National Breast Cancer Awareness Month and the Problem with Pink

Even with all of the vibrant red, yellow and orange leaves sprinkling the trees this time of year, October is the month of pink. Every October we celebrate National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a national campaign to raise awareness of breast cancer through fundraisers, educational events and many, many pink products. Similarly, during February’s Heart Disease Awareness Month, famous women don red dresses on the runways of New York Fashion Week to raise awareness of heart disease as part of the National Institute of Health’s “The Heart Truth” campaign.

Feminine images—a red dress, a bright pink tank top—are increasingly used to represent diseases that affect millions of diverse women every day. Advocates promote the use of these colors and images as empowering, hopeful and a sign of feminine strength and resilience. For breast cancer in particular, using these images can be seen as a way to reclaim the loss of femininity that some feel when fighting breast cancer.

Despite the saturation of these colors in the media coverage of diseases affecting women, the use of feminine images to symbolize certain diseases does not resonate with all women in our community. Critics of the campaigns argue that the images send an upbeat, cheerful and stereotypically female message that doesn’t accurately portray the realities of facing a disease such as breast cancer or heart disease.  The use of an overtly feminine image to symbolize a very personal experience can alienate those who don’t identify with such a gendered representation of disease and its impact on women. “These campaigns use a single narrative to tell many different stories,” says Catherine Basham, the Women’s Health Outreach Coordinator at Fenway Health.

Despite the attention that these campaigns bring to women’s health, it is important to promote a broader representation of breast cancer and the diverse men and women it affects.  Each October, Fenway celebrates the unique stories of cancer survivors and their supporters at the Audre Lorde Cancer Awareness Brunch, named in memory  of Audre Lorde, a self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.”  Lorde wrote about her own battle with cancer and encouraged women to share their experiences in order to make their struggles, strengths and identities visible in a society and medical establishment where they hadn’t been. For more information about this free event , visit the Fenway calendar.

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