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Pink Ribbons For the Whole Woman

by Carla Goldstein

As a woman who has had breast cancer, I’ve always had a strange feeling about the pink ribbon that I couldn’t explain -- until the Komen Foundation announced that they were no longer funding breast cancer screenings provided by Planned Parenthood.

While I have gratitude towards the Komen Foundation for their successful efforts to raise the bar for prevention and treatment of breast cancer, the move to disassociate themselves from Planned Parenthood helped me name my pink ribbon discomfort – “Disassociated!”

The pink ribbon’s ubiquitous presence as a mega-marketing symbol of goodwill towards women is “disassociated” from the reality of how the dominant culture treats women and girls.

Shimmering sweetly on everything from tin cans in grocery stores to shiny new cars on exhibit at the mall, the ribbon is “disassociated” from the fact that many of the products sporting the ribbon are contributors to the cause of breast cancer.

It’s disassociated from the working conditions many women face making the products upon which the pink ribbon sits.

It’s disassociated from the dehumanizing images of women and girls that dominate our media landscape.

And it’s dissociated from the persistent surround sound of violence and the degradation of women and girls.

The Komen Foundation upheaval revealed that the ribbon as a symbol for supporting women has a hollow center. It is empty of supporting the whole woman – her breasts, her uterus, her safety, her emotional well-being -- all the parts of her, in the context of her own life, the challenges she faces, and the promises that lie before her.

The “pink ribbon” creates a “pink wash” effect, allowing products, companies, and public officials to be seen as supporting women overall, when in reality the pink ribbon shout out is a narrow, albeit important, way of viewing breast health.

It is disassociated from the rest of a woman’s life and her overall wellness – including her social, economic, and political context. As a symbol it has a hollow center, leaving the more complex terrain of a woman’s uterus, her safety, her emotional wellbeing, and the other parts of a her life behind.

The Komen event also illustrates how disassociated the political geography of the reproductive health debate is from the reality of women’s lives. Women have to manage fertility for over 4 decade -- dealing with the complexities of vastly different life stages.

Over this time span, women are in and out of in and out of sexual relationships – some of which are abusive and non-consensual. They are moving through different phases of education and training, and they are working, in and out of the home, to support themselves and their families.

The same woman who gets our moral wrath for having sex outside of marriage or an abortion when she has an unintended pregnancy, is bestowed cultural worship when she becomes a mother. The same woman who has breast cancer, and who gets our deep empathy and support, may have had or will have an abortion in the future.

These are the complex reproductive realities for women -- and to have a symbol that says "breasts only" reveals a disassociation from women's whole lives that we can no longer tolerate.

It’s time to take a holistic approach to women’s well-being – making links between the disease of breast cancer and what happens to a woman during her lifetime.

We need to look beyond the narrow lens of tissue pathology and disease state, towards her relationships, her opportunities, her education, her environmental conditions, her food safety, her legal rights, her economic status, and her safety from violence.

I do not expect the Komen Foundation to tackle all these issues directly, but I hope that the when we gather around a symbol that stands for goodwill towards women, it will be a symbol that represents supporting her whole being for her whole life.

This commentary originally aired on WAMC's show 51: The Women's Perspective (02-23-2012)

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Carla Goldstein, J.D., is Omega's Director of External Affairs and Director of The Women’s Institute at Omega. Carla is an attorney with 20 years of experience in public interest advocacy and has worked extensively in city and state government on issues related to women's rights, poverty, public health and social justice. She has contributed to over 100 city, state and federal laws. Carla has appeared on local and national radio and television and makes public presentations to a wide range of audiences on issues related to women’s empowerment and activism. Prior to joining the Omega Institute, Carla was the VP for Public Affair sat Planned Parenthood of New York City where she directed the agency's advocacy and strategic communications work. She also served as the founding director of the PPNYC Action Fund, the political arm of PPNYC. For eight years Carla was an adjunct professor at CUNY Queens College, where she taught, “Law and Social Justice,” a course designed to empower students to be effective advocates for progressive social change. As part of Omega’s Faculty, Carla teaches “Spiritual Activism,” a workshop designed to help people develop their activism in creative ways that align with their values and lives.


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