Pink Ribbon Consumerism Makes Me Sick

October 15, 2015

Police officers in Greenfield, Mass., are using pink handcuffs to raise awareness about breast cancer Police officers in Greenfield, Mass., are using pink handcuffs to raise awareness about breast cancer.

Each October, as national breast cancer awareness month rolls around, I find myself fluctuating between pink-nausea and pink-rage. The pink ribbon extravaganza, a month-long consumer fest that turns women’s suffering into cold hard cash, makes the absence of a national commitment to identifying and eliminating the environmental causes of breast cancer seem that much worse.

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 complementary 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, normalize, exploit and “cutetify” breast cancer. (For more serious analysis, read my earlier writings on the “Problems with Pinktober” and the “Dark Side of Alternative Medicine and Holistic Healing.”)

As always, to learn more about “pinkwashing,” visit Breast Cancer Action and support its Think Before You Pink campaign.


As you can see in the photo above, the pinkwashing Olympics have their new champion: the police department of Greenfield, Mass., 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 that way.

The news of this probably very well-intentioned gesture comes via CBS Boston and also the department’s 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. Besides, as Victoria Law has written at Truthout, “prevention, screening, diagnosis, care, pain alleviation and rehabilitation for breast cancer remain virtually nonexistent in prisons.”

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.

pink high heels
Schutz Shoes has a pink section.

This year, Hard Rock’s Pinktober includes “Pink Rooms” at Hard Rock hotels featuring 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 has 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. Here’s a supply company jumping on the Pinktober bandwagon, with drycleaning items to “clean up breast cancer.”

clean up breast cancer

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.

breast cancer


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 my home state of Massachusetts, the legislature has failed to fund research on potential carcinogenic impacts of chemical exposure despite clear findings that there are communities in Massachusetts with particularly high rates of breast cancer. You can learn more about breast cancer and the environment from the Silent Spring Institute.

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.

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Susan Sered is a professor of sociology at Suffolk University in Boston and a senior researcher at Suffolk’s Center for Women’s Health and Human Rights. Her most recent book is “Can’t Catch a Break: Gender, Jail, Drugs and the Limits of Personal Responsibility” (University of California Press, 2014). She would like to thank Robin Yang and Ashely Rose Difraia for their help with this post.

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