Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Brown Bag Reflection - ReThinkPink: Moving Beyond Breast Cancer Awareness

Yesterday’s Brown Bag, “ReThinkPink: Moving Beyond Breast Cancer Awareness,” featured health activist and medial sociologist, Gale Sulik. Dr. Sulik, is the author of Pink Ribbon Blues: How Breast Cancer Culture Undermines Women’s Health, an active blogger, and founder of the Breast Cancer Consortium. Her presentation was educational, enlightening, and provocative in which it focused on the history and evolution of breast cancer awareness campaigns in America.
In terms of how it all started, what began as a disease that no one wanted to talk about, eventually turned into movement of female empowerment. As breast cancer became more widely recognized and awareness grew, corporations capitalized on the campaign and branded the pink ribbon campaign. In essence, the ribbon turned into a corporation advertisement strategy by increasing pink consumerism and raising billions of dollars for a “good cause.”  Dr. Sulik argued that the consumerism of breast cancer has undermined women’s lived experiences and obscured controversies surrounding research, diagnoses, and treatments. By turning the Pink Ribbon into a logo, it ignores the reality of what living with breast cancer is really like and undermines women’s health.
An important question that Dr. Sulik raised was, “Why breast cancer?” When looking at the website of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the leading cause of death among women in the United States is: 1) heart disease, 2) lung cancer, and 3) breast cancer. Not to diminish the impact on breast cancer in America, but why aren't there campaigns as commercialized as the pink ribbon campaign against heart disease and lung cancer? Dr. Sulik believes that our fascination with breast cancer is because it pertains to the breast. In other words, Dr. Sulik called it the “sexy” cancer. When taking a step back, it is easy to see why corporations have capitalized on the pink ribbon campaign. It’s as simple as “Sex Sells.
In essence, Dr. Sulik challenged us to question the goodness of the pink ribbon campaign. Not to totally reject awareness and fundraising campaigns, but to ask the tough questions. Where is the money actually going? Who benefits from awareness raising campaigns? Can corporations become health advocates without some underlying benefit?  Which awareness-raising campaigns continue to objectify women and hold them under the male gaze?  Is the information you are getting from these campaigns truthful or accurate? Asking questions is what being a curious feminist is all about (Enloe). These questions may not be easy, or always taken well, but they expose the often well-hidden truth. These are the tough questions that Dr. Sulik, as a health advocate, pursues. 

- Michelle Van Veen '14


  1. Samantha RodriguezOctober 19, 2013 at 2:55 PM

    I also attended the Brown Bag in the Center for Women's Studies that Tuesday, and found what Gale Sulik said about how we should think about Breast Cancer awareness thought provoking. I have never been one of those pink ribbon consumers who buys things "for the cause" but I have also never questioned the selling of those products or my older sister's obsession with supporting it. What I took away from the talk was how I and others should be more critical about these campaigns and asking those questions you posed above. Why is it that as feminists, we are quick to point out overly sexualized advertisements on television, but not as much when it comes to this. I think it is because we think of breast cancer as a sensitive subject, which it certainly is, but that does not mean we should give companies that exploit the disease a pass on their wrongdoing. What Dr. Sulik presented was an interesting perspective that I now support and vow to keep conscious of. Since the brown bag, I have thought about this issue when looking at things that advertise breast cancer awareness. Because like Dr. Sulik mentioned to us at the brown bag, there is still so much we do not know about this disease, and why is that if we have so many campaigns working to "fight for the cure"? I think this new level of consciousness around the breast cancer awareness campaign is what is necessary by me and the general consumer audience to affect change in the campaign and actually make worthwhile discoveries about this disease in our mother's, sisters, and daughters.

  2. As yet another person who attended the ReThinkPink Brown Bag, I strongly agree with Gale Sulik's push for questioning the pinkification of breast cancer. In fact, I found this Brown Bag to be one of the most enlightening talks I've ever been to at Colgate. While I had never "bought into" the commodification of Breast Cancer Awareness prior to the Brown Bag, I had also never questioned it. As I bought eggs the next day only to find little pink ribbons stamped on them for Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I began to think more and more like a curious feminist.

    For me, the Brown Bag raised two particularly interesting points. The first was: where is the money going? It's a question we need to research and ask more. When there's a Walk for Breast Cancer or when pink ribbons are being sold is that money going to future fundraising events? Is it going to research? Is it subsidizing actual treatment and care?

    The second point involved the "sex sells" concept mentioned in this blogpost. A really interesting aspect of this is that in most images (in magazines and advertisements) dedicated to Breast Cancer Awareness, very young female bodies are used…and those bodies are continuing to get younger with time. Yet, this is a false reflection of the demographic that is diagnosed with breast cancer. If we are going to do true justice to Breast Cancer Awareness, we should show the bodies of middle-aged and older women. We should also include men in images related to Breast Cancer Awareness. Instead, we currently only show the "sexy" side of the disease.

    I think that getting work like Gale Sulik's into the public eye more often would be very worthwhile and give greater justice to Breast Cancer Awareness and what we can do as informed citizens to help the cause.