The Importance of Being Pink

by Diana Saverin

It’s here: Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Pink ribbons, balloons, signs, and shirts have adorned the streets. Bras hang from the library. We laugh at the ridiculous posters intended to increase our “awareness” of breast cancer: Save the ta tas! Boobies rule, cancer drools! Save second base! Save the boobies! Wear pink on Friday! Everyone loves boobs! A pink ribbon can be found anywhere, thongs, bras, rainboots, perfume, blush, vests, sneakers, yogurt, outerwear, socks, ornaments, mini massagers, book lights, hair straighteners, razors, sink strainers, cookie cutters, Egyptian glass globe bottles, hats, purse hangers, flashlights, and so much more. I am quite certain that if I wished to, I could comfortably live my whole life buying only products with a pink ribbon.

In most ways, this is a great thing. The prominent US-based breast cancer foundations[1] have raised money, awareness, and research enormously. As someone who knows women who have survived breast cancer, I am grateful for these strides that have been made. Moreover, these non-profits provide a model for other causes, as their marketing schemes have worked. They have made an issue, which used to be associated with awkward-to-talk-about breasts, pink. Nowadays, money donated to breast cancer receives more money than any other one topic related to women.[2] Susan G. Komen for the Cure alone has a total expenditure of $347,858,000 a year, which is 27% of the total money spent on all women’s issues annually, ranging from sex trafficking to the compensation gap.[3]

Since giving to the pinkest cause easily translates to the most feminine cause, where do the other pinkish topics stand? These topics include the many subsets under power, human rights, education, economic justice and support, family and work issues, health and women’s bodies, and safety (with breast cancer grouped under health and women’s bodies). So where does the money go? Using the fixed amount of money given to women annually,[4] breast cancer has monopolized the landscape. Out of the over fifty diverse topics and issues related to women,[5] and out of the $1,249,541,000 given to all of those topics in a year, $410,578,000 went to breast cancer, which is 33% of that total. Girls’ education gets 2% of that same pie, work/life balance 0.5%, rape 0.5%, and the compensation gap 0.3%.[6] While I will leave the normative statements of which of these topics deserves the money the most to those wiser than I, I want to understand why breast cancer so dominates the market for women’s philanthropy.

One reason is simple: breast cancer is not considered feminist. The f-word makes the notion that boobs were ever awkward or controversial seem laughable. Supporting one of those feminist groups, like the Feminist Majority or the National Organization for Women, would be riskier, and certainly not very pink. The pink ribbon is losing its spot as the only socially acceptable women’s issue, as it is becoming trendy to talk about empowering girls[7], or giving microloans to women in developing countries[8], but proudly sporting a pink ribbon on a baseball cap or vest remains the classic symbol of political correctness in the minefields of women’s issues and feminism. But by so carefully treading over the dangerous and murky waters of the unlikeable and manly women society has warned us about, do we forget about the one in four women in the US and globally who are raped? Or the sex slavery that kidnaps innocent women and girls and sells and resells their virginity in ways that are sure to make the reader extremely uncomfortable? Or the thousands of women who are brutally killed in the name of honor under sharia law, for heinous crimes, such as wanting to choose their own husband?

Sometimes even more squeamish than these ways women are genitally mutilated and assaulted is their “masculine” ambition. Awkward. Let’s just stick with health, because with health matters it’s life or death, and what could be more important than life? Breast cancer is the best answer: clean cut, depoliticized, pink, whose perpetrators are cells in the depths of our bodies—instead of our own continually discriminating tendencies—and it certainly has some distance from those crazy feminists. But on the note of health, what happens to the women who don’t live long enough to get breast cancer? Or those women who want reproductive freedom, or maternal health care, or who have HIV/Aids? And by the way, isn’t heart disease the number one killer of women, with 1 in 4 women dying from it in the US, while 1 in 30 die from breast cancer?

It gets especially ambiguous for those poor corporations and firms, whose board and leadership statistics[9] reveal in plain sight the continued existence of the glass ceiling.[10] That’s where breast cancer comes in with its pinker than pink pink ribbon that shouts: “See, we love women!” without dealing with all of the dreaded baggage that comes with the f-word. It’s all charity anyways, so it’s all for a good cause, right?

While breast cancer research and awareness does helps 3.3% of the population, imagine if the women around the world who are literally not free, or the girls who are not allowed to go to school because they are forced to perform chores such as walk a total of four hours to get water to boil, or the women subjected to systematical violence got a share of our annual giving. Where would the world be if some of the $410,578,000 currently going to breast cancer addressed the needs of those women? The array of issues related to women’s empowerment and equality is expansive, but in taking pink route and avoiding critical thinking about the state of sexism, society has left those issues alone. We dedicate a whole month to breast cancer awareness, along with 33% of the money we give to women, but resist mustering the strength or resources to learn about the at least fifty other equally important and underfunded issues.

One of these issues is domestic violence, which affects over half of women. It also happens to be domestic violence awareness month. Would it be just too uncomfortable to spread that awareness every October, and knowing that over half of women experience domestic violence in their lifetime, count ten women at our lunch tables, imagining five of their faces as they are assaulted by a family member at some point in their life? Or maybe we’ll just keep taking the shortcut, and stick to blaming tumors and cells; no one wants to see that kind of ugliness on a cupcake in every dining hall or in chalk all over the pavement anyways.

This romance with breast cancer doesn’t expose a love for women’s breasts, or the dire need to find a cure for breast cancer; it reveals the unwillingness to acknowledge the elementary facts of the sexism. It is visible in the 77 cents women make for every dollar a man makes in the US, it is visible because women still do not make up even 25% of Congress, and it is visible in seemingly benign sayings like “you play like a girl.” Sexism exists in all its black and white glory, but breast cancer awareness and funding lets us pat ourselves on the back for helping women without having to deal with creating any systematic change. Maybe pink really is more than a color; it’s our way around thinking about the ways women are treated by others, and not cells, in the home, locally, nationally, and globally.

Diana Saverin is a freshman in Berkeley College.


[1] Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Breast Cancer Research Foundation Breast Cancer Network of Strength, National Breast Cancer Foundation, Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation, National Breast Cancer Coalition Fund

[2] Diana Saverin and Mayree Clark. “Mapping the Movement.” Silverleaf Foundation, August 7, 2009.

[3] $45,221,540 of this is spent on fundraising and administrative costs, based on the Susan G. Komen 2007-2008 Annual Report

[4] This amount has increased about 6-7% over the past ten years, based on The Foundation Center’s recent research “Accelerating Change for Women and Girls; The Role of Women’s Funds”

[5] Leadership (political, judicial, corporate, professional, academic), human rights, affirmative action, taxes and inheritance, immigration, refugees, prison, LGBT rights, literacy, support for girls, affirmative action in admissions, title IX, compensation gaps, social security and welfare, minimum wage, women in business, women in non-traditional occupations, aging women, paid family leave, childcare, work/life balance, reproductive rights, mental health, HIV/Aids, Breast cancer, physiological differences between men and women, maternal health, general health, domestic violence, rape, genital mutilation, trafficking, prostitution, violence arising from religious fundamentalism, poverty, peace, coping with conflict, the environment, race, economic policy, the arts, media, science, marketing, PR, and media, financing, government relations, leadership and talent development, technology, research, development, and advocacy

[6] Saverin.

[7] The NIKE foundation, which only gives to girls 10-19 have made “girls” an attractive cause, which has spurred a recent surge in investment in girls. While a meaningful task, it is confusing, because in doing so they distinctly separate the girls we ought to invest in from the women they become and the mothers who raise them.

[8] The success of microloans, which started largely with the Grameen Bank, has been phenomenal, and the research that these loans work best for women because women invest money back into the family has led to poverty alleviation for many women. According to the girleffect.org, women invest 90% of their income into their family, while men invest 30-40%.

[9] While women make up 46.5% of the work force, as of 2008 they make up 3% of Fortune 500 CEOs and 15.2% of Fortune 500 board seats, according to Catalyst’s “Women in Management” October 2008 report.

[10] Refers to sexism in the workplace, that woman can only climb the ladder of leadership before hitting the glass ceiling, and cannot get paid an equal wage for the same job as men.

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