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Lois Alter Mark Headshot

It's Time To Re-Think Pink

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I know it should no longer come as a surprise when a politician cheats on a spouse, a corporation lies or a celebrity makes a racist/sexist/homophobic remark -- but every once in a while, a kind of betrayal occurs that catches you so off-guard, it hits you to the core of your being and changes the way you look at everything.

This happened to me when the Susan G. Komen Foundation -- that beloved breast cancer awareness icon to whom I've donated for years -- announced they would no longer be funding Planned Parenthood. Though they have since reversed their decision due to the public outcry, it left me wondering: When did breast cancer become political? Why would an organization that claims to support women suddenly turn against them? What would the real Susan G. Komen have thought about this?

My anger and disgust at Komen has only grown stronger since watching "Pink Ribbons, Inc.," a powerful documentary by writer/director Lea Pool about the commercialization of the breast cancer movement. Elin Stebbins Waldal, author of "Tornado Warning: A Memoir of Teen Dating Violence and its Effect on a Woman's Life," suggested I take a look at it, saying, "After watching this film, I can't ignore the enormous billboard message now erected in my head which begs the question: Who and what is benefiting from the 'pinkification' of breast cancer -- because it sure doesn't seem to be women or our health."

Based on the book, "Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy," by Samantha King -- who appears along with A-listers like Dr. Susan Love, author Barbara Ehrenreich and a support group of women diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer -- the film reveals so many shocking facts, I often gasped out loud at the extent to which all of us who gladly donate money year after year have been duped.

Think about this: the emphasis in breast cancer research is on finding a cure despite experts' beliefs that the urgency is in finding the cause -- after all, one in 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer today while back in the 1940s, it was one in 22 women. That means that, despite the billions -- billions -- of dollars raised for research, the number of women with breast cancer has almost tripled. Something is obviously wrong. Unfortunately, though, it's the cures which will reap financial benefits: after all, cures mean products -- pills, shots, medications -- which are a dream come true for the pharmaceutical companies. The cause angle, on the other hand, is a little tricky for the corporate sponsors -- especially since many of them are likely to be the actual culprits.

For example, Yoplait launched a big promotion, donating ten cents for every yogurt lid customers send back to them. Okay, this is just plain silly, given the fact that you could write a small donation check for the same amount without buying all that yogurt and going through all that hassle and postage. Regardless, at the same time, Yoplait was discovered to be one of the biggest "pinkwashers" -- a company using the pink ribbon as a public relations tool, often to deflect from the image of an unhealthy product. Here they were, promising to support breast cancer research while filling their product with rBGH, the bovine growth hormone linked to causing the disease. This is exactly what the investment bankers who took down the economy did -- they played both sides of the fence, selling bad mortgages and then betting against them.

Angry consumers were responsible for convincing Yoplait to stop using rBGH in its milk -- "Ordinary people do a simple thing like write a letter, and it changes the world," says one expert -- and this film shows why it's time for us to get angry again.

Barbara Ehrenreich says we need to return to the streets -- not to run, walk, jump or hop for the cure but to march in protest. The comfort of "pink" has softened the disease and given it a warm, fuzzy feel that any woman with breast cancer will tell you is just plain wrong. Breast cancer has been used to sell millions of pink products, including fast food and guns, making corporations rich and doing little to actually advance research in the field. In what one expert calls "the most insidious" use, the Bush administration actually embraced breast cancer awareness as an international diplomacy tool.

So what are we supposed to do now? To begin with, let's shake off the complacency and pretend it's the 1960s again. Write letters, get out and protest, research organizations before donating money - and make sure the vast majority of an organization's donations go directly to research. Check out what kind of research it's funding.

When I heard that Komen was de-funding Planned Parenthood, I immediately did what any self-respecting pro-choice female would do. I picked up my credit card and made a donation to Planned Parenthood in "honor" of Karen Handel, the politically-motivated Komen V.P. behind the decision -- and I provided her address at Komen so she would receive an acknowledgement of my gift.

Because so many other women did the same thing, Planned Parenthood received record donations, Karen Handel resigned and Komen vowed to reinstate funding. Personally, I will never believe another word from that organization -- CEO Nancy Brinker showed her true colors with that misguided decision, and I will never support Komen again. But the whole incident showed that anger could be a very effective tool. Women are trained from an early age to be "good girls" and not cause a scene. But if we remain quiet, there's a whole group of Republican politicians ready to make the decisions for us about what we can and can't do with our own bodies. We caused a revolution here and it should be very empowering for us to see what we can accomplish when we take action. We've already made a difference.

I urge everyone to see "Pink Ribbons, Inc." Yes, it will disillusion you. It will make you sad and it will make you angry. It will make you start writing emails to the cosmetics companies, demanding to know exactly what's in those chemicals they use and how they've been tested. It will make you do your own research.

This film will make you stop racing for the cure, and start fighting to find the cause. Most importantly, it will make you stop seeing that ugly disease -- breast cancer -- through pink-colored glasses.