The Oppressive Pink Ribbon

by Brandi Forbes

Breasts are most often seen as sexual objects, and it is believed that a woman’s femininity is rooted in her beauty. Then what happens when cancer forces her to break that standard? Furthermore, what happens to the people who do not fit the typical survivor model that society has created — does their experience, their story, not matter?  

From a young age, girls receive the message that how they look matters most: that their beauty, their body, is what makes them feminine. There are many standards that women are expected to meet — to be thin, to have perfect hair and makeup, to dress “right.” There is one, however, that stands out more than the rest — the expectations surrounding a woman’s breasts.

Any self-proclaimed “Boob Man” can tell you just how important breasts are to him. He’ll tell you that they are the first things he sees when a woman walks by; that he judges her by the shape, size and visibility of them. Breasts aren’t seen as a source of nourishment for offspring, but rather as sexual objects meant to entice and pleasure another person. As women, we know this, and you will often find us pulling them up and pushing them together to create the ideal look. Our breasts are visual representations of our femininity, and we play up this part of our bodies. There is a part of us that craves the attention that we know our breasts will bring us.

In the United States alone, 1 out of 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer. Some of those women will choose to have surgery, to have a mastectomy, to rid their bodies of the cancer that is trying to kill them. By society’s standards, are those women who have lost their natural breasts still female? Do they still possess femininity? What if I told you that I no longer had my natural breasts? What if I told you that, at 23 years old, I had my breasts removed because of cancer risk? Would you think less of me? Would I be less of a woman in your eyes?

I AM A WOMAN. I am not a woman despite my lack of breasts. I am not a woman regardless of my mastectomy. I am not just a woman when you want me to feel good about myself. I am not just a woman when you are trying to make up for the shocked look on your face. My breasts do not determine my femininity, my beauty, my confidence. Flat or reconstructed, my chest is my own. It isn’t here to entice you or for your pleasure. I do not care what you think, what your thoughts are or how it makes you feel to look at my scars.

MY BODY DOES NOT DEFINE WHO I AM. My body is not here for you. My body is the holder of my soul. It is not there to care for your needs; to be what you want it to be. It is not the most important thing about me. How did we get to this place where what we look like matters more than the person we are?

I AM A FEMINIST. I was a feminist before I lost my breasts. I am a feminist after losing my breasts. Do not assume that I’ve accepted the role of a feminist simply because I no longer meet society’s standards of beauty.

Do not confuse my personal strength with an apathetic indifference to the oppression of the pink ribbon or the media’s representation of survivorship. Through the eyes of the media, we see breast cancer survivors as smiling, happy-go-lucky, middle-aged-but-not-too-old women who just can’t wait to take part in another 5K walk. Did I mention that they are all shown with breasts?  Did I also mention that they’re all white?

Breast cancer doesn’t discriminate, but the media does.


Breast cancer is the most common disease among Black women. While the rates of breast cancer occurrence in white women is decreasing, they are increasing in Black and Asian women. Yet still, women within these groups are left out of society’s image of survivorship. ALL women will not have the opportunity to feel comfortable receiving care, support and assistance until ALL women are accepted, welcome and SEEN.


Let’s go one step further and think of the last time you saw a man posing in an ad about breast cancer survivors, not as a supportive husband, but as a patient. Having a hard time? Me too. Male breast cancer is rare, but it does happen and those that are diagnosed are now subjected to the media-created “pink cancer.” For diagnostic testing, they visit the women’s center. They put on a pink gown and sit in a waiting room full of pictures with smiling women. In front of them, they see pamphlets about where to find the best prosthesis and tips on how to talk to their husbands. Seems like an off-putting situation for someone who is in need of care.


The media has objectified breast cancer to a point that it is no longer seen as a disease. Instead it is used as a marketing tool to peddle hokey pink products that serve no benefit other than to make a profit. Breasts are sexualized and the disease is minimized. “Saving the tatas” and “feeling the boobies” has cultivated a pink ribbon culture of sexualized cancer propaganda. STOP. Yes, sex sells, but is it worth the cost? The media is telling us that the breasts are more important than the person, that, before all else, we should save the tatas before saving a life. How did a message about breast cancer become so warped Feminism has failed breast cancer awareness, and it is time that we give it the respect that it deserves and remove the sexual objectification that current awareness campaigns thrive on.


Feminism taking back awareness looks like ad campaigns that show a diverse population, as diverse as the disease itself, so that every person feels represented and included.

Feminism taking back awareness sounds like the voice of every person sharing their story, a story that matters, regardless of age, race or gender.

Feminism taking back awareness means that we put lives before breasts, lives before sexualized ideals and lives before predetermined stereotypes of beauty and normality.

Feminism taking back awareness feels like true survivorship.

Published September 25, 2017

Top photo via Facebook/Save The Tatas

More from BUST

How I’m Confronting My Breast Cancer Fears

Get Off Of My Chest: On People’s Reactions To My Breast Cancer

31 Thoughts On A Breast Cancer Scare


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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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