Look for the Intent: Breast Cancer Awareness

Pink for October

Image by NinJA999 via Flickr

Apparently, not everyone is happy with Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  Laura over at Adventures of a Young Feminist and @meloukhia from this ain’t livin’ posted some interesting pieces here and here about Breast Cancer Awareness Month. (Seriously, go read them now.  Then come back; I’ll wait.)  They make some interesting points that – despite being well thought out, well written, and eye-opening – I have to respectfully question.

As you know, I am a staunch breast cancer awareness advocate.  Just as a review, I’ve walked in 5 Avon Walks for Breast Cancer, walking 39.3 miles over two days and raising over $1800 which, along with funding research, also funds underprivileged women who cannot afford mammograms or treatments.  This year, I’m gearing up for my 6th walk.  I know that I’m doing a good thing, and I know that this walk these funds do amazing things for amazing people.

Yes, people.  I know that breast cancer affects everyone, not just women.  I walk for everyone.  Just because I do it wearing pink does not mean I’m ignoring the men who are affected by the disease.  The pink ribbon is a universal symbol for breast cancer awareness, and I think it’s OK – even helpful – for causes to have symbols (Do we have an issue with a red AIDS ribbon?  Or the LGBTQ cause having a rainbow?  Or any other symbols?  If we do, I have never heard it.)  Is the pink ribbon gendered?  Yes.  But, honestly, I’m not going to try to change the universal breast cancer symbol because it is pink.

I understand that many people feel that pink ribbon marketing is exploitative – that companies are profiting

from the pain of those who have been touched by breast cancer by putting pink ribbons on products in order to make a profit.  I agree.  Slapping a pink ribbon on something and promising a donation is not activism, and it is fast becoming a tool for companies to simply increase their profits.  Other than the Red campaign, I haven’t seen much in the way of companies fighting for other causes.  Why focus on making things pink for a cause?  I don’t know.  It probably has something to do with the stereotype that women spend lots of money on frivolous things and will do so even more if these things are pink.

Pink Ribbon

Pink Ribbon

I do think marketing products in this way is ridiculous.  I don’t usually buy products that have pink ribbons on them unless I know the person selling them and I know they’re doing it because they’re raising money for a walk.  But I have bought a lot of that stuff, and I think that’s OK. It’s for a good cause, and since I buy most of it while registering for the Avon Walk, I know where that money is going.

However, raising awareness is a touchy thing.  Sometimes it takes shocking statements to grab people’s attention.  I don’t think there is anything wrong with wearing a shirt that says “I <3 Boobs” or “Save the Ta-Tas.”  We need to look at the intention behind such statements.  My intent, personally, is to create awareness, raise money, and save the lives of people who have or who may have breast cancer.  And, although I can’t speak for everyone else, I imagine that sentiment is shared by many people.  I don’t think many people buy and wear a shirt that says “I <3 Boobs” because they really just love them and have no sense of the cause.  I think most people, when wearing and saying such things, have the cause and the lives of people in mind, and that is why they do it.  At least, I hope that’s true.

Now, I’m not so sure about these ads.  (@TheUndomestic can testify: I messaged her about the first image making me uncomfortable as soon as I received it.)  I told her the nature of these made me uncomfortable and, although they aren’t too far off from one of those t-shirts I wrote of earlier, there is a fine line here that I feel was crossed.  These ads, unlike the t-shirts, don’t scream awareness to me, and probably don’t to you, either.  It wasn’t until the end of the latter that I realized it was something to raise awareness, and even then I thought: “Well, that was a stretch.”  These ads, I’m not OK with.

I think, when looking at products and images and ads, we all know when the intent to do good is genuine, and I don’t think it’s fair to write off people or their methods to raise awareness when that intent is there.  I think, also, that when a product or an ad or an image is not genuine, we know that too, and when it comes to calling out those, I’m 100% with you.

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13 thoughts on “Look for the Intent: Breast Cancer Awareness

  1. So, I respect your position, first of all, and I am really glad that we are having this discussion, because I think it’s important.

    But I have a big problem with the idea of “looking for intent.” I want to be clear here: I am not, at all, questioning your support for breast cancer research or your awareness that breast cancer can happen to anyone. This is not a discussion about who is a better activist or whatever.

    In fact, I think that the Avon Walks are a great fundraising activity and they raise awareness in a great way all over the US. I also note that the Avon Walk website specifically features all genders, and I do not see language like “grope for the cause,” “save the ta-tas,” or, yes, even “I heart breasts” in the promotional material. Their website is a great example of exactly how I want to see breast cancer awareness handled, putting a stress on human beings and health, not body parts.

    This is a discussion about intent, as you have astutely pointed out here, and the problem is that a lot (not all) of the PSAs, ads, etc related to breast cancer have a meaning which I find very troubling. It’s an othering meaning, it’s an exploitative meaning, it’s a meaning which I, personally, and a lot of other people, personally, find offensive. The old “well that’s not what I (by which I mean orgs using these tactics, not you personally) intended, you are just reading it wrong” argument is, quite frankly, tired.

    “I’m sorry if it offends you, but that’s not what they meant to do.”

    “I’m sorry if my rape jokes offend you,” someone said to me once, “but they’re just meant to be funny.”

    And, really, I have seen very few breast cancer PSAs which do not make me extremely uncomfortable and upset. Because while you, Ashley, may be well aware that breast cancer hurts everyone, those ads focus on the bodies of women, and not just their bodies, but their breasts.

    The defense for this, as you say, is that it takes shocking statements to get attention. And, to some extent, you are right, but there is a line between shocking, and othering/offending. I think that ads which focus on breasts (and various synonyms thereof) are othering and offensive. I understand that *you* do not feel this way (except in the case of extreme ads which you pointed out), but *I* feel this way and many other people feel this way, which, yes, leads me to question the intent behind the advertising. If you have a whole lot of people going “I read this as sexist and offensive,” you have to start to think that maybe it is sexist and offensive.

    A commenter who lost a mother and a sister to breast cancer sent me an email in which she basically said that the monetization of breast cancer as a cause and these “focus on the breasts” ads make her so angry that she wants to hit something. October, for her, is a living nightmare.

    And that’s something that I don’t see people discussing in their eagerness to promote the cause.

    Absolutely, we should be promoting breast cancer awareness (and awareness of all other cancers, and issues like respiratory conditions and cardiac conditions, etc etc). But can we please do it with a tone which is inclusive, welcoming, and not horrifically offensive?

    And is it appropriate to use gendered symbols? I actually disagree. I disagree for two reasons: one, it’s sexist and exclusionary, and, two: marketing has actually shown that women *do not* respond to pink marketing. So, the very market which it is supposedly reaching? Not being reached.

    You know, the issue of “intent to do good” came up in the whole #nestlefamily debate, and one thing which a lot of people failed to realize is that doing good is not a free pass to do bad. Promoting a good cause, funding important research, this does not excuse exclusionary, sexist, and offensive behavior. I’m sorry, it just doesn’t. And it disturbs me to see fellow feminists saying that it does, especially when it’s clear that orgs like Avon can and do promote breast cancer awareness without being sexist poopyheads about it.

    I think I’ve articulated my position to you pretty clearly, and it can be seen in my post, but I really want to stress here that many breast cancer PSAs leave me literally shaking with anger and fear and hopelessness. I have been so upset by supposed advocacy for breast cancer awareness that I have had to leave social events. I fail to see how triggering and upsetting people is advocacy.

  2. I’m pretty much on the same page as meloukhia on this, but I just wanted to add to/clarify my position on the issue.

    I will say that my fall/spring coat is always (not just in October) sporting a pink ribbon pin. I wear it because it has meaning for me, and yes helps raise awareness. I got it from a group a my college a couple years ago where I *knew* that all of the profits were going to breast cancer research. In terms of all the “pink ribbon” products, I don’t really see a problem with them as long as *all* of the profits are going to breast cancer research (yes, the companies can cover the cost of making the product, but everything else they make should go to research) and I will only buy pink ribbon products when I have done my own research and know that is where the profits are going…and this is a very rare case.

    My problem comes in with the slogans and the PSAs. When I was writing my post I was trying to find this article that I read a *long* time ago about people speaking up against breast cancer awareness slogans about “saving second base” or something to that affect (like the ad that you linked to). Like meloukhia said, it’s othering and objectifying. By just focusing on one part of the *woman’s* body (because all of the products, slogans, and psas only focus on how breast cancer affects women’s bodies), these slogans view women as objects, something that can be broken down into pieces.

    And like I said in my post (briefly), I think that the Avon Walks are great. They actually do what they say they are doing — raising awareness and money for breast cancer research, not for a corporation. And I think that it’s great that you are so involved in these walks. Good for you!

  3. I don’t actually care about intent. If the outcome is oppressive, or damaging, or exclusionary, or eliminationist, then what does intent matter really? Letting “Oh, well I didn’t mean to make the rest of you that isn’t your breasts disappear with my SAVE THE TA-TAS t-shirt” slide says one thing: The person giving offense matters more than the person who is offended.

  4. Ashley on

    Allow me to clarify a bit about my walking. I do not wear crazy stuff when I walk – partly because it freaks me out and partly because a part of me is offended. I won’t try to pretend like I’m recanting my statements here, because I’m not, but during the first walk I did in 2004, I was actually a little offended by all of the breast propaganda I saw around. But, during a 2-day, 40-mile walk, who am I to say anything about the paraphernalia some of these women are wearing? It helps them, it makes them feel positive, and many of them are breast cancer survivors themselves. If it makes them feel positive and powerful, what am I to say? The best I can do is not participate in it, and I don’t. I have one I <3 Boobs shirt. I wore it in college, back when I thought shirts like that were funny. I no longer wear it. All I'm saying is that it doesn't offend me. And no one can tell me that it should offend me, just like no one can tell you that it shouldn't offend you. But, also, no one can tell me that these walks are not good just because women who participate in them decide to dress up with the propaganda you deem offensive.

    In fact, last year I didn't even wear pink because it was so cold and rainy, I was draped in black hoodies and a red poncho. This walk, to me, isn't about decking myself out (sure, I wear the pink nail polish and the visor that has a pink ribbon on it, and Avon Walk clothing I buy that is pink and all of that stuff, but wearing that while you walk around the city is part of creating awareness). It is about raising awareness and money for a cure, and doing something so big, you feel like it actually might help. And I know it does (and it sounds like you all know it does, too), but I said that in my post.

    Hopefully this clarifies my standpoint on the issue.

  5. I’m trying not to make this a “let’s all pile on Ashley” conversation here, so I will try to keep this short.

    The way I see it, here’s how this goes.

    1. Everyone here thinks breast cancer is bad.

    2. Everyone here thinks that raising awareness in addition to researching for better prevention/treatment tools is good.

    3. Everyone here does not agree on the tactics used to accomplish #2.

    I also don’t think that anyone is trying to attack your Avon walks or say that they are wrong; again, I stress that the Avon website, the official representative of the walks, is very neutral and welcoming. I can’t police the actions of individuals who go on the walks, nor would I want to: the official voice of the organization is neutral, and that is what is important.

    But you seem to be stuck on the “ok I get that you think it’s offensive but I don’t and you can’t tell me what to think” carousel. And, here’s the thing. No one is telling you what to think. Your view is also clear, it’s just that we disagree with it, in the sense that we do not think that the message is effective when it upsets women.

    What we *are* telling you is that the opinions of people who think that exploitative breast cancer awareness marketing is exclusionary should be respected, because it means that *information about breast cancer does not reach people who need to see it.*

    What I (and possibly others) are trying to get at is that the official voices of breast cancer advocacy should not be othering. If individual breast cancer advocates want to engage in disgusting, exclusionary, offensive, misogynistic behaviour, that’s fine, I can ignore them. If a breast cancer survivor finds it empowering to wear a shirt which makes me so upset that I vomit, that’s that person’s affair and I am not going to police what ou decides to do. But I cannot ignore PSAs, handouts, official merch, etc which have messages I find offensive. And *this* is the problem with the kind of marketing you think is not problematic.

  6. Ashley on

    After reading your comment, I have come to the conclusion that we are absolutely arguing the same thing – and this discussion has brought me closer toward being able to articulate that (so thank you!).

    What I didn’t expressly say in my post that I can now articulate is that I really have no problem with the individual way people decide to express themselves regarding breast cancer awareness. Everyone has their own reasons for wearing what they choose to wear in that regard, and – just like you said – it’s their affair.

    However, when *official* propaganda comes out – PSAs, anything sponsored by companies, ads that promote these walks – that are offensive, that is *wrong*. I *DO* think this kind of marketing is problematic. I don’t have a problem with it on the individual level, true, but I absolutely do think it is irresponsible and degrading for companies to officially push inappropriate merchandise. (And I don’t find just the color pink inappropriate, but that’s probably just because I like the color. But that’s neither here nor there.) And if Avon ever starts doing that, I will reconsider my involvement with them.

    What I was offended by in several posts (not just the two mentioned in my post) was the feeling that breast cancer awareness and methods to raise awareness were *ALL* bad – and I think this is because there was no mention of ads or propaganda used to raise awareness that *WAS* ok. We agree Avon has good marketing for their walks, but I didn’t get that from reading various blog posts. What I did get was the sense that *all* ad campaigns were inappropriate, which we’ve established isn’t the case. Because of this, I felt personally attacked in a way. I read these posts as saying “Anyone who is involved in raising breast cancer awareness is sexist and misogynistic.” You are obviously not saying that, as I can see now, but that *is* what I took from the posts.

  7. Isn’t that moment of clarity exciting? When you’re like “oh, this person just didn’t communicate clearly, and doesn’t really think what I am thinking they are thinking”? I love it when that happens.

    Because, yeah, I definitely do not think that breast cancer awareness campaigns are bad!

    And I am really glad to find out that we are actually all arguing the same position, which is that exploitative/misogynistic/exclusionary/etc material *as the voice of a campaign* is bad. Individuals can engage in breast cancer awareness in any way they see fit.

    The key here is not policing individuals, but trying to get breast cancer awareness campaigns which use problematic framing to stop doing it. In part, yes, by pointing them to campaigns which manage to advocate for breast cancer awareness in a way which is respectful, productive, and inclusive. (And, hopefully, in turn to influence people who think that it’s ok to use problematic framing in their personal advocacy, so that a. people will stop feeling alienated by individuals and b. people will stop linking bad advocacy by individuals with advocacy organizations.)

  8. You smart, well educated ladies have me thinking pink and more. I started a blog, http://www.peaceofthepie.com in ’09 to help businesses work with nonprofits in a mutually beneficial way. This practice is called Cause Marketing (CM). And yes, it’s being used to support breast cancer research, AIDS in Africa, etc. But it (CM) also works on a more local level where restaurants do “pin-ups” fundraisers and businesses organize clothing drives such as Sweaters For Seniors. As you’ve pointed out Ashley — many, many companies have signed on with Susan G. Komen to give a percentage of their sales to breast cancer in exchange for emblazoning that glorious pink ribbon on their merchandising efforts. Looking at it from a business marketing point of view (my day job), I see nothing wrong when a company wants to give up profits in exchange for a contractual right to align themselves with a brand that’s important to customers, ie: women. My problem is more with Komen and their non-discretionary way of accepting, it seems, any and all business sponsors on the face of the planet. While they’ve totally hijacked the color pink — good for them, but sad for us pink lovers who simply love all reddish hues for their sheer femininity…Seriously, they’ve watered down their own nonprofit brand in being so non-exclusive in their biz partnerships. And sadly, I believe, they’ve taken away women’s and men’s valuable brainspace that could be used to contemplate preventing heart disease or getting health coverage for more of us. But how sexy is that? Aortic valves and Aetna just don’t have a ring to them. I have a theory that one (just ONE reason) they’ve been so successful is that nothing’s easier to understand than those lactating organs of women that men don’t have and thus, women take such pride in. (Maybe they should take a little more pride in being an excellent mom, or a really smart business woman..I’m just saying.) But for many women, looks and outer appearances matter more..Well I’m going off on a tangent now. So let me end it here and just say, personally, I applaud Ashley for her efforts in walking for Avon and raising $$ for breast cancer–it IS a serious disease. AND I also have no problem with Starbucks giving a nickel to AIDS from every latte I drink in December..when I drive my VW Bug to SBUX, you won’t see any “Save the TaTas bumper sticker on the back of it.

  9. Pingback: Susan G. Komen’s pink ribbon and can’t pink just be a color? | Peace of the Pie

  10. I really don’t care whether women have screening or not, but I demand that women be given HONEST information and doctors respect the need to obtain informed consent.
    Informed consent is a legal requirement for all cancer screening, yet it is ignored for women.
    The accepted thinking that women can be forced into screening is a violation of our rights and even more concerning, it’s fine to mislead us as long as we screen – it doesn’t matter if it ends up hurting us or it’s an unpleasant waste of time – we must screen. It’s a law…ah, no, it’s not!
    Men are not treated in this way.
    Very few women are capable of giving informed consent at the moment – most are misled as to the risk of the cancer, the real value of the test and the risks you take having testing or being over-screened.
    The Govt even pays doctors to reach screening targets for cervical screening in the UK and Australia, so women are targets, not human beings. Doctors have a conflict of interest.
    The inadequate and misleading information given to women about breast cancer screening (& cervical) should be an international disgrace and heads should roll…

    No woman should agree to mammograms until she’s read the only unbiased information I’m aware of…go to the Nordic Cochrane Institute website and read their brochure, “The risks and benefits of mammograms”…they wrote this brochure after complaining to the UK, American and Australian Govt’s about the inadequate and misleading information given to women and the need for informed consent. No redrafts have occurred in Australia or the States and the UK redraft is still inadequate. There is a tension with screening – doctors want us to screen and don’t want us to know about risks or anything that might put us off – they even use scare tactics or unethical practices to increase coverage and it’s healthy women who suffer…
    Read up and demand that your rights be respected…

    I don’t participate in cancer screening – I’m yet to find a test that passes my risk v benefit test having regard to the threat of the cancer, my personal risk profile, the reliability of the test and the risks of the test or the risks of procedures that follow false positive test results.
    Sadly, women need to do their own research and protect themselves.
    There is great discussion at Dr Joel Sherman’s patient privacy forum under Women’s Heath…lots of great references – one of the best research tools available on cancer screening for women.

  11. By the way, breast self-exams are no longer recommended – they cause far too many biopsies for benign things.
    I’ve never allowed routine breast exams because I’ve never found any research to show they actually help – I recently saw some research that showed routine breast exams don’t reduce the death rate from breast cancer, but cause biopsies as well…(Nordic Cochrane Institute)
    I’ve also read that biopsies can be a risk factor in themselves for cancer.
    Sometimes screening and exams are not the answer, they don’t help or just harm us.
    I’ve made the decision to be “breast aware” – just take note of the look and shape of my breasts after I get out of the shower.
    Prof Michael Baum has produced some informative articles on breast screening. Prof Baum is a UK breast cancer surgeon who helped set up BreastScreen. He thinks screening needs a total rethink – too many healthy women are being harmed and he disagrees with misleading women. He has called for greater honesty so women know what they’re getting into…
    If you google his name, you’ll find his articles.
    The current concerns – false positives and unnecessary biopsies and surgery, the discovery and dilemma caused by ductal carcinoma in situ and new research that suggests regular mammograms may actually increase the risk of cancer – they suspect the radiation or the compression of breast tissue or both…
    Screening women under 50 and more frequently than 2-3 yearly carries additional risks.

  12. Each sub culture and individual have their own ways of thinking of what is considered desirable, as far as physical beauty is concerned, and many people will go to great lengths to change their image to reflect that perception of ideal natural beauty.

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