Untying the pretty pink ribbons

My small town ties pretty pink ribbons to every street lamp on Main Street. My Green Bay Packers wipe their sweaty brows on hot pink towels. My inbox is awash in pink. Yes folks, we are waist-deep in Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

And I’m pinked out.   

Before you protest on my doorstep with pink pitchforks raised, know this. My maternal grandmother had breast cancer. My maternal aunt had breast cancer. My mom had breast cancer. I don’t need pink ribbons to remind me that with my history, it’s not IF, it’s WHEN. I am plenty aware. I am up to my ta-tas in awareness.

October is also Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Did you know that domestic violence and sexual abuse will affect one in four women this year? That’s twice as many more NFL football players’ mothers, sisters and daughters who are bruised, bloodied or raped by someone they know than will ever be affected by breast cancer. But no players strut up and down the field in purple gear. Small towns don’t tie purple ribbons to street lamps.

Do we have more respect and less shame in publicly honoring cancer heroes (What a fighter!) than domestic violence victims (Why does she stay?).

Over a quarter-million women will die from heart attacks this year, four times more than from breast cancer. The two leading causes of death among women worldwide are HIV/AIDS and complications during pregnancy and delivery. As for cancer, lung is the #1 cancer killer of women. Skin cancer, the most common. Ovarian cancer, the deadliest reproductive cancer and THE hardest to detect.

Yes, yes, yes, breast cancer IS serious. Technically, it’s not The. Most. Serious.

All issues have their own ribbons and awareness months. But breast cancer has a movement that far outweighs any other.


We are a breast centric culture. Breasts are more popular than lungs and ovaries. They’re sexier. They represent fantasy and pleasure. They provide nourishment and pillows to cry on. Be they bodacious, flat, perky, droopy, surgically enhanced or swingin’ free in the breeze, breasts get our support because they symbolize so much about womanhood.   

Once upon a time, there WAS a grave need to address breast health. Breast cancer was a silent killer spoken of only in private whispers. We can thank organizations like Susan G. Komen for raising the battle cry to new levels. Awareness and education was, and still is, absolutely necessary.

But the queen of campaigns has become a fashion statement. Prolific product placement makes it easy for us to join in, pat ourselves on the back for our advocacy “work” and call it day.  You can buy pink ribbon bumper stickers, jewelry, teddy bears, perfume, apparel (for the whole family!) and beer can cozies. You can run, walk, dance, eat and poop “for the cure”. They pluck at our heart-strings and purse strings because we know SO MANY family and friends touched by breast cancer. Yet…if we know SO MANY people touched by breast cancer, one wonders…how effective IS this campaign? Is all that money raised to stop breast cancer or to market more pink products and fund more fundraisers?

My mom is done giving to Susan G. Komen.

Ruth is pissed that they spent over a million dollars last year suing smaller fundraisers who used the phrase “for the Cure” to promote local events. I’m all for trademark protection, but when you raise over a billion dollars a year, does it really matter if Mary Ellen’s Cupcakes for the Cure in Podunk, WI uses the same words? Especially when most Mary Ellens plunk what they raised right back INTO the Susan G. Komen Foundation?

I’m with Ruth. Smart girls share.

If you’re interested in examining the darker history and motives behind the enormous success of the breast cancer awareness movement, check out KomenWatch or Breast Cancer Action’s Think Before You Pink campaign.  Some of it feels a little “witch-hunty”, but much of it is quite thought-provoking.

My critique stops here.

Watch dogging, albeit interesting, isn’t always productive either. Grumbling about “pink washing” saps energy that could be spent fostering dynamic changes in women’s health. And big businesses like Komen (and their kazillion supporters) have the muscle to create that change. Turning them off ain’t gonna help any.

I’m pro-breast. I like my girls and I’d like to keep them. I’d like more women to keep their girls and their lives. I am pro-awareness, pro-screening and pro-health education, no matter the size of source. But pink has lost its impact on me. Inundation is not always effective education.

As a nation, it’s time to recognize how our obsession with breast health funnels resources away from other critical health issues. As consumers, it’s time to start spending outside the pink ribbon market. As individuals, it’s time to ask what specific action WE can take besides buying and displaying pink products.

It’s time for all of us to holler “for the Prevention!” instead of “for the Cure” as our new battle cry.

Come back soon with a hot cuppa joe. I’m going to continue this conversation very soon with changes I’d love to see in breast health and other awareness campaigns. I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

In the meantime, go find a purple ribbon and tie it to your prettiest tree.




8 thoughts on “Untying the pretty pink ribbons

  1. fivegreenacres says:

    I didn’t comment yet? I’ve been thinking about this post ever since the day I read it. It was eye-opening for me. Thanks for your succinct food-for-thought. Makes me think about all those Komen stamps I’ve bought over the years at the Post Office. Hmm.

  2. luke says:

    Has anyone ever remarked on what a lovely brain you have?
    I have never looked at your blog before, even though Lorra has it listed in “favorites” on our computer.

  3. Mandy Pants says:

    Ames! By far, my most favorite post! No one says it quite like you do, and this one kind of made me mist a little. So many people hop on soap boxes with very little knowledge of both sides of the story, but not you, trooper! NOT YOU! Thank you for sharing that this month is also Domestic Violence Awareness month and your thoughts on why Breast Cancer awareness is getting more publicity. As you know, Scott’s side of the family is also plagued by breast cancer. Thank you!!! Your wisdom, your wit, and your words are always an inspiration to me! Love!

  4. aejohnson says:

    Thanks Fay! Seems the pendulum is stuck on this one though…I’ve learned a lot over the last few days, it’s been hard narrowing it down. Hence…another blog in the works.

  5. Fay says:

    It’s complicated. You got your publicity, your $$$, politics, the profits made on mammograms, etc. There was a time when no one talked about the C-word at all. And AIDS was a death sentence. And remember when a colonoscopy was done in a windowless room? (Oh, yeah, I guess it still is.) MADD. Smoking in restaurants.
    The pendulum swings. First this extreme, then that one.
    And thanks for the publicity regarding domestic violence, ovarian cancer, etc. Good info. I like your style and your purple prose.

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