I don’t like the pink ribbon.
It’s not because it’s pink. It’s not because football players look idiotic wearing pink shoes during games. And it’s not because the organization that first introduced the pink ribbon, and that benefits financially from donations to breast cancer research, has taken a public stance against having Planned Parenthood provide low cost breast cancer screenings for women. No, I don’t like it because as a diabetic the pink ribbon poses a real and significant threat to my health.
The pink ribbon, of course, is the symbol in the fight against breast cancer. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. As a result for 31 days I, along with everyone else with two working eyes and two working ears, have been inundated, bombarded, and deluged with the happily simplistic image and ethos of the pink ribbon. In Des Moines last week I saw a t-shirt for sale that on the front said “Cancer Happens” and on the back said, “but it’ll be all right.” In addition, lapel pins, bumper stickers, television ads, Internet banner ads, stuffed animals, jewelry, cosmetics, candy, coffee mugs and many other pink beribboned, merchandised representations of fighting breast cancer are all available for a price to anyone who wants to believe they are aiding in the fight against a terrible disease.
I am not alone in being critical of how this symbol has become so crassly commercialized that now it’s just trite cultural shorthand for buying consumer goods while also being able to say Look at me! I care, I understand, I am contributing to ending a deadly disease!
Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickled and Dimed, among other books, is a breast cancer survivor. Included in the many intelligent and coherent essays she has written about the “pink ribbon culture” is this observation about corporate/disease synergy: “… breast cancer has blossomed from wallflower to the most popular girl at the corporate charity prom. While AIDS goes begging and low-rent diseases like tuberculosis have no friends at all, breast cancer has been able to count on Revlon, Avon, Ford, Tiffany, Pier 1, Estee Lauder, Ralph Lauren, Lee Jeans, Saks Fifth Avenue, JC Penney, Boston Market, Wilson athletic gear — and I apologize to those I’ve omitted.”
The pink ribbon suggests to people that disease, any disease including diabetes, can be brought to heel, or even eradicated, through charitable donations. By extending this warped logic it would make sense to the average person that the disease most prominently and most aggressively seeking donations must be the most deserving of support, i.e.: must be the most deadly. But, it’s not true.
What is true is that this new, uber-corporatized view of healthcare has made curing disease as market-driven as selling soap. This in turn is responsible for creating a caste system of disease. The implication is that those diseases that cannot, or do not, compete as well in the marketplace as does breast cancer — “low rent diseases like tuberculosis” and diabetes — are not as worthy of support. Promoting this attitude is reprehensible because it costs lives.
Now, in our breast obsessed culture, I can see why the pink ribbon would become more popular than, say, embracing whatever symbol might represent curing diabetes, a disease most people think is caused solely by downing too many Big Macs and Budweisers. I can see why companies would want to leverage breast cancer support to gain entrée to the more affluent and cash spending 50-60-year old female demographic, which is the age range people are most frequently diagnosed with breast cancer. I can see why the pink ribbon would also become a sideshow symbol for feminism in a post-Gloria Steinem age. But I can’t excuse it because, again, it’s costing lives.
Every dollar spent on a pink teddy bear, or pink pair of shoelaces, or pink apron, or pink-and-hope-scented pink candle is a dollar not spent on AIDS, or colon cancer, or heart disease, or type one and type two diabetes. And that’s no small diversion of funds.
In 2012, according to the National Institutes of Health, 39,920 women and men died from breast cancer. In 2007 (the latest year for which statistics are available) 231,404 women and men died from diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to Marie Claire magazine in 2011 “an estimated $6 billion is raised every year in the name of breast cancer. And the money keeps pouring in.”
By contrast, in 2010, according to diabeteshealth.com, “$150 million [was] earmarked for research specifically on type 1 diabetes” by the federal government’s National Institutes of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, meanwhile, raised $1.4 billion for research. But, oh wait, that’s the total amount of money raised since the JDRF was founded in 1970.
That goes beyond reprehensible. That’s rapacious. Now I really don’t like the pink ribbon.