Thinking Pink: Ladies Night Out and the World of "Breast Cancer Kitsch"

We’d talked for about a minute and a half when Wanda yanked an extra chair closer to her computer monitor (perched amidst hallmark figurines, inspirational slogan magnets, and family photos) in her gray health department cubicle. She pledged:

“Now this is guaranteed to make you cry.”

She was talking about Ladies Night Out, a monthly program that provides uninsured women below a certain income level with annual bloodwork, mammograms, and breast cancer screenings. The date was July 29th, 2014.

breast cancer nyt

From 2013 NY Times article “Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer.” Photo: PR Newswire, via Associated Press; Tom DiPace/Associated Press; Gabrielle Plucknette/The New York Times (apron, sunglasses, flip-flop); Simon Fergusson/Getty Images.

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about breast cancer.

About 1 in 8 U.S. women (12.5%) will develop invasive breast cancer in addition to about 1 in 1,000 men.*

It’s a devastating disease with devastating implications I’ve seen echo in the lives of colleagues, friends, and family.

Yet even as I contemplate all that loss, the dearth of pink-themed products from my last Google Images search floods my mind: water bottles, key chains, backpacks, hair straighteners, Kit Kats, flip-flops, eyelash curlers, perfume, iPods, pepper spray, margarita glasses, compact mirrors, M&Ms, charm bracelets, hairspray, and snuggies – all pink and be-ribbon-ed.

What does all this stuff have to do with breast cancer? Is this awareness? Is this fundraising? Is this exploitation?

Seeking answers, I turned to Barbara Ehrenreich’s essay Welcome to Cancerland. In an incisive consideration of her own breast cancer diagnosis, Ehrenreich explores links between breast cancer culture and industry, the hyper-association of breast cancer with traditional femininity, and the infantilization of women living with the disease. She expresses the fury she feels at being met with peppy slogans of hope and survivorship and an expectation to adopt them as badges of her unwanted membership in the breast cancer sisterhood.

You can read her article here, and I recommend that you do.

Barbara Ehrenreich. Photograph: Steven Voss

Back at the health department, Wanda clicked play on the YouTube video showcasing Ladies Night Out. Just like she predicted, I cried. And then I became a volunteer, translating once a month for the Spanish-speaking women who access the program.

Ladies Night Out is executed with an individual sort of aplomb that nearly a year in, I’m still grasping to understand – a juncture of gooey sentimentality, straightforward conviction, and needed services. There is not an ironic bone in the body of this operation – “Ladies! Flowers! Pink!” the program seems to shout, self-assured in its style and its mission.

When a “lady,” the name reserved for all program clients, arrives, a volunteer hands her a pink flower and a reusable pink bag. Sandwich boards with program information feature hot pink text and decorative stars. The satisfaction surveys are often printed on pink paper. Volunteers all don the same cotton zip-up printed with pink ribbons.

They’re the kind of details that make me roll my eyes in solidarity with Ehrenreich, but predictably, it’s just as my eyeballs have nearly finished their dramatic arc that I catch sight of a woman who’s grinning from ear to ear and staring at the carnation in her hand. It’s at that moment that the woman who I’ve just translated through a mammogram tells me how much she loves Ladies Night Out.

There’s a distinction to be drawn between “breast cancer kitsch” and the lived experiences of people. There has to be. Otherwise we’re left with a choice between either affirming merchandise in order to affirm the women who find comfort in their pink flowers and newfound sisterhood or disparaging real people in order to criticize an industry – a choice which seems as artificial as it is unkind.

The women who use Ladies Night Out are deeply grateful, and the volunteers and staff are deeply committed. I love translating here, and you’ll find me at Ladies Night Out next month, too.

Still, I’m not sure what to do with all this pink.

 

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