Pink ribbons don’t encourage us to think about social justice

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by Caitlin Carmody, BCA Membership Coordinator

Usually when I tell people I work at Breast Cancer Action, they start to talk about pink ribbons and races. This requires me to do some conversation steering. Last week I felt like I had one of my best “conversation conversions” to date; we went quickly from “race for the cure” to “toxins in our world,” and covered pesticides, shampoo, and pink ribbons on products that contain carcinogens. As we ended the conversation lamenting about the ineffectiveness of natural deodorants, I had a nagging sense that I hadn’t gotten to the heart of my unease with pink ribbons. It was only on the bus later that I got it: pink ribbons don’t encourage us to think about social justice.

My question, and the question BCA has been asking for many years, is: What do pink ribbons encourage us to be aware of? My experience is that pink ribbons tell individual women to focus on individual choices in our private lives. “You are at risk for breast cancer and must protect yourself,” pink ribbons tell me. To reduce your risk of breast cancer, and maximize your chance of survival if you are, God forbid, diagnosed, make changes in your own life.

“Get a mammogram”
“Do a breast self exam”
“Eat fruits and vegetables”
“Eat organic fruits and vegetables”
“Avoid toxins in your life”
“Find the best doctor you can”

To some extent, these mandates are empowering. I believe women should take as much action as they want and need in their own lives. I believe we deserve information to empower our decision-making. I believe the pink ribbon has been a powerful tool for breaking the silence about this disease. I also believe the pink ribbon focus on individual behavior discourages our awareness and action about the context in which breast cancer risk and diagnosis occurs.

What if your primary language is not English? (my primary language is English and eliminating toxins in my personal life is still a full-time research project requiring three dictionaries)

What if you live in a food desert?

What if your profession is hazardous to your health?

What if you don’t have health insurance?

What if you do have health insurance but not an extra $8,000?
What if you bear the burden of this country’s environmental waste, which is linked to a higher risk of breast cancer? (major kudos to the President’s Cancer Panel for acknowledging this)
What if the federal agency entrusted to ensure your food is safe, approved a growth hormone that increases your risk of breast cancer?

This October, I am reminded that justice is not comprised of a million individual choices made in private lives. It is about a lived public commitment to just systems, systems that ensure the protection of everyone’s health.

Currently our brains say: “Pink ribbon! Breast cancer! Must get mammogram!” I long for a pink ribbon campaign that makes our brains say: “Pink ribbon! Breast cancer! Injustice! Must take action with my sisterhood!”

That campaign does not exist yet. Until it does, here are some ways you can take action right now to impact the lives of millions of women:

Join Breast Cancer Action today. (And follow us on Facebook and Twitter while you’re at it!)

Ask your federal elected officials to protect everyone’s health by supporting the Safe Cosmetics Act and the Toxic Chemicals Safety Act.

Visit the Silent Spring Institute, Pesticide Action Network and the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice to learn more about how you can help create systemic change.

Share this article now with your friends and family.


  1. KLR
    Posted October 29, 2010 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Beautifully said, Caitlin. BCA is exactly the kind of organization I want at the helm of “the breast cancer movement” — and you are exactly the type of person I want working there! What a wonderful post with great resources for so many different women. Kudos to you and the team. Keep up the great work!

  2. liz
    Posted October 29, 2010 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    thank you. I recommend you read Living Downstream by Sandra Steingraber if you have not already done so.

  3. MRP
    Posted October 31, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    We do typically think of disease response as an individualized process. Although pink ribbons give some comfort to the families and close friends around women who struggle with and survive breast cancer, I had not considered social justice – “lived public commitment to just systems” – in terms of public health. This definition is helpful. Thanks for your innovative approach to the cause!

  4. Posted November 1, 2010 at 7:39 am | Permalink

    Caitlin, YOU ROCK!

  5. Posted November 1, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    So thoughtful and insightful. Thank you, Caitlin!

  6. Posted November 4, 2010 at 8:45 pm | Permalink

    The way to start these campaigns is to write things like this, and then keep doing it. Way to kick things off! 🙂

3 Trackbacks

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