaken for their organization, and donors deserve to know “where the money is going.” Which begs the question: isn’t Komen’s goal to find a cure? So why would it be problematic for Komen to be associated with another organization’s bid to cure cancer?
The answer is good old-fashioned American greed. The largest amount of Komen’s funds is allocated for “public health education.” At first blush, this makes sense—in order to cure a cause, people need to be aware that the cause exists. Let’s think about that for a second: over half of Komen’s money is funneled towards promoting breast cancer awareness and screening, even though Komen is so dedicated to “the cure” that they’ll sue any other charitable entity that dares to use that phrase in their name, or employ pink ribbons as part of their campaign. Through this new lens, it’s easy to realize that pink ribbon campaigns are a highly effective form of advertising, allowing Komen to rake in millions while receiving global accolades for their “charity work.”
Not surprisingly, this phenomenon, called “pinkwashing,” has created a counter movement, organizations dedicated to “Think Before You Pink.” The aim of the movement is to question where our support (financial or otherwise) is ultimately going when we choose to patron pink campaign efforts. Started by the Breast Cancer Action group—yes, the same group which tried to get Komen to discontinue the paraben-packed “Promise Me” perfume—the website poses a series of critical questions that each potential donor should ask themselves before contributing to any pink merchandising.
In particular, the Breast Cancer Action group emphasizes a responsibility to stay away from products linked to the environmental and chemical agents responsible for promoting cancer—seemingly as a defiant rebuttal to Komen’s cognitive dissonance on verified data for such items, like BPAs. Even frequently criticized and equally ethically inconsistent tabloid fodder, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has added their voice to the mix. PETA, wising up to the dangers of promoting pink, argues that organizations like Komen waste what few funds actually go towards finding a cure by focusing on animal testing.
While PETA’s misogynistic and racist awareness campaigns are worthy of an equally long critique, they have a valid point—and I honestly thought it’d be a cold day in hell before I defended any of PETA’s points as valid—which is that while we’ve been curing cancer in animals for over 30 years, we haven’t been successful in finding a cure for humans because their differing physiologies are still being bombarded by preventable factors, such as the environmental contributors. Barring that change, cancer will continue.
And so, too, will the economic boom around cancer awareness that comes at the expense of propping up women as accessories to breasts in need of saving.