The Worst of Pinktober “Breast Cancer Awareness” Products

Each October, as national Breast Cancer Awareness month rolls around, I find myself fluctuating between pink-nausea and pink-rage. The pink ribbon extravaganza is supposed to support breast cancer awareness and research. But often, pink ribbons are slapped on products without follow-through to actually end breast cancer or—worse—adorn products that actually emit carcinogens. All this makes Pinktober feel like a month-long consumer fest that turns women’s suffering into cold hard cash , a campaign that ironically winds up highlighting the absence of a national commitment to eliminate the environmental causes of breast cancer. The sanitized cuteness of pink-ribboned teddy bears makes the slash-and-burn treatments of the bio-medical cancer industry feel all the more painful. And the pink-painted messages praising “strength” and “optimism” reinforce the “holistic sickening” at the core of many of the complimentary and alternative healing modalities that “explain” breast cancer in terms of poor lifestyle choices, suppressed anger, or denial of one’s true femininity.

This year I’ve collected a few of the new (or at least new to me) egregious efforts to commodify, exploit, and “cutefy” breast cancer. Click here and here for more serious analyses of pinkwashing.

As you can see in the top photo, the pinkwashing Olympics have their new champion: The police department of Greenfield, Massachusetts announced on Facebook that for the month of October, they’ll be using pink handcuffs. Officers will also sport pins reading “Arrest Breast Cancer.” Because there’s no problem you can’t solve by making it pink.

The news of this (possibly) very well-intentioned gesture comes via CBS Boston and also the department’s own exuberant press release:

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month. While most people are aware of breast cancer, many forget to take the steps to have a plan to detect the disease in its early stages and encourage others to do the same.

Many of our community members, including some of our own friends and family members, have been affected by breast or other types of cancer.

Officers of the Greenfield Police Department have “gone pink” in order to raise awareness for the disease! All of our officers have changed their collar pins, which were blue and white state seals to pink and white pins which states “ARREST BREAST CANCER – UNLOCK THE CURE” surrounding a pink ribbon and a pair of handcuffs. Some of our officers have even replaced their on duty silver handcuffs with pink ones and will be using them during the course of their work day.

Help us ARREST BREAST CANCER by spreading the word and by making your own early detection plan.

Remember: When placing a suspect in a light chokehold or frisking them against a vehicle, always ask if they’ve performed a monthly breast self-exam. There’s no awareness like the kind that takes hold in the back of a squad car.

In this era of stop-and-frisk, rising rates of incarceration among women and continued sexual abuse of women in prison it’s hard to get excited about a pink police car. Especially when a Department of Justice study found that women in prison are at significantly greater risk for cancer than their male counterparts. The 2006 report found that out of every 10,000 incarcerated women, 831 had cancer, compared to 108 per 10,000 men. According to the Department of Justice, there are over 1,000 incarcerated women who either have or have had breast cancer.

Pinkwashing has also expanded in the usual commercial way:

Just what every woman needs to stay healthy: pink stilettos. Perhaps the message is: Don’t worry about dying of breast cancer when you can kill yourself running for the train in pretty pink shoes.

This year the Hard Rock hotels are offering “Pink Rooms” with pink bed sheets and an option to purchase pink bathrobes. The activists among us will be relieved to know that we can stop organizing, lobbying, researching and lecturing. All we need to do to eliminate breast cancer is “Get into bed” and “relax for the cause.”  And in case you’re more of a “party for the cause” than a “relax for the cause” kind of gal, Hard Rock Hotels have you covered as well. Who knew that pink margaritas prevent (or is it cure?) breast cancer?

Pink ribbon and other cause-marketing can mask conflicts of interest, like when companies promote the idea of cancer research but also manufacture, disseminate, or sell products that contain toxic or carcinogenic ingredients. I’ve recently seen dry cleaning companies jumping on the Pinktober bandwagon:

What this and similar ads leave out is that PERC, the solvent used in most dry-cleaning, is a known carcinogen.

Recent studies also show the harmful effects of working in a nail salon surrounded by fumes from chemicals in nail polish and yet companies are selling nail polish to “promote breast cancer awareness.”

And finally, to take away the sour tastes in our mouths (whether caused by chemo or by pinkwashing): Nothing promotes the health and wellness of women quite like sugar filled candies with cute little pink ribbons all over them.

The Oriental Trading Company has hundreds of pink items—including “Sassy Breast Cancer Awareness Playing Cards”—that  don’t  seem to raise money for anything. Instead, breast cancer is just another party theme, like a Halloween party or Mardi Gras. 

We can do better on this.  While spending on breast cancer detection and treatment continues to increase, funding for prevention—for learning about the causes of breast cancer—is far less marketable. In past years my home state, the Massachusetts legislature failed to fund research on potential carcinogenic impacts of chemical exposure despite clear findings that there are specific communities in Massachusetts with particularly high rates of breast cancer.

As for me, I’ll skip the pink bathrobes, candy, nail polish and (hopefully) police cars, and spend my money on real research into breast cancer prevention. One great place to donate to help reduce the environmental causes of breast cancer is the Silent Spring Institute—support work like theirs instead of spending money on pink-slathered playing cards. And, as always, you can learn more about pinkwashing and support the work of excellent nonprofit the Breast Cancer Action at the website Think Before You Pink.

Thank you to Robin Yang and Ashely Rose Difraia for help with this post. This piece was originally published on Susan Sered's personal blog

by Susan Sered
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Susan Sered, author of Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs, and the Limits of Personal Responibility, is a sociology professor at Suffolk University. She also writes on her personal blog.

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