October Turned the World Pink: A Midwife’s Thoughts on Pinkwashing

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If you’re at all paying attention to the color of things these past few weeks, you may have noticed that everything has a pink ribbon slapped on it. Wine bottles. NFL players. Fracking drill bits (not kidding about the drill bits)  Everyone seems to be obsessed with pink everything and “breast cancer awareness.”

As a midwife I talk with people about breast cancer and breast cancer risk every day. I conduct breast exams, recommend women see genetic counselors when needed and write referrals for screening mammograms.

In this day and age, 1 in 8 women will develop breast cancer in her lifetime. A very small portion of these cancers are genetically related. Most are diagnosed later in life, and, as more and more research shows, are due to environmental exposures.

We live in a society where “pinkwashing,” the practice of slapping pink ribbons on everything every October and claiming that proceeds go to “breast cancer awareness,” weather or not those funds actually go directly to research (an abysmally small amount does) or whether or not those products have been associated with increased breast cancer risk (many ingredients in cosmetics, for example).

Breast cancer is an important issue that deserves funding and attention, and has touched my family as well as the families of some of my closest friends. And it is exactly that feeling of knowing that this issue deserves respect and actual research that makes me so angry about pinkwashing.

In essence, breast cancer has been commodified and allows corporations, who either directly or indirectly increase breast cancer risk (like the aforementioned beauty products and cracking equipment) to paint over these inconvenient facts and continue to turn a profit.

The other maddening aspect of Octobers is captured in the picture above. I found this flyer plastered to the sliding glass doors of a grocery store as I blearily caffeinated myself before a clinic day. I have been seeing women all year long that need access not only to screening services but to breast specialists, diagnostic tests, and probably cancer treatment. The above flyer proclaims, come one, come all! Get your screening! But what happens when that screening is abnormal? Who pays for the biopsies? The visits to breast specialists?

We know that we have better treatments for breast cancer today, but then why do black women have a three-fold risk of dying from breast cancer than white women? The answer lies in access, environmental racism, and a for-profit health care system.

We forget that the #1 killer of women in America is heart disease, and few of my patients have access to primary health care providers to manage high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease. We have recently seen an increase in the commodification of heart disease as well, using the pinkwashing model, and little svelte red dresses have begun to appear on yogurt containers and cereal boxes. As if all women must do is crack open a box of Special K to save themselves from heart disease.

What we actually need is solid research on the carcinogens in our environment and adequate industry regulation. What we actually need is a quality public, single-payer health care system so that we can offer appropriate preventative health care to all our country’s inhabitants.

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One Response to October Turned the World Pink: A Midwife’s Thoughts on Pinkwashing

  1. Emma says:

    Thank you so, so much for this. It’s a relief to know you’re working out there.

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