What’s wrong with this color?


I’ll be glad to see October end on Monday. Not just because that day is also the greatest holiday of the year. But because it will signify the end to the pink-hued month of awareness about breast cancer. I hate breast cancer, as I’m sure you do as well. But what I hate almost as much are the misguided attempts to “fight” breast cancer—which have now gotten as frightening as that end-of-the-month holiday.

As I flew out of LAX last week, I was horrified to see gate after gate decorated with reams of pink tulle and ribbon that look like they were filched from Barbie’s Dreamhouse. No signs. No information. Nothing that says “Hey, breast cancer is really bad, and you should do something about it.” No real message at all. Unless transforming my airport into a prom nightmare is supposed to subliminally remind me of the ugliness of breast cancer. Which it certainly did.

This “decorating for the cure” also annoyed Mary Ellen Havard, a writer and friend of my mom’s who has battled breast cancer for 11 years. In her book, Breast Cancer: One Illness, Two Women, Four Seasons, she writes about this plague of pink:

“Seems like everywhere you look, you see cute pink items designed to bring awareness to breast cancer. Since when is breast cancer cute and soft and pink? And why is the illness represented by a delicate pink bow? The true colors of cancer are puke green, necrotic black, blood red. There’s nothing soft and sweet about cancer.”

The rose-colored scourge is nothing new, of course. Nearly every woman-targeted product on the planet can now be found in a perky shade of pink. A decade ago I even bought a Kitchen Aid standing mixer in a Pepto-hued pastel (to be fair, I really do like the color). I was pleased at the time to see that a portion of my proceeds supposedly funded research. But after ten years I’m pretty disgusted at the types of products that are pushing pink power. There’s even a name for it: “pinkwashing.”

But when I was recently walking through the aisles of Safeway (or Vons out here in LA), I realized that fighting breast cancer could actually be bad for you.

As you’re shopping at those stores this month, you’ll pass shelves flagged with pink tags signifying which products are participating in some kind of revenue-sharing program with breast cancer research. The more foods you buy, the more you can help cure breast cancer. Great, right?

Unfortunately the foods which are highlighted are largely the foods which are proven to cause other diseases, like obesity and high blood pressure. IF YOU EAT THESE DONUTS YOU WILL BE FIGHTING THE BATTLE AGAINST BREAST CANCER, BUT YOU WILL BE LOSING THE BATTLE AGAINST DIABETES! ENJOY!

I didn’t see any pink tags in the produce section.

I can see how this strategy is a nice gesture on Safeway’s part. You’re buying the crap anyway, you might as well pay out some cash to a good cause. But once you get to the checkout, the message transforms from befuddling to downright wrong.

Something so wrong here

So let me get this straight. If you choose not to buy your own selection of high fructose corn syrups, artificial flavorings, and empty calories to help battle breast cancer, you have yet another chance to win a FREE BOTTLE of them. In a plastic container full of BPAs that have been proven to cause—you guessed it!—cancer! Don’t worry, you guys. It’s pink!

I agree we need more awareness about breast cancer. But awareness doesn’t mean forcing free strawberry soda down our throats. So what’s my solution? Ditch the pink. Entirely. Capitalize on the fact that October is also the month we put up our most terrifying decorations. Let’s put breast cancer in a ghastly house of horrors. Let’s make breast cancer a revolting one-eyed monster. Let’s see those colors that Mary Ellen Havard talked about—the “puke green, necrotic black, blood red”—in a campaign that gets people to think long and hard about the very serious choices they’re making when it comes to their health. I want a breast cancer campaign that freaks people out.

It’s time to remind everyone that breast cancer is not about buying a dozen sugar cookies dusted with delicate pink nonpareils or walking through an airport terminal that looks like it was sprayed down with cotton candy. It’s fucking scary.

I’ll take that message over a pink ribbon any day.

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  • Belle

    Great piece. Could not agree with you more! Thinking of the women I know who have had double mastectomies, I find the pink awareness bras they market to be the most bothersome, and insensitive.

  • Glassofwin

    Amen. I’ve always been disturbed by the pink washing.

  • Careyokrand

    Thanks Alissa….pinkwashing, greenwashing…. ugh!

  • https://twitter.com/#!/namegirl Ellen Lutwak

    As always, well done.
    You might appreciate the organization: http://thinkbeforeyoupink.org/ From
    their site: “Pinkwashing has reached a new low this
    year with Promise Me, a perfume commissioned by Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Promise
    Me contains chemicals not listed in the ingredients…”

    Having had breast cancer and reconstruction,
    I support The Susan Love Research Foundation which focuses on research and finding
    the reasons why: prevention. http://www.dslrf.org/  (An aside, I personally do not use
    the label “survivor” because I am more than that and still Ellen…) 

  • Lindaeckstein

    You might want to take a look at the images I posted to remind folks that breast cancer is not a pink ribbon and a cuddly teddy bear. These are historic medical images from the 18th and 19th centuries of women being treated for breast cancer. There is also an amazing Mexican ex voto painting from 1777 of a mastectomy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/heatherparlato Heather Parlato

    even worse, usually they ARE asking for donations to fight diabetes, and if the checker fails to ask, you get a free 2 liters of diabetes-inducing soda. i realize it’s the cheapest thing they can give away, but it’s got to be THE shortest-sighted “promotion” i’ve ever seen.

    and just for the record, i only buy cat litter & get atm money from my transactions there, that’s all i can deal with at vons.

  • http://twitter.com/hollymdunning Holly Dunning

    I couldn’t agree more with your article. I challenge companies and products to look beyond pink and help more seriously in fighting cancer. I think this project: http://www.thescarproject.org/ is a great example of the terrifying reality of this disease. The images are not only beautiful and reflective but also send a powerful statement. 

    Their site says it perfectly, “The SCAR Project puts a raw, unflinching face on early onset breast cancer while paying tribute to the courage and spirit of so many brave young women.” 

  • Alissa

    Saw this around the internet the other day, truly amazing! Thanks for posting.

  • Alissa

    OMG! I don’t go to Vons enough to see this kind of stuff, but that is horrible!!!

  • Alissa

    Thank you for posting Holly, this is definitely much more effective—and still very beautiful.

  • Alissa

    Thank you Ellen for posting this and for sharing your story! I linked to the Think Before You Pink site in the story, and was pretty shocked to find the truth about some of those products!

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  • http://www.MakeAndDoGirl.com Make and Do Girl

    Hilarious photos. Spot on message. My favorite is the bottle of soda. Such a backwards way of passively “fighting” a really horrible disease.

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