Breast Cancer is Sexy, or Pink Ribbons, Advertising, Class, and Race

Breast Cancer is Sexy, or Pink Ribbons, Advertising, Class, and Race

A few weeks ago while I was at the gym, one of the major network evening news programs had an investigative feature on the breast cancer awareness contributions that various corporations pledged during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The conclusion was that most of these promotions led to increased sales and windfall profits that dwarfed the piddling donations that the extra sales generated, including my favorite what-the-fuck campaign run by Campbell’s Soup. (According to Getting Attention!, the pink ribbon labels led Campbell’s to double its soup sales thus far in October.) Of course, I can’t find this report on any of the network news’ sites, but I can find hundreds of links to things that one can buy to “raise money” for breast cancer research/diagnosis/treatment/whatever.

In her excellent post, Women’s Health Risks: Perception vs Reality, Denise already raised the important question of why so much attention is lavished on breast cancer when it kills far fewer women than other diseases. She reported that heart disease kills nearly seven times more women each year than breast cancer does, and that strokes cause more than two times more deaths than breast cancer. In fact, Denise wrote that one out of every two women will die from heart disease or a stroke. Even chronic obstructive pulmonary disease kills 22,000 more women than breast cancer every year, and yet I’ve never even heard of this disease.

So why do we have corporations jumping all over each other to show that they support women by donating to breast cancer charities when they can really do more good by working to prevent heart disease and strokes? The sick truth is that breast cancer is a sexy illness to exploit for fun and profit. Do women want to look at pictures of fatty hearts and clogged arteries when they shop for soup, yogurt, make-up, umbrellas, BMWs, Cartier watches, gym shoes, umbrellas or any other of the many fine products that donate during October to breast cancer causes if you buy it? Does anyone? Not so much. Is it easy to fit “Help fight chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, the #3 illness killing women every year” into a marketing campaign? Not so much. However, the words “breast” and “cancer” sure catch the eye quickly, especially when marketers can add a curvy silhouette next to it. (Subliminal message: “Don’t let hot women die!”)

The other insidious reason that so many companies jump on the breast cancer bandwagon is that it is a much easier fear to exploit than other illnesses. Many people who identify as women feel a strong link between their femininity and their breasts. Cultures often place a premium on a woman’s worthiness through her breasts, and the bigger the better. To lose a breast in Western society often means that you lose a part of your desirability as a person; women fear that their husbands/boyfriends/partners might leave us for a “real” woman with breasts, or that no one will love them because they are disfigured freaks and feminine failures. Thus, who wouldn’t spend a buck for a carton of yogurt, then 39 cents on postage to send the lid to Yoplait so that they can give a few pennies to breast cancer research, which one day might help you continue to be a valued woman? (Don’t miss Suebob’s open letter to Yoplait.)

When companies cash in on women’s fears about breast cancer, where does the dough go? As Liz Thompson noted in her post The Bad Business of Buying for a Good Cause, "I happen to agree... that... this comes down to you, the ones who actually give to these causes, in finding out, exactly where and how much of your donation dollars are going to [the] cause you support." Which is a lot of work because it’s not quite clear. There are tons of foundations out there, each taking a different (and important) angle on breast cancer. Some of it is for research, like “finding a cure,” some for health services, like providing free mammograms to low income women. And here is where the class and race issues make the pink ribbon campaigns look even darker. Twisty says it best:

The ostensible focus of all this pseudo-philanthropic pink jockeying is a kind of nebulous breast cancer ‘awareness’, rather than any serious effort at prevention or investigation into what actually causes breast cancer in the first place. Furthermore, once all this ‘awareness’ has produced, via mammography outreach programs or self-exam propaganda (both masquerading as ‘prevention’), a positive diagnosis, there’s not any great push to secure treatment for underserved women... In other words, when you think of a breast cancer ‘survivor’, you don’t picture a poor black grandmother living in squalor without health insurance (and you certainly don’t imagine a woman who, because of sensible research efforts, never got cancer in the first place.)

The statistics back Twisty up. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a division of the US Dept. of Health and Human Services, “Although between 12 and 29 percent more white women than black women are stricken with breast cancer, black women are 28 percent more likely than white women to die from the disease. The 5-year breast cancer survival rate is 69 percent for black women, compared with 85 percent for white women.”

At the end of the day, breast cancer is a horrible disease that primarily strikes women, but also kills 25% of the men who have it. It is obviously important to find ways to prevent, treat, manage, and even cure this type of cancer. I was damn lucky to not be left motherless at the age of four when my own mom, then 33 years old, was diagnosed with breast cancer, and I would do anything to help other women in girls in that same situation. I’m just not convinced that buying a $22 Estee Lauder Pure Color Crystal Lipstick in Elizabeth Pink is going to do anything except enhance Estee Lauder’s bottom line and further hype a fear of breast cancer.

Suzanne also blogs at Campaign for Unshaved Snatch (CUSS) & Other Rants

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