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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Think Before You Pink


By June Hudson

October is well known as breast cancer awareness month. In recent years though, the level of awareness seems to have skyrocketed. From pink advertisements to pink ribbons, stores are covered with pink products, or as some would say, “pinkwashed.”

The color has certainly raised awareness, but has it done anything else?

In a phone interview, Dr. Gayle Sulik, author of “Pink Ribbon Blues,” gives some light on the subject of “pinkwashing.” This term was coined back in 2001 by an organization in California called Breast Cancer Action.

October is well known as breast cancer awareness month. In recent years though, the level of awareness seems to have skyrocketed. From pink advertisements to pink ribbons, stores are covered with pink products, or as some would say, “pinkwashed.”

“[Breast Cancer Action] defined it as supporting the breast cancer cause or promoting a pink ribbon product while producing, manufacturing or selling products that are linked to the disease,” Sulik said. “An example of that would be alcohol. There’s HOPE Wine for the cure. There’s a pink ribbon on [the bottle]. They give money to some breast cancer organization, but alcohol actually increases your breast cancer risk. So [Breast Cancer Action] see that as a major conflict of interest.”

In a nutshell, “pinkwashing” is technically about products that raise funds for breast cancer, but also have negative health effects. Today, the term also describes any company that profits from the disease while giving a donation. The pink ribbon symbol did not even develop until the early 90s.

“The advocacy for breast cancer started long before the pink ribbon ever came onto the scene, which was in 1992,” Sulik said. “Prior to that… people were not paying attention to it. There was hardly any research going into it or support systems available. At that point a lot of women wouldn’t even admit that they were diagnosed with breast cancer. So, that was very different from today.”

Sulik said the commercialization of awareness has gotten so extreme that she can hardly find any information about breast cancer to accompany these awareness campaigns.
“My mantra is that we need to rethink the pink and move beyond awareness,” Sulik said. “Now, people know about breast cancer. They see the ribbon. They associate breast cancer with the ribbon. So, what’s next?”

Dr. Heather Laube, associate professor of sociology and director of women and gender studies, said that many consumers seem to be unaware of where the profits go.

“The problem that comes up, I think, is that a lot of this is about marketing and selling things and the money doesn’t actually end up going to breast cancer awareness,” Laube said. “The problem with pinkwashing is that people aren’t necessarily contributing their money or their time or anything to a cause that’s actually going to help find a cure or prevention… and it also draws attention away from the real issues that are at play.”

Sulik commented on the fear mongering in breast cancer advertising and campaigns, which cause women to overestimate their risk of breast cancer and subject themselves to surveillance, early mammograms or medical interventions.

“[Angelina Jolie] for example didn’t even have breast cancer, but she had a preventive mastectomy… in addition to the survivor identity, there’s a new identity called a previvor, where people who have a genetic mutation and have a prophylactic (preventive) mastectomy then view themselves as pre-surviving a cancer that they never actually got.”

An interesting point Sulik made was that breast cancer advertisements show more skin than any other disease.

“You see more nudity, more cleavage,” Sulik said. “And it doesn’t matter if it’s an awareness campaign or the cover of Time magazine; you tend to see nude women whenever it has something to do with breast cancer.”

An example of this type of advertising is Pornhub for the Cure last year.

“A porn site would pay a penny to some organization every time somebody clicked on a braless woman.” Sulik said.

Laube also gave the example of Go Braless day.

“Somehow that seemed like a good idea to draw attention to breast cancer awareness,” Sulik said.

Breast Cancer Action is currently running a campaign called “Toxic Time Is Up,” which is focused on the lack of regulatory control over toxic chemicals found in everyday products.

“[Breast Cancer Action] is still very focused on products that cause physical harm and increase risk of [breast cancer].” Sulik said.

Erin Bovan, senior political science major and vice president of Colleges Against Cancer, said she appreciated the support, but didn’t like how “pinkwashing” can mislead people.

“I don’t believe that’s the right thing to do or the [right] way to handle it,” Bovan said. “There are other ways to promote it without taking the money.”

As for the cancer-related merchandise such as the “I Heart Boobs” bracelets, Bovan said she could see how people would be offended by it.

“You can look at it as a horrible thing,” Bovan said. “It just brings a different kind of audience in my opinion. I think there’s a time and place where you can wear that kind of stuff and maybe in moderation. I feel like if you were to wear it to a walk, it’s okay.”

Courtney Grocholski, senior molecular biology major who participated in the Relay for Life earlier this year, said in an e-mail interview that companies should be more truthful of what percentage of sales goes to cancer research and that they should list products that could consequently increase the risks of cancer.

“I feel as if it is defeating the purpose of disease prevention if we include harmful products in this fight,” Grocholski said. “It’s sending a negative message. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that it’s great when people donate for the cause, and I am so passionate about it myself. I have had family members pass away from the disease and have seen the direct, negative impacts that breast cancer can have. I would just like to see a more positive way to raise these donations.”

Grocholski commented that the breast awareness campaign can be effective without sexual objectification.

“While I admire individuals’ creativity in raising awareness for this cause, I believe they must be respectful at the same time,” Grocholski said. “For instance, to go ‘braless’ is taking away from the real problem at stake: the fight against breast cancer. Both men and women are affected by this disease, and to partake in these activities excludes the awareness in men. We don’t want people to be misguided in what we are passionately trying to beat.”

More information on “pinkwashing” can be found at Dr. Gayle Sulik’s website,

June Hudson can be reached at

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