Buying Pink Ribbon Products Might Make You Feel Good, But It’s Not Helping People With Breast Cancer

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This originally appeared on Undercover In The Suburbs. Republished here with permission.

My mother died of brain cancer almost eight years ago. I spent 18 months as her caregiver, researching treatments, flying her around the country for the best possible care, fighting with doctors, and just being there as she faced death on a daily basis and struggled to “get her affairs in order.” During that time I learned something: Cancer sucks. It’s horrible and destructive. There is nothing cute, fun, or trendy about it.

I think that’s why when I see pink ribbons covering everything from oil change advertisements to nitrate-laden meat products, to BPA-infused water bottles, to makeup, it’s always felt a little wrong to me. But I told myself, if this is what it takes to “raise awareness” and money, than so be it! But is that what “pinkwashing” does?

Yes, it turns out pinkwashing raises lots of money…for corporations. Pinkwashing is the practice of utilizing pink ribbons and other breast cancer paraphernalia to demonstrate support for breast cancer “awareness.” I think when most of us see those ribbons, we think it signals that buying this product will help support breast cancer research, hopefully bringing us closer to a cure. But that is not the reason for pinkwashing.

Pinkwashing has become so ubiquitous, not because so many corporations care so much about breast cancer, but because it sells. It sells because it gives us something we all want—the feeling that we are doing good. But the feeling that we are doing good doesn’t cure cancer. Check out the trailer for Pink Ribbons, Inc., which documents how little, if anything, these corporations are actually doing to “fight” breast cancer.

OK, but at least they’re raising awareness, right? But what is “raising awareness?” Does it actually help anyone? I mean, aren’t we all aware of breast cancer? And making us feel warm and fuzzy and like we did some good, does that actually fund research? Does that do anything for women who are dying of or fighting breast cancer?

I would argue it could actually do the opposite. It can lull us into a false sense of “awareness” or even thinking look at all those people “walking for the cure.” They’ve got this. Look at all these companies donating, breast cancer research must be well-funded! Making cancer bright and fun, doesn’t make us want to write checks for research, it makes us feel like everything is cool.

But isn’t a company’s small donation better than nothing? I used to assume “pink” products cost more because the extra was being donated. I figured maybe companies hoped you might pick their product because they were doing some good. Turns out pinkwashing is, for the most part, a marketing strategy. Turns out, we ARE more willing to buy something pinkwashed, and we are willing to pay more. These products cost more not because of how much is being donated, but simply because we are willing to pay more for them. We are willing to pay to feel good, and for that “they’ve got this” feeling.

The question is: Are we satisfied with just feeling like we are doing something, or do we really want to do something? I’d rather take my money and send it right to the labs. Processed meats, plastics of most kinds, including bottled waters, most makeup and personal care products, any food product with pesticides among many others have no business going pink.

The sad thing is, breast cancer research is actually well-funded compared to other cancers, despite all this nonsense. Why is that? Sure, it may in part be due to “raising awareness,” but I’d argue it’s more likely because so many women get breast cancer. About 1 in 8. Breast cancer needs a lot of funding because so many women get it, but also keep in mind, many of those women survive to fight, to walk, to raise money, and even to speak out against Susan B. Komen and the rest of the Pinkwashing Industrial Complex.

When my mom was being treated, I was shocked by how little they could do for her. Brain cancer is hard to treat for obvious reasons (you can’t just remove a part of the brain), but it also occurred to me that brain cancer victims were getting surgery, suffering through radiation and chemo, and then dying. I didn’t make it to a brain cancer walk until mom was long dead, and let me tell you, there weren’t very many survivors there. There isn’t anybody left to raise money.

So companies are trying to fight a disease that impacts a lot of people. That’s noble, right? Except it’s not. Marketers know that if 1 in 8 women have had breast cancer, than everyone knows someone who’s had breast cancer, thus everyone is conceivably likely to be drawn to pink. Furthermore, marketers know women tend to do a lot of the buying for households. Really, breast cancer tic tacs? Breast cancer nail polish? And lip gloss?

This is not at all to say breast cancer should not be well-funded. I think we need to stop blindly buying pink and instead educate ourselves more about cancer and the bill we are being sold. We need to demand to know what proportion of that up-charge a company is actually donating, if anything. We need to start reading the fine print, or at the very least, take the money we save buying pink, and send it elsewhere. The work has been done for us. Charity Navigator rates charities of every kind you can imagine, including cancer research and support. You can make an online donation faster than you can say “save the ta-tas.”

I used to feel guilty for not be swayed by pink, and for feeling mildly annoyed when products were “pink for breast cancer awareness.” I now realize my vague irritation was warranted, because I was being duped. We all are.

Lyla Cicero has a doctorate in clinical psychology, and focuses on relationships, sexual minorities, and sex therapy. Lyla is a feminist, LGBTQIAPK-affirmative, sex-positive blogger at UnderCoverintheSuburbs.com, where she writes about expanding cultural notions of identity, especially those surrounding gender, sexual orientation, motherhood, and sexuality. Follow her on Twitter @UndrCvrNSuburbs.

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