The blood draining from the bandages where my mom’s breasts used to be was vermilion, not pale pink. Neither were the pill bottles, paper measuring cups, or plastic buckets I arranged in rows around her following her double mastectomy.
When we think of breast cancer, we don’t think of it in shades of red, brown, and sterile white. We think of joyful blush-colored ribbons. Particularly during ‘Pinktober’ we are bombarded with ribbons pinned on jackets and splashed across car bumpers. Pink ribbons even danced their way across the felt blanket my mom used to cover herself after her surgery. Despite the warmth of these images, they are most effective in their ability to hide the experiences of breast cancer patients and survivors. Just as my mom’s blanket covered up her drains and bandages when friends came to visit her, contemporary breast cancer awareness campaigns and their critics conceal the heart wrenching realities of this disease.
Society expects female breast cancer patients to hide their pain from those around them. According to social scientist Sue Wilkinson, women must do this so that their pain does not interrupt others’ conception of the women they love as brave and infallible. According to Wilkinson’s view, it is too much for us to conceive of the women in our lives as needing care when we expect them to care for us.
Due to this dissonance, society expects female breast cancer patients to continue to fulfill their societal duty as gleeful, selfless nurturers while undergoing breast cancer treatment. Here it is plain to see why society wants to stick a bow on breast cancer without dealing with its harsh realities.
What is more distressing, however, is the way some breast cancer awareness organizations choose to publicly assign badges to women’s suffering despite their intimate knowledge of the agony of this disease. By crafting their campaigns in this manner, awareness organizations conceal the pain of breast cancer patients and survivors. In its stead, campaigns brand breast cancer in a peppy pink that reinforces the optimism society demands from women at all times. The pink washing of the breast cancer awareness movement denies current patients and survivors the space they need to grieve, suffer, and heal while demonstrating our collective unwillingness to recognize this process.
Many feminists have critiqued pink washing this October. However, even these attacks on the misogyny and hypocrisy of breast cancer campaigns fail to create substantive awareness about what breast cancer is really like.
Thankfully, not all breast cancer awareness organizations shy away from revealing the true nature of their cause. Yet when organizations speak honestly, the same social pressures that force breast cancer patients to conceal their pain silence them.
For example, New York Photographer David Jay’s SCAR Project proclaims the obvious: “Breast Cancer is Not a Pink Ribbon”. Jay backs up this claim by presenting a traveling gallery of portraits of young breast cancer survivors, scars and all. A far cry from the sexualized rhetoric of the Save the Ta-tas Foundation, Jay’s work depicts breast cancer in a way that embodies the courage, dignity, and humanity of women and men who endure mastectomies.
Despite the refreshing honesty of the SCAR Project, the organization has been significantly critiqued. In the past year Facebook took down many of the SCAR Project’s portraits tagged by users as ‘offensive’. Facebook even threatened to ban the group from their site altogether. In statements issued to the SCAR Project, Facebook stated the portraits were removed due to its ‘no nudity’ policy following users’ tags. With no breasts or genitalia on display in the pictures, however, it is entirely unsatisfactory to write off our discomfort with Jay’s portraits as the same unease we may feel when looking at pornography.
Ultimately SCAR Project administrators were able to keep their Facebook and the portraits displayed on the page. Even so, seeing the torn chests of young women and men and pondering the stories of pain they tell is horrifying and we must examine where this horror comes from. It would be easy to write off our uneasiness as compassion for those pictured. Yet as Wilkinson suggests, our distress at viewing Jay’s portraits may reveal a deeper desire to deny the experiences of breast cancer patients because they are too difficult for us to deal with.
The most devastating part of all of this is the effect the social silencing of breast cancer narratives has on breast cancer patients themselves. In a culture that demands women ‘grin and bear’ this lethal disease, traditional feminine self-sacrifice can compound an already tragic situation. My personal experience with my mom’s recovery from a double mastectomy was a testament to the strength of how social concepts of femininity can complicate a woman’s ability to recover.
When my mom removed her post-op bandages for the first time she was determined to do it alone. Unable to do so, my mom dejectedly asked me for help.
As I pried back the layers of gauze on my mom’s chest, I could not stop a tear from rolling down my cheek. Seeing this, my mom became glossy-eyed as well. In that moment I didn’t know how to explain to my mom that my tears were not caused by her torn flesh, but by the heavy heart that lay beneath it.
At that point I knew that even after all the intense pain my mom endured in the months prior, the hardest suffering for her to bear was the reversal of our roles as nurturer and dependent. Though I couldn’t communicate this to her at the time, I can now. I can also seek to honor my mom this Breast Cancer Awareness month. Though you can be sure I will not attempt to do so by wearing a pink ribbon, my activism doesn’t stop there. Instead, I will celebrate this month by sharing my experience with breast cancer alongside my mom’s. In this way I hope to be a voice that not even mere critiques of pink washing can silence.