Recently, a story about an upcoming fundraiser appeared in a Pennsylvania newspaper.
A local Susan G Komen for the Cure Foundation® affiliate is hosting a fashion show, luncheon, and auction fundraiser later this month. In addition, they are crowning the first “Miss Pink Elegance.” Event co-chair Joanne Arduino explains:
This year marks the first crowning of “Miss Pink Elegance,” an honor that will be awarded to the guest wearing the best pink outfit…Guests can come in elegantly or outrageously in pink,” she said. “The winner will be crowned Miss Pink Elegance the First. They’ll get a sash, a crown and a dozen pink roses. We’ll have someone who sings ‘Miss Pink Elegance.’ And she’ll strut down the runway.”‘
On first glance, the triteness of a fashion show and subsequent crowning seems an affront to the seriousness of breast cancer. If that’s all there was to it, this would be a simple matter of taste. Unfortunately, there’s more to it.
Sarah Horton, author of Being Sarah had some insightful thoughts about fashion shows in her book. She references a blogger, JaneRA, who wrote about the issue of restoring femininity post-breast cancer and about Audre Lorde’s insight into the concerted effort to hide the physical impact of the disease.
“… [I]t’s the message behind this that upsets some of us. Jane refers to the central London offices of a national breast cancer charity, and the photos on the walls of the previous models, all smiling…you can’t miss the point that ‘ultra feminine, attractive, youthful and happy’ is how you’re supposed to look after breast cancer… Audre Lorde calls this a ‘conspiracy on the part of Cancer Inc’ for women to appear ‘no different from before’ and show the world that ‘nothing has happened to challenge her’.” (pg 239)
A lack of gravitas shown by this and many other pink ribbon fundraisers is only the tip of the pink iceberg. Fashion shows, parades and other celebrations are popular because people want to feel good, to believe that they can both have fun and make a difference. Kitschy fundraisers become popular and propagate. Eventually the dominant message becomes that breast cancer is a playful celebration; that women can not only be restored to a societal image of beauty, but that they can be better than before. In this instance, the best assimilated, most fully restored person who receives the most votes will receive a sapphire crown, a pink sash and a happy serenade.
Harm is done to people who don’t fit this mold, who on top of having cancer receive blame for not surviving correctly. For many, the truth of breast cancer is not pretty. There are women who can’t or don’t have their bodies restored to their former glory. There are women who suffer greatly from side effects of the treatment, physically and psychologically. There are women, many women, who do not survive this disease at all. In fact, anyone who has received a breast cancer diagnosis is at risk for recurrence, for a metastatic cancer that won’t be cured. And there are women who are uncomfortable, for a myriad of reasons, with the mantle of triumphant survivorship. For many women the words “guilt, frustration and anger” represent breast cancer; not “pink, fun and elegance.”
Where do these women go for support? Who listens to them? Consider the words of Kathi from The Accidental Amazon.
“Fashion statements aside, once I became a person with breast cancer, it didn’t take long at all for me to develop a very low tolerance for all things pink. The sheer ubiquity of pink as the symbol of the fight against breast cancer is overwhelming. And one of the things that you discover… is that everyone … seems to assume that you are now the local poster chick…everyone assumes that you have the interest, time, energy, inclination and funds to contribute to or participate in every bleeping event, cause, or group that is even remotely associated with helping everyone else not end up like you.”
Kathi’s realities of living with breast cancer do not fit in a festive environment. This “Poster Chick” is supposed to fight cheerfully for herself and for everyone else. Gayle Sulik explains in Pink Ribbon Blues.
“Telling an authentic story about an illness that is heavily laden with cultural expectations about femininity, normalcy, and triumphant survivorship requires a new way of thinking and speaking. Falling on the margins of the cultural framework, these kinds of stories can be threatening and hard to hear. (p. 338)”
Many of us, the well-intentioned and generous people who have been affected directly or indirectly by breast cancer, want to think that all of the money we’ve spent, all the tears we’ve cried, all the pink we’ve worn has made the world a better place. But few acknowledge the less-than-pink truth of breast cancer: the indignities of a disease that still kills, can happen to anyone and has no cure. The number of people dying from this disease has barely budged in decades.
Until we change the narrative away from feather boas and pink roses, these petrifying facts won’t change. JaneRA, the blogger quoted by Sarah above, died in 2009. Audre Lord died in 1992. In fact, the WHO says that 460,000 people died worldwide from breast cancer in 2008. In Pink Ribbon Blues, Gayle Sulik states that despite more treatment given and more money spent, a woman “with invasive breast cancer has about the same chances of dying from the disease as she did 50 years ago.” (p. 159)
So where do we start?
Criticizing breast cancer fundraisers can be tricky. After all, what works for one person may not work for another. Empowering people’s authentic selves means making room for a diversity of opinions, but it also means speaking up fiercely against the agents of disempowerment.
Apart from the complexity of nuance, it opens you up to the risk of being labeled bitter, angry or plain ungrateful. This recent blog post labels people who question the dominant system “anti-pink.” Gayle Sulik, author of Pink Ribbon Blues, answers that claim. “Anti-pink is a call to ‘think about pink’–to look at all of the outcomes of how we as a society are organizing around the cause of breast cancer, the positives and the negatives, so that we might recalibrate our actions to make the most of the positives and minimize the negatives.”
We need to make room for the darker shades of color palate. We need to think about pink. Before being swept away by feel-good celebrations swathed in pink, consumers and philanthropists should ask themselves some basic questions.
- Where is my money going?
- What has the organization done to prevent or eliminate breast cancer?
- Does this organization support people with breast cancer at all stages?
- What is the organization’s mission and how well does it live up to it?
- Does the organization use evidence to inform its actions?
- Do I want to support this organization and its messages?
The answers to these questions might be uncomfortable and unpopular, but they are the only way to get to the truth and, ultimately, progress.
Consider JaneRA’s final words in her posthumous post.
“[N]ot for you are the appearances in Fashion shows…airbrushing the reality of this disease into some designer must-have condition. You will decide on a harder more radical route … a movement will begin to challenge governments, and research scientists, the medics and the charities…
Winding forward to say 2050, I hear you talking to your grandchildren about the old days when breast cancer still killed, and generations of women died years too soon.”
Now we have a choice. Will we put our heads in the pink sand and lull ourselves into believing that fashion shows are good enough, or will we stand up and demand real change?