Gayle A Sulike, PhD, a medical sociologist and 2008 Fellow of the National Endowment for the Humanities for her work on breast cancer culture, is the author of Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women's Health (Oxford University Press, 2011). Each chapter is followed by pages of footnotes for this carefully researched book that points out the dark side behind the pink ribbon. It is not a cheerful picture, nor a completely hopeful one, as very little true progress has been made in the battle against breast cancer, for all the fanfare of pink products, awareness, and the popularity of "the cause."
Certainly, every woman should read about how mammograms could actually fail women and, in some case, cause harm and should be aware of the risk/benefit ratio, the costs, and the questionable motives of some who benefit. "Screening mammography is largely responsible for the ever-increasing diagnoses of stage 0 breast cancers, the types that are not technically breast cancers at all." (p.183). Such results stack the deck for the claim that early detection saves lives when the lives "saved" were never in danger in the first place. In addition to false positives, mammograms can yield false negatives, meaning that the cancer that is there will not be detected. Generally, they are more effective at detection in women over 50 than younger women. In an article that appeared in 2009, "Chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society Dr. Otis Brawley said: 'I'm admitting that American medicine has overpromised when it comes to screening. The advantages to screening have been exaggerated" (p. 20).
Sulike also examines the mythology of the "she-ro" who must rise above her suffering according to the script tied with a pink ribbon. She also touches on "pinkwashing" as a serious problem that gets in the way of true progress. Infantalization of women results from a culture that considers it appropriate to offer teddy bears and Barbie dolls dressed in pink to those afflicted with cancer to show you care. Pink, of course, is the color strongly associated with little girls. Would men be treated the same way? Of course, some of this is based on feminist analysis, and reader may just find her take on the significance of Power Puff Girls debatable. But it is, certainly, an intriguing argument.
Her main points are encapsulated both at the beginning and the conclusion of the book. On p. 374 she says: "Pink ribbon symbolism not only distract the public from the harsh realities of breast cancer and the actions that would be necessary to move toward its eradication, it also produces a feel-good culture in which the idea that breast cancer is a good cause translates to a belief that supporting it is a good thing that will always lead to good outcomes. The pink ribbon effect demonizes and isolates those who do not happily accept all of the pink goodness the culture has to offer."
The only weak part of the book is that she does not really build a substantial case for what would work to truly make a difference. Is it even possible to eradicate breast cancer? She does say that certain chemicals used by companies are linked to breast cancer, but I'm not quite clear on if she would say that the solution lies there. There are always contributing factors, but so many health conditions do prop up unexpectedly with no known cause. Nevertheless, the book is worth reading for its wealth of information and for its infusion of some healthy skepticism. It's good to think before going pink or joining up with anything just because it is popular and seems to be going for a good cause.
I also wrote about pink ribbon marketing last year in
The organization Breast Cancer Action launched Think Before You Pink in 2002 to serve as a watchdog over the pink movement. It calls for action to combat "pinkwashing": the practice of allying with the cause through pink promotions on the very products that contain ingredients linked to cancer. Barbara Brenner, executive director of Breast Cancer Action, states, "Shoppers need to know how much of their money is really going to breast cancer and what's in these products." By drawing the public's attention to the hypocrisy of these companies, Think Before You Pink has succeeded in pressuring Avon to change the formulation of some cosmetics and in getting Yoplait yogurt to go rBGH-free.
For some further reading on this approach, available online, see