Sunday 25 October 2009

The problem with pink.

At the beginning of this month, I opened my weekend paper to be met with a photograph of Martine McCutcheon and Jessica Taylor posing in pink Betty Boop T-shirts for Asda’s Tickled Pink campaign. ‘Cheers to pink ladies,’ chirped the headline, above a paragraph describing them as looking ‘sensational’ as they ‘joined the fight against breast cancer.’

‘That’ll teach me for buying The Mirror,’ I thought, before remembering that, of course, October = breast cancer awareness month. And breast cancer awareness month = a whole 31 days of everything even remotely aimed at women being turned flamingo pink.

Last year, I opted out of breast cancer awareness month. What with the odd combination of chemo doing its bone-crunching worst and the excitement of my brother’s wedding, it completely passed me by. (It’s amazing the kind of things you can ignore when you’re ill. Have you heard about this Barack Obama fella?) In the years pre-Bullshit, though, I would always get involved; wearing a ribbon on my lapel, buying pink iced buns from M&S and sponsoring whoever was doing something for the cause. Because, well, that’s what us women do, right?

But what I can’t say with any honesty is that breast cancer awareness month ever made me any more aware of my breasts than it did the fact that, during October, the pages of my favourite magazines are routinely filled with more pink products than you can shake a lipstick at. Maybe that’s because I always assumed breast cancer to be the kind of issue my Mum ought to be more worried about than I did. Maybe it’s because, despite all the know-the-offside-rule, down-a-pint-in-15-seconds bravado, I’m actually a girly girl at heart and quite enjoyed all the pinkness. Either way, as far as I was concerned, October was about little more serious than adding the odd pink-tinged impulse-buy to my shopping trips, while enjoying the smugness of knowing that a portion of the proceeds would go to charity.

Coming into this breast cancer awareness month with a perspective skewed by The Bullshit, however, I found my opinions on the campaign changing. And granted, it took losing my tit, my hair and my fertility to make me realise it, but didn’t October ought to be about more than retail therapy?

I once read a piece by Germaine Greer bemoaning the fact that pink is so obviously used to denote a cause predominantly relating to women. But I can’t say that the use of pink in breast cancer campaigns riles me in the same way. Any campaign needs its colour, just as prostate cancer campaigns are usually blue, and environmental issues tend to be green. Rather, my fear is whether the ubiquity of pink in breast cancer is excluding as many people as it’s embracing? Because let’s face it, people: goths get breast cancer too.

Now I’m more Supremes than Slipknot, but when I was diagnosed, I was as alienated by the pinkwash as I was by the blanket insistence that breast cancer is an ‘older-women’s disease’. For me, the problem with pink was – and continues to be – the way it is used to enforce on breast cancer the stereotypical connotations of feel-good-factor girliness, cutesy prettiness and just-us-girls fun. But what if that’s just not your style? I can’t help but think that, for a significant portion of the women – and men, let’s not forget – around the word who’ve been affected by breast cancer, October must be as sickening as Barbie puking Pepto-Bismol onto a bed of crimson carnations.

Hell, even I – who keeps The X Factor on series link and can recite the complete script of Pretty In Pink – have had a taste of how they must feel. You might remember me blogging about my experience of this year’s Cancer Research Race For Life. Standing solo at the start line with S Club 7’s Reach booming out of the speakers, the only head-to-toe black-clothed woman in a sea of pink tutus, cowboy hats and feather boas, I felt as conspicuous in my surroundings as I had in a chemo room filled with sixtysomething women. It was like some sort of terrifying giant hen weekend, and I couldn’t help but feel like an emo at a Take That concert.

As I wheezed my way round the 5k course, suffocated both by the lung capacity of a small rodent and the cloud of pinkness that engulfed me, I wished there was another way for me to do it; a way that wouldn’t force my round-pegged frame into such a square hole. And therein lies the problem with breast cancer awareness month: the pink approach, successful as it undoubtedly is, doesn’t work for everybody. And nobody, as far as I’m aware, is catering for the ‘alternative’ crowd.

Breast cancer awareness month has become a lazy marketer’s dream. And, by turning an important campaign into a fashion-and-shopping-centred celebration, they’re getting away with pink murder. Being diagnosed with breast cancer didn’t make me identify with Martine McCutcheon or Jessica Taylor. It didn’t turn me into a fan of S Club 7, or encourage me to shop for pink eyeshadow. It didn’t make me want to fill my wardrobe with pink clothes. I didn’t want to be empowered by breast cancer – I wanted to be angry about it. I wanted to sulk and swear and listen to Radiohead. I wanted to paint it black, not be ‘in the pink’.

All that said, there remains a pink ribbon on the pocket of my denim jacket. And I’ll continue to raise money for cancer charities. But in doing it, I’ll also be encouraging those charities – and the people who market them – to invest some effort into catering for the breast-cancer-affected men and women for whom pink just isn’t their colour. 


Rosa said...

Hi Lisa
Was diagnosed 6 months ago aged 30 and pink is definitely "not my colour". Agree absolutely with everything you said, all the pinkness never made me any more aware of the possibility of developing breast cancer...and I am just not a pink girl and never will be. Felt guilty for it, but after reading your post I actually feel cheated by it.

shimacat said...

Oh, I can sympathise with this one. I've had a breast-cancer-aware year as my mum was diagnosed, operated and radiotherapied in between trying not to help me with my resolutely ungirly wedding. (I was married in black and green on an Antarctic research ship with nary a frill in sight). My mum's now fine, if reeling still from the speed of it all. And we both are wary of the typical cancer 'girls together' thing, and the pink is nauseating.

I've been decking my rucksack out in yellow daffodils instead, with a light sprinkling of green Macmillan pins.

Thanks, by the way, for the link to the breast exam. I've never been sure I'm doing it right although I've certainly been doing a lot of it since my mum was diagnosed!

Anonymous said...

"October must be as sickening as Barbie puking Pepto-Bismol onto a bed of crimson carnations."

Nice one. Another great post - think you've just said what we were all subconsciously thinking.

Mariken said...

hear hear!

MM said...

Absolutely agree. There's a book about it, 'Pink Ribbons', by Samantha King, but I haven't got round to reading it yet.

Kitty Moore said...

Well said (and I love your writing style)

Rhi said...

I was diagnosed on the 5th of Oct 08 , surgery followed on the 27th Oct 08 , last year 'the pink month ' passed me by, i was a bit pre occupied but this year it has grated. I know money has to be raised and pink appeals to lots, but it definately not my colour. Love your blog...even if i am one of the oldies at 48 to have had the dreaded BC.

r :@

Flo said...

You've made some really good comments here - especially about breast cancer awareness becoming a lazy marketer's dream. I'd like to see Kate and Naomi posing for bowel cancer - which can be far more difficult to raise money for as just isn't as 'sexy'. Yet the experience of cancer treatment is fairly similar regardless of where it hits.

Anonymous said...

Found your blog whilst searching for hair cuts of all things, stopped to read and read i did. You write really well, had me cringing and laughing and nodding and oohing... anyway, don't like reading and not saying hi, so "hi" long may your gobbiness fill this blog ;)