Pink is the Colour of Exclusion

October is the pinkest month.

Every year, I dread October, and every year, it rolls around regardless. October is breast cancer awareness month, which means my world is about to be awash in a sea of pink as people compete to demand my money, my time, my energy. Every year, I rage about the framing and presentation of ‘breast cancer awareness’ and every year, I am attacked for it, because people really don’t like hearing that there are some problems with their social causes.

I suspect I will be writing several entries this month discussing why I feel that ‘breast cancer awareness’ campaigns, in their current iteration, are sexist, cissexist, exclusionary, and sometimes actively hurtful. I do so not because I am pro-breast cancer; just the contrary. I am extremely anti breast cancer. And that’s why I want activists working for ‘breast cancer awareness’ to reevaluate what they are doing, and how they are doing it, because I want them to reach more people. I want them to kick cancer’s ass. If you will forgive me some violent imagery for a moment, because I really hate cancer, I want them to tear into cancer with their bare hands and shred it. Stamp it out. End it.

So, this year, I want to start with the fundamental underpinning of ‘breast cancer awareness,’ the thing that has come to symbolize breast cancer, the instant shorthand that reads ‘I care about breast cancer.’

Pink.

What does pink mean to you? What does pink symbolise, in the public consciousness? What does this colour evoke in the people who view it and interact with it?

Femininity. Women. Girls. Girlie things. Pink is the symbol of baby girls. Pink is so strongly associated with femininity that men who wear pink are looked at askance and comments are made about how ‘brave’ a man has to be to do something like wearing a pink shirt.

Pink is solidly a ‘female’ colour today, although this wasn’t the case historically.

What does associating pink with breast cancer do?

It tells people that breast cancer is a girlie thing.

Who does this leave out? Every single person with breasts who does not identify as a woman, which is to say, every single person in the world who doesn’t identify as a woman. It also leaves out butch and other masculine-identified women who may feel very strongly about the colour pink, perhaps because it was forced on them in an attempt to make them ‘less mannish.’

All of these people left out by the pink ribbon, they can get breast cancer too. And while I have long maintained that one of the core problems with breast cancer awareness month is that people don’t need to be made more aware of breast cancer, they need to fight breast cancer, the fact is that the association of pink with breast cancer means that actually, some people who need to be made aware of breast cancer aren’t being made aware of it. People who should be getting screened are not.

Because they see pink, and they tune out. It’s pink, and it’s not for them. They may feel lumps in their breasts, and write them off. They may have families with a history of breast cancer, but not bother to tell their doctors, because, they aren’t girly, so they can’t get breast cancer. Now, obviously, some people who don’t identify as women are aware of breast cancer and do get appropriate care; I, for example, as a person at high risk of developing breast cancer, keep an eye on my breast health.

But that’s not the case for everyone. And that means that, in a very literal sense, pink is not just the colour of exclusion: Pink kills. Because of the pervasive association with pink, breast cancer is considered a women’s issue, and that means that people who aren’t women don’t know what to look for, don’t know to get screened, and go undiagnosed and untreated when they develop cancers of the breast.

You’ve made it through this. If someone pointed you to this to get you thinking about your engagement with the ‘breast cancer awareness’ movement, it was probably a rough read for you, and I want to thank you for reading it anyway. I’m also not going to leave you hanging; over the course of the month, I will be talking about ways to reframe the movement to make it less exclusionary. I’m also trying to end each post with a productive way to shift the conversation; this isn’t just about criticism, but also about solutions.

Do you want to do something about cancer in your community? Right now? You may already be doing things in your community, but if you are not, here are some ideas:

  • Many breast cancer patients experience social isolation as their treatments drag on; they still need support, but after the initial drama over the diagnosis is dealt with, friends and supporters fade away. There may be people in your community who could use help around the house, rides to appointments, or just someone friendly to play Scrabble with now and then. Your local cancer resource centre can probably hook you up with someone.
  • Your local cancer resource centre. It helps people dealing with all stages of cancer treatment, from initial diagnosis to remission to hospice. They can use donations of time, money, and goods (anything from knitted hats to cases of Ensure); contact them to find out more!
  • Animals get cancer too! Cancer care for animals is very expensive. Some vets have charity accounts they use to help pay for services for low income people. I cannot tell you how awful it is to have a companion animal and be unable to afford care. Donating to such funds, if you can afford it, will not only help animals get treatment, it will improve quality of life for people with companion animals.