Book excerpt: Pink Ribbon Blues by Gayle Sulik

Compiled by Caitlin Chappelle, BCA Communications Associate

The following two excerpts are from Gayle Sulik’s recently released book, Pink Ribbon Blues.  Breast cancer is spoken about more than most other diseases. Yet increased dialogue has not come without a price of unfortunately superficial terms: “I <3 boobies,” “Save the ta-ta’s,” “Beat the hell out of breast cancer,” to name a few. Many readers will be familiar with the stories Sulik cites. Her book is provocative and we encourage anyone who is interested to take a look at it and consider the costs and benefits of increased “awareness” and the incredible amount of action still needed to end this epidemic.

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From Pink Ribbon Blues (Oxford University Press, 2010):

In the first chapter of The Cancer Journals, “the transformation of silence into language and action,” Audre Lorde emphasizes the importance of illness narratives. Putting what she feels into words enables the ill person to reflect on her experience, examine it, put it into a perspective, share it, and make use of it. Lorde argues forcefully that communicating our experiences not only benefits the speaker on a personal level, but also gives voice to realities that will cause harm if left unattended. She writes:

I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you…while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

For Lorde, it is the truthful telling of all kinds of stories that matters, not only those accepted in the broader culture. Her goal is not to construct a singular Truth, such as the story of the triumphant survivor, but to create opportunities for women to seek out and examine a diversity of stories and consider their relevance to their lives.

… In the early 1990s … breast cancer activism was starting to gain momentum in extending public outreach, increasing research funding, and gaining a seat at the public policy table. In August 1993, The New York Times Magazine published a story about the achievements of the breast cancer movement with the title “You Can’t Look Away Anymore.” The caption referred both to the success of the movement in agitating for change and to the photograph on the cover.

“Beauty Out of Damage” is a graphic self-portrait in which the artist and activist, Matuschka, bared her mastectomy scar. Unlike typical images of breast cancer survivors, the explicit nature of the photograph sparked significant controversy about how breast cancer should be presented to the public.

Matuschka’s now-infamous photograph has appeared in hundreds of international publications, books, television shows, and documentaries. Some of the commentary about the photograph accused her of exploitation, but Matuschka told interviewers that her photographs were not created with the expectation of financial gain. So, why did she do it? The artist says why in a response in Glamour Magazine later that year:

I have always adhered to the philosophy that one should speak and show the truth,  because knowledge leads to free will, to choice. If we keep quiet about what cancer  does to women’s bodies, if we refuse to accept women’s bodies in whatever  condition they are in, we are doing a disservice to womankind.”

Since its cover debut, “Beauty Out of Damage” received 12 awards, including a Pulitzer Prize nomination. The silence that once surrounded breast cancer had been broken. Fifteen years after theTimes Magazine confronted the “anguished politics” of breast cancer, representations of breast cancer are everywhere. Pink ribbons and talk of breast cancer awareness in everyday social spaces must mean that, unlike the dark and quiet past, we now have an exhaustive number of ways to show and speak the truth about breast cancer.

Regrettably, women and their support networks are now hidden beneath a barrage of pink ribbons and silenced in a cacophony of pink talk. The accepted discourse of pink ribbon culture—solidly lodged in war metaphor, triumphant survivorship, pink consumption, and narratives of quest and transcendence—limits the words, plotlines, and imagery available to communicate women’s varied experiences of breast cancer and ways of coping.

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Reprinted with permission.

The Source—Winter 2011 | 1.19.11

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© 2011, Breast Cancer Action
ISSN #1993-2408, published quarterly by BCA.
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