Back in April, I sat down to watch a documentary that’s been on my Netflix queue for at least a year: Pink Ribbons, Inc. It’s a suggested movie for my CNE program and one I’m really glad I finally took the time to watch. The film takes a hard look at opposing views centered around the question:
What do you think when you see a pink ribbon?
That little pink ribbon, it turns out, is a loaded symbol with a fascinating history, and while the subject isn’t directly food-related, it’s one of those movies that opens your mind to new perspectives and information – not unlike the shift that happens when we start thinking critically about where our food is coming from. Many of the questions raised in the documentary center around intentions. Is the pink ribbon well-intentioned and does it inspire hope? Or, is it a distraction and a way to placate people who might otherwise be furious? Are the funds raised actually helping to cure cancer, or does raising the money simply make us feel like we’re taking action against a disease that scares us? I found that last point to be pretty unnerving.
I already knew Susan G. Komen & Avon were at the center of the breast cancer awareness/pink ribbon movement, but what I didn’t know was that the original ribbon was salmon colored and created by a woman named Charlotte Haley, who made five out of cloth and attached a note that read: “Did you know that less than 5% of the National Cancer Institute’s budget goes to cancer prevention? You can change this.” Charlotte intended the ribbon as a grass roots political movement, and when Estee Lauder and SELF Magazine approached her to use it for marketing, she declined because it was to enhance their own bottom line, not to help women. Unfortunately, Estee Lauder and SELF told Charlotte they would simply change the color and use it anyway, and ultimately, pink was chosen based on it being non-threatening, comforting, and reassuring.
Today, these pink ribbons are the most successful example of cause marketing. Companies know that women make 80% of the purchase decisions, and you’ll find the now-iconic ribbon on everything from cosmetics to alcohol to gasoline to dairy (including those with growth hormone rBGH, which has been linked to cancer). As an example, the film takes a look at Yoplait, with its “save lids to save lives” campaign, where for every lid sent in, they donate 10 cents. If you ate three containers of Yoplait for every day of the four month campaign, your total donation would be $34. The question asked is: who really comes out on top here?
Another part of the movie I found really interesting was the psychology of the language used around “battling” cancer, with the message being that if you try hard enough (“live strong”), you can beat it. I honestly hadn’t considered the flip side of what at first appears to be a message of empowerment; however, there is potentially also the very sad implication that people who die weren’t trying hard enough. There’s a balance, certainly, between hope and understanding treatment may not work, but death is not a failure and calling people “survivors” may make it feel that way.
Along those same lines, the women interviewed also talked about breast cancer and the pressure to be optimistic. Some felt like they couldn’t have feelings of anger and despair, and that the pink ribbons movement made them feel obligated to maintain this optimistic outlook and participate in being cheerful. They, understandably, resented the effort to make a terrible disease pretty.
Something I’ve often wondered when I see pink ribbon walks (or any walks for a cure, for that matter) is where the research money is going. Pink Ribbons, Inc. says that it’s hard to know with so many players, and uncoordinated spending means overlapping studies, needless repetition, and huge gaps in research. Only 15% of money goes to research on prevention, and only 5% to research on the environmental causes of breast cancer.
I was also surprised to learn that only 20-30% of breast cancer happens in women with risk factors, and unfortunately, most research is not aimed at determining what’s causing the cancer. While many people think a cure is the answer, the reality is that pharmaceutical companies are looking for a treatment, not a cure, that will be marketable and profitable. The movie was a great reminder that we have to look at who is controlling the science, and in this instance, that would be pharmaceutical companies. AstraZeneca, as an example, makes a drug called Tamoxifen, which is an anti-estrogenic treatment for breast cancer…and yet they also own Syngenta, a pesticide company that makes Atrazine, which is a substance found to be estrogenic that’s banned in Europe because it’s endocrine-disrupting.
The film suggests that we’ve thought about cancer as a foreign invader, which has distracted us from questioning what’s fostered it in our bodies. Personal products, for instance, have been linked to cancer and health problems (things like lipstick with lead – yes, this is still a thing). Did you know that there are no federal laws requiring safety tests for personal products? This is not to say that companies aren’t conducting them, but Revlon, Avon, Estee Lauder, etc aren’t making these tests public and are continuing to use chemicals linked to cancer in their personal products. The film had a really interesting take on this, stating that the solution is not to tell people to buy organic, or go vegetarian, but rather, the solution is to get the toxic things off the table as options. I’m not sure where I stand on that, but that’s a debate for another day.
As you can tell from my lengthy post, this is a complicated topic with a lot of points to consider, and Pink Ribbons, Inc. does an excellent job of asking important questions. Some of the film was very disheartening and it reminded me of how I feel when I learn about our food system, especially as it relates to animal cruelty. It can be so overwhelming, but we have to absorb the information, take a moment, and then ultimately push forward and do better. There is power in activism (big and small), and the film does end on a positive note, stating my favorite line of the film:
Individuals have enormous power if we would use it.
Have you watched Pink Ribbons, Inc? What did you think?
Photography by Aaron Scott