Why I Don’t Wear Pink
The standard cancer narrative didn’t work for me, so I set out to discover my own
Here is what happens after the biopsy.
Your phone rings. Someone tells you that you have breast cancer and should see an oncologist and a breast surgeon as soon as possible. At the first visit, if you have a man with you, the doctors spend a lot of time reassuring him that you will still look attractive after treatment. They will save your breasts or make you new ones that will look just as good, maybe better. The doctors tell you that they will help you fight this cancer. You will be strong and brave. There will be a war and you will win.
As you leave, you are given a tote bag with pink ribbons on it. Inside there is more pink: lip gloss, coffee mugs, a charm bracelet. Pink pamphlets explain how to do your makeup so you look pretty without eyebrows and where to buy a wig. All of the gifts and the brochures echo the doctors’ messages: this is a war; you are brave; you can still be pretty.
You will hear these themes over and over again. You have been ushered into pink ribbon world, and these are its founding principles.
I like being pretty. I even like lip gloss. I wanted to live. I understood fully the crucial role the pink ribbon campaign plays in raising money to fund the research that would save my life. I am grateful for its success. But still the pink tote bag and its contents made me furious.
In college, I read Audre Lorde’s famous book about her experience with breast cancer, The Cancer Journals, in which she describes the way her identity as a lesbian woman of color was ignored and insulted as she was urged again and again to submit to reconstructive surgery. She was angry too.
In pink ribbon world, I felt precluded. The ubiquity of the narrative and the speed with which it was transmitted to me didn’t leave me any room to think for myself. It didn’t invite me to figure out what breast cancer meant to me. It didn’t encourage me to find my own words or metaphors or symbols. Pink ribbon world handed those to me already made. Stepping inside it would leave no room to do the things I love most: think, debate, discover.