This week I received many Facebook messages urging me to tell my friends “where I like it” in my Facebook status. I’ve seen my friends post such mysterious statuses as “I like it on the chandelier” and “I like it on my car seat.” This morning I posted, “I like mine without pinkwashing.” Many people didn’t understand my status or why the meme makes me so angry. I have two simple answers:

1. I hate pinkwashing.

2. This is nothing but Facebook slactivism.

Put differently, I do not believe that if I post an “I like it…” status on Facebook, I have done something significant to advance women’s health.

Instead of pinkwashing, send a $5.00 check to the YWCA who will spend it helping poor women, primarily women of color, get free mammograms.

What is pinkwashing?

pinkwashing is the commodification breast cancer. I’ll let Wikipedia explain (quoting the book pink Ribbons, Ink: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy):

[In] an unprecedented outpouring of cause-related marketing, large businesses have turned their formidable promotion machines on the promotion of breast cancer awareness, while also opposing public health efforts (such as stricter environmental legislation) and stifling investigation into why and how breast cancer affects approximately one woman in 10 in the developed world.

pinkwashing, the breast cancer industry, and the national breast cancer industry month do not fund prevention. They fund “cures,” most of which are highly toxic themselves.  The companies involved downplay environmental causes of breast and other cancers and they derail legislation that regulates pesticides and other toxins or efforts to investigate links between toxins and cancer. The ones who benefit the most from pink ribbon campaign money are pharmaceutical companies, who make huge profits on experimental drugs (experimental drugs are more profitable than mass marketed drugs). pinkwashing is even promoted by many companies (like cosmetic companies such as Estee Lauder in particular) whose own products are often filled with toxins themselves.

Be careful what you ask for – pinkwashing’s collateral damage

Feminism is a curious world view in that it seeks to eradicate itself. Feminism’s ultimate goal is to make itself irrelevant.  If we didn’t have sexism, we wouldn’t need feminism. The pinkwashing backlash is the perversion of this truth.

This is convoluted, so stick with me.

Let’s start with history. In 1991, when the whole pink ribbon thing got started, the Susan G. Koman foundation advocated for greater funding for breast cancer research. At that point only 5% of the federal budget for cancer research was allocated to breast cancer research even though breast cancer caused the highest number of deaths for women. That disheartening disparity was a product of the sexism that has long influenced the medical industry (see Our Bodies, Ourselves). Through the activism of hundreds and thousands of women, breast cancer now receives a higher proportion of federal funding (I haven’t bothered to track the exact stats). Yay feminism!  We’ve won!

Anti-feminists now love to point out that the government spends more money on breast cancer than on prostate cancer, thereby proving that feminists are shrill oppressors of all mankind (which includes women, by the way).  If feminism ultimately desires to become irrelevant, then pinkwashing, feminism’s pretty-in-pink sister, makes it appear that feminism has achieved its goals. We’re past that, right? After all, we do have a race for the cure, right? RIGHT?

Not so fast! If we remember that women face not only breast cancer but also cancers of the reproductive system (there are five gynecological cancers — cervical, ovarian, uterine, vaginal, and vulvar), the numbers change. And let’s not forget that men get breast cancer too, whereas women do not get testicular, penile, or prostate cancer.

Moreover, we can spin the numbers game in some more ethically challenging ways. For instance, male reproductive cancers affect older populations and have much higher survivor rates.  Female reproductive cancers affect younger women, so infertility becomes an issue for all those women who want to be mommies. Not to mention these cancers have lower survivor rates. So there’s a whole quality of life issue at hand too. But, see, that game is asking us to use a scale of suffering to determine where our dollars go and that’s a shell game. The bottom line is that comparing dollars spent on breast vs. prostate cancer research does not reflect much change in whose health gets priority.  And, really, everyone’s health should get priority.

A woman’s work is never done

This year there will be an estimated 80,000 new cases of gynecological cancers and 30,000 deaths.

This year there will be an estimated 182,300 new cases of breast cancer and 40,000 deaths.

It seems to me that there’s a higher ratio of women dying from gynecological cancers than breast cancer.  I actually have a pretty little pink ribbon charm dangling from my keychain. I bought it from a survivor of breast cancer who is a role model for me. I don’t have a comparable ribbon for gynecological cancer. Why is that?

Where have all the ribbons gone?

In the panoply of ribbons out there — the yellow ones for our troops, the red/white/blue ones for our troops, the pink ones for our breast cancer victims — where are the red ones?  How many cars do you see driving down the street with red ribbons? Why?

The red ribbon was a strong intervention in the public discourse to raise our consciousness about the problem of AIDS. Because AIDS was considered a “gay disease” and therefore compounded by the stigma that creates closets, visibility was especially vital in gay activism.  Don’t forget ACT UP’s “Silence = Death campaign .”  Why can’t I buy red ribbon lipstick or teddy bears? Where are the yoghurts with little red tops that I can send in so the company can donate 30 cents to AIDS research? Why aren’t there red ribbon sweatshirts with little red bows on them? I guess drag queens just aren’t a large enough niche market and some diseases are just more marketable than others.

How to be a better pinkwasher

If you think I’m being overly sensitive and too politically correct, fine. If you want an easy way out, that’s fine too. Here are some things to think about if you want to participate in pinkwashing and actually make an impact.

From Think Before You pink

Ask for transparency. Where exactly is the donated money going? What specific company or organization will receive the donated money? What type of research will be performed? Is there a cap on the donated money? Some companies put a cap on how much profits they will donate so that they only pay out a certain amount even though people keep buying their pink ribbon products.

Alternatively, give the money to Komen directly. As Time magazine put it

Komen would get a bigger donation if consumers simply donated the 39¢ it costs to buy each [breast cancer] stamp, not to mention the fact that donors would have to polish off 100 yogurts to come up with a $10 contribution–a formula that surely enriches Yoplait more than the breast-cancer cause.

If you really care, do something real, don’t just buy a stamp or click the Facebook “like” button.


  1. Thanks so much for this – could not agree more. Also, excellent reminder about the site ‘Think Before You Pink’, a very useful resource.

    Every October, we heart attack survivors sit around and wait for the pink avalanche to hit, and wonder why heart disease (which is our #1 health threat, killing six times more women than breast cancer each year – in fact, more women than all forms of cancer combined) doesn’t get the kind of “pervasive branding” that breast cancer does.

    Some suggest that it’s because breast cancer, as Dr. Samantha King says (author of ‘Pink Ribbon Inc: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy’) is a “corporate dream come true”. Unlike AIDS or lung cancer (also a far more deadly cancer than breast cancer) or even heart disease, which rightly or wrongly are each perceived to be largely self-inflicted, breast cancer is seen to be a terribly unfair blow to the utterly innocent. There is no denying the horrific trauma of a breast cancer diagnosis – but is the pink ribbon campaign already feeling the rumblings of public backlash?

    Did you catch author and cancer patient Mary Elizabeth Williams’ essay in salon this month called ‘The Smug Morality of Breast Cancer’? It’s a pretty brave swipe at corporate marketing of pinkness. It’s a very profitable partnership – take Campbell Soup’s pink ribbon soup cans a few years back, which more than doubled sales for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Even after donating 3.5 cents per pink can to a breast cancer charity, the campaign was hugely profitable for Campbell’s.

    More on this at HEART SISTERS: “What Women With Heart Disease Can Learn From Pinkwashing This Month” —


    1. Author

      Thanks for your comment. I will definitely check out the Salon article.

  2. I agree with some of your points here. Somewhat. But really, the numbers show that while a woman is more likely to DEVELOP breast cancer in her lifetime than any other type, the leading cause of cancer DEATHS in women is lung cancer. Comparatively, breast cancer is a far more treatable illness due to advances in surgical techniques, genotyping of cancers and I would not underestimate the pharmaceutical advances in targeted hormonal therapies. Sure pharmaceuticals may be capitalist bastards but I know of no other way for new drugs like tamoxifen to be developed which are so integral in the treatment of breast cancer. And while the number of men who smoke is no longer increasing, the incidence of new female smokers is still on the rise. Many attribute the rise in women smokers in the 1920’s to the newly found female independence of that time. Lung cancer is a far more devastating illness across all sexes than either prostate or breast cancer. Food for thought.

    What REALLY needs to be addressed is why we have not made any real significant impact on cancer treatment of any kind in the last 100 years. Our understanding of the disease is really very cursory and we do not truly understand the complexities involved in the genetic and proteomic pathogenesis behind the malignant transformation of cells. Therefore, I propose that instead of arguing about male vs. female cancers, research needs to be better funded towards the understanding the basic science behind changes in genetic and protein regulation of the single cancer cell. Cancer should not be a noun, it should be a verb. Our bodies are “cancering” all the time and may have 10’s to 100’s of malignant cells (or more) at any one time yet most of us are blissfully unaware of this, never get cancer and will die of heart attacks or strokes or what have you. First we need to understand why one of these cells breaks free of your body’s natural regulation, loses control of the cell cycle and can wind up killing you. Thoughts?

    1. Author

      I agree with your point about male vs. female cancer/diseases. I just hate when anti-feminists use the prostate cancer line as a way to slam feminists. You make an interesting observation about “cancering.” Thanks for your post!

  3. Thank you so much for this article. Every year there are reminders that it’s easier to donate directly and effect a bigger change. You say that incredibly well here and I have happily shared it with others.

    I think that it’s important to say that there *are* Red Ribbon items – specifically MAC Cosmetics Viva Glam line, which donates 100% of the purchase price to their foundation, which has done good work in Africa and the US as far as HIV/AIDS awareness and support. Dell Computers also has its (RED) laptop line, which donates a portion of the proceeds to helping fight HIV/AIDS in Africa. Granted, it is not as ubiquitous as the Pink Ribbon, however, it does exist and is well known in some segments of the community.

    1. Author

      Thanks for pointing out the red ribbons that we don’t see so often but are still important.

  4. I was right there with you until I read the part about providing low income women with mammograms. I would not have a mammogram myself, recommend one to my mother or sisters or anyone I care about. Sure, they detect early cancer, BUT THEY DO NOT PREVENT IT, and because of the intense pressure on & compromise to the breast and radiation, it will sooner or later CAUSE the cancer it is “so good” at detecting. I have not posted the where I like it status, but I also will not encourage anyone to get a mammogram. Instead, I have made it my life’s work to educate and support people to eliminating toxins, identifying systemic allergens, and increasing the foods and habits that create a healthy internal ecosystem which is hostile to cancer cells.

    1. Author

      This is a really good point. I’m learning about this myself lately. Thank you for pointing it out.

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