Poppin’ Molly – Poppin’ Molly’s Handy Guide to Pinkwashing

Molly Regan

Molly Regan

October is a pretty special month for me. It’s usually the first month that you can really feel the cool fall weather kick in, signifying my emergence from my summer humidity hibernation. It’s also pregnancy and infant loss awareness month, which holds some very special significance for a few people close to me, and for many women who are perhaps not comfortable going public with their stories.

The past few Octobers have proven very healing for some of nearest and dearest in regards to some of the most difficult losses a person can face. October 6 just so happens to be the day that my wonderful mother entered this world, providing me the opportunity to send her many pun-filled cards and low-key celebrations (as per her request).

But it isn’t all sunshine, rainbows and sentiment. With October also comes one of my most hated annual traditions. That is, when every major business across the country decides to take on the facade of public health concern in order to boost sales. That’s right, it’s pinkwashing season.

If you aren’t familiar with the term “pinkwashing,” I can promise you are familiar with the practice. It is the act of selling common items in various shades of pink in order to promote breast cancer awareness, with most businesses promising that a portion of proceeds from these items will go to causes devoted to cancer research. In most cases, the cause is Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Every year businesses and organizations toss out their standard merchandise in favor of pink cups, sweaters, make up applicators and fucking cleats in order to show how concerned they are for women suffering from breast cancer. And while it may seem like a sweet display of support, the practice is actually quite insidious. Confused? Allow me to explain.

Poppin’ Molly’s Handy Guide to Pinkwashing
* Particularly helpful for those with a collection of rainbow livestrong bracelets

The Irony of Saving Lives by Selling Death

Have you ever taken the time to look at the items and companies that participate in pinkwashing? I’m sure you haven’t, and organizations like Susan G. Komen are benefitting from that selective inattention.

While we may not be doctors, we’re mostly aware of basic healthcare. Exercise regularly, don’t smoke, don’t eat crap – it’s the basic spiel you tune out whenever your doctor gives it to you. So one would assume that any company participating in a campaign associated with saving lives would not be associated with taking them.

Nah. Not so much. KFC teamed up with Komen for breast cancer awareness month, despite selling some of the most artery-clogging food in America. This is particularly offensive considering the fact that heart disease, not breast cancer, is actually the number one killer of women nationwide. But, ya know, save the boobies, not the heart.

Komen has also partnered with oilfield service corporation Baker Hughes. In the interest of saving boobies while killing the environment, they distributed pink drillbits to oilfields across the world. What an incredible display of support!

And if that didn’t make your skin crawl, some of the other products that have been associated with pinkwashing have been found to include chemicals that disrupt hormones and are linked to the development of breast cancer in women without a family history. This is precisely what happened when Avon tried to jump aboard the pink wave with their “Kiss goodbye to cancer” line of lipsticks.

Save the Boobies, forget the woman

The “Save the Boobies” slogan hits right at my feminist core. It stands for everything I am against – sexualizing women to promote your gain, ignoring women as fully formed individuals, using infantile language to describe a very painful anatomical process because, let’s face it, cute sells better than reality.

You don’t see this with other diseases. You don’t see people walking around with t-shirts showing illustrated squirrels holding acorns with the tagline “Save our nuts!” claiming to promote testicular cancer awareness. When I had my surgery for endometriosis, despite a few people gleefully cheering that I could now have children (umm, no, financially I really can’t, but thanks?), people generally still treated it as a real disease. Nobody – aside from myself and a close friend who had undergone the same surgery – was talking about the need to save my baby box.

And that’s the core issue here. This is a disease. Sometimes it’s a treatable one, and sometimes it’s a deadly one. But it’s a disease that impacts a woman’s (and sometimes a man’s) entire life and identity. I’ve worked on several breast cancer survivors. I have a cousin who is currently undergoing treatment for breast cancer. And while I cannot personally speak for them, I can tell you, I don’t give a shit about their boobies. I just want them to be okay.

And the harsh reality is that, in some cases, the boobies cannot be saved. Mastectomies save a lot of lives. Tig Notaro recently recorded a stand up special in which she goes topless, displaying her surgery scars from treatment for bilateral breast cancer. She’s joked a lot about the irony of being diagnosed with breast cancer when she had always joked about her breasts being so small. And that’s the great irony – nobody could’ve cared about her “boobies” beforehand because they were too small, but after she was diagnosed, apparently everyone wants to save them.

I dunno, personally I’m more interested in saving Tig Notaro, and in effect, all women.

Let’s Handle the Real Problems in the NFL

You can paint the field, the jerseys and the cleats as pink as you want, it will not erase the genuine problem with violence against women that permeates the NFL. I’m not of the frame of mind that football promotes violence, or that only violent people play football. However, it has been proven that the NFL is fairly soft on crimes against women. The handling of Ray Rice’s assault of his wife was aggressively out of the norm for the league, and he is still a free agent rather than banned from playing.

These are major issues that need to be addressed. And they cannot be erased by wearing pink for a month. Breast cancer is a major issue that affects women, but it is only one of many. Maybe it’s time to sincerely handle the women’s causes that are truly impacting the NFL at its core.

A Pink Accessory Cannot Screen for Breast Cancer

No matter how many yoplait yogurts you eat, or cell phone cases you buy, the fact of the matter is that none of them can screen a woman for breast cancer. None of them can treat a woman who is diagnosed with breast cancer. And none of them can research the potential causes or cures for breast cancer. In fact, most of them are just helping to keep Komen in existence.

Doctors at Planned Parenthood consistently provide affordable cancer screenings for low income women. They work on a sliding pay scale based on an individual’s income in order to best assess an affordable price for their visit. The American Cancer Society is constantly working to research causes, cures and effective treatments.

Nothing pink can legitimately help women with breast cancer, only people can.

Look, I get it. Instant gratification is really seductive, and there isn’t anything quite as satisfying as believing you are helping to cure cancer by buying the pink cookie instead of your usual chocolate. But you’re not. You’re just contributing to the mass marketing and sexualization of a deadly disease.

Don’t be a part of the problem. Instead, consider contributing to these organizations that sincerely devote their time and energy to individuals suffering from cancer.

Planned Parenthood

Breast Cancer Action

American Cancer Society

And if you’re interested in learning more about pinkwashing, I highly recommend the documentary Pink Ribbons, Inc. As the movie will tell you, writing a check does a whole lot more than an envelope full of yogurt lids.

Please direct your good intentions to the right places.


Molly Regan is an improviser and writer in Baltimore. She likes chicken pot pie, Adam Scott’s butt and riot grrl.

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