The Problem with Pinktober


It’s October and along with fall foliage and jack-o-lanterns, this month has become synonymous with the color pink for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Whether it’s products on the store shelves, throngs of charity walkers, or add-ons to pro-athlete’s uniforms, Pinktober is hard to miss. On the surface, the purpose of the pink ribbon seems like a decent idea, but increasingly, people are questioning whether it does more harm than good.

The Origin of the Pink Ribbon

The pink ribbon was created in the wake of two other famous cause-ribbons. The first of these was the yellow ribbon, which originated during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when Penney Laingen was inspired by the song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” to tie yellow ribbons around trees to symbolize her desire for her husband — who was held hostage in Iran — to return home. Many other people followed her example as way to show their own support for military personnel serving overseas. In 1991, AIDS activists took the yellow ribbon, changed it to red to symbolize passion, and made it a symbol to bring awareness to their cause.

Less than a year after the AIDS ribbon made its big debut at the 1991 Tony Awards, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation began handing out pink ribbons (instead of the usual pink visors) to survivors running their Race for the Cure. In 1992, Estee Lauder — known for its Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign and Breast Cancer Research Foundation — handed out 1.5 million pink ribbons along with instructions for a proper breast self-exam. estee lauder breast cancer research foundation

From the Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign website: “Evelyn Lauder and Alexandra Penney deliver Pink Ribbon petitions to First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton at The White House.”

Pink Ribbon Controversies

People have a lot of problems with the pink ribbon and this list does not cover them all. Regardless, here are some of the biggies:

â–º The color: Not only does it imply that only women get breast cancer (currently, around 2,240 men are diagnosed each year), but the choice of pink for the ribbon has been called sexist and criticized for making the disease seem cute or glamorous.

â–º The products: Some pink ribbon products donate money from your purchase to a breast cancer charity, but not all of them do. Even those that do donate sometimes have a cap on their donations or set a predetermined amount. Also, some of pink ribbon products have been accused of causing cancer.

â–º The other ribbons: The pink ribbon has become known as the bully of ribbons and its over-use (and misuse) has been coined “pinkwashing.” Many causes now have associated ribbons, but they are often overshadowed by the pink ribbon.

â–º The newly diagnosed: For people who have been newly diagnosed with breast cancer, the onslaught of Pinktober can be an unwelcome assault. Although the pink symbolizes support, being constantly reminded of this terrifying condition can be upsetting nonetheless.

â–º The results: The Pink Ribbon has brought awareness for breast cancer, but not much else. This year, it’s estimated that 40,000 women and 410 men will die from breast cancer in the United States. Many people are too reassured that buying a pink ribbon product is the best action they can take against the disease.

One Potential Benefit of “Pinkwashing”

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), while it’s estimated that breast cancer will claim the lives of nearly 40,000 women and 410 men in the U.S. this year, the overall rates of breast cancer diagnoses and deaths have decreased since 2000. “Death rates from breast cancer have been declining since about 1989, with larger decreases in women younger than 50. These decreases are believed to be the result of earlier detection through screening and increased awareness, as well as improved treatment,” the ACS website reports.

What You Can Do

First of all, just because many pink ribbon products are scams, doesn’t mean they all are. If you still want to support the pink ribbon causes, just pay attention to the product that you’re buying. Check how the company donates its money, track where the money’s going, and find out whether the product contains potentially cancer-causing ingredients.

If you’re now among the anti-pink, there are other ways to support breast cancer awareness and research. Consider donating to organizations that have received top marks for their breast cancer contributions, including the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the American Cancer Society, and the National Breast Cancer Coalition.