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Reconstructing the Illness Narrative: Cancer, Womanhood, and Pink-Ribbon Marketing

Feminist Perspectives
Eaint May-Moe

Third year undergraduate Global Health and Social Medicine student

10 November 2022

Pinkwashing is defined as marketing launched by brands who ‘claim to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink-ribbon product, but at the same time produce and manufacture…products that are linked to the disease. The following essay conducts an exploration into the invisibilities that arise from profit-based approaches to recovery, examining the extent to which such marketing has impacted the ways in which breast cancer patients undergo the aftermath of their illness. I argue that though certain interventions may be helpful, these techniques ultimately serve to help the commercial interests of the corporation, as opposed to the survivors themselves.

In the final chapter of her 1980 book, The Cancer Journals, the black, lesbian, mother, warrior, and poet Audre Lorde reflects upon her experiences following her cancer diagnosis and subsequent mastectomy. Refraining from the choice to artificially obscure her post-surgery physicality, Lorde writes about finding herself confronted with the pressure to wear an artificial breast prosthesis, recalling her reaction as being:

…affronted by the message that I am only acceptable if I look ‘right’ or ‘normal, where those norms have nothing to do with my own perceptions of who I am! Where ‘normal’ means the ‘right’, shape, size, or number of breasts, a woman's perception of her own body and the strengths that come from that perception are discouraged, trivialised, and ignored.– Lorde, 1980, p.58

Here, Lorde draws our attention towards the complications surrounding the expectations of a ‘normal’ in relation to disease and recovery, challenging the idea surrounding an archetype of a single experience towards which patients must supposedly be directly assisted. This approach, known as medicalisation, has been defined by Clarke et al. as the process through which aspects of life outside of the obvious jurisdiction of medicine come to be framed and addressed as medical issues. According to Conrad (2005), one ‘engine’ currently driving modern medicalisation is that of consumers, where the health of the public is commodified and subject to representation. Consequently, new representations of a ‘normal body’ are then presented as requiring the purchase of ‘treatments’ to be maintained.

A normal body?

The flawed concept of a healthy, ‘normal body’ can be seen traced back to early usage of statistics within modern medicine. In using modes of measurement which prioritized the majority in studying patients’ bodies, the concept of a ‘normal’ body began to be shaped around two indistinct concepts; a statistical average, which in turn implied a standard model. These perceptions of normal, skewed towards those belonging in the majority, spearheaded what French philosopher Canguilhem observed as ‘(designating) an ideal…in the sense of a…perfect form’ (2008, p.122). It then followed that those falling outside of the standards set by the statistical average grew to be perceived as a deviation from what was supposedly normal, implying the requirement of a correction.

Similar expectations of correction can be seen within cultural portrayals of women’s illnesses, especially in relation to breast cancer. Popularised in the 1990s through the launch of Estée Lauder’s first ‘Pink Ribbon’ campaign —a symbol lifted from grassroots activist Charlotte Haley — ‘pink-ribbon marketing’ as a concept is one rooted in the image-based appropriation and commodification of illness for corporate means (Breast Cancer Action, 2014). Put simply, these companies have been critiqued for merely skimming the surface of the illness experience through their health campaigns, ultimately focusing on aesthetics and commercialization, as opposed to fruitful progress.  As profit-based health movements continue to manipulate the ways in which women are portrayed within their illness, perceptions of breast cancer have also shifted from an experience to be concealed and suffered in silence, into an empowering and marketable encounter from within which patients are expected to draw positivity, transformation, and corrective beautification methods.

How Cancer is Experienced

Promoted as a self-care program for women in cancer treatment, the ‘Look Good, Feel Better’ campaign can be observed as one example of corporations reinforcing ‘the normal body’ through pinkwashing. Established in 1989, Look Good, Feel Better serves to distribute beauty tips and makeup donated by brands throughout the cosmetics industry. For patients understandably seeking to re-establish the relationship with their bodies throughout their illness, this validation of their changed physicality — as well as a provision of resources with which to reclaim their femininity — could be noted as beneficial in lightening the burden of distress associated with terminal illness. Indeed, a 2017 study found that breast cancer patients harboured anxiety over hair loss, self-doubt, and a decreased interest in physical intimacy.

Inversely, however, the opposite should also be highlighted, where the influence and provision of such commercial practices arguably only serve to reinforce, or even encourage, such feelings of negative self-perception amongst cancer patients. By framing survivorship as not only recovery from the disease but also involving measures such as ‘camouflaging areas of concern during cancer treatment’, the aforementioned expectations of returning to ‘the normal body’ can risk being projected onto those whose experiences do not necessarily fit into these paradigms. Through these normative interventions, pink ribbon campaigns exclude not only survivors who may identify with non-feminine forms of gender expression but also risk directing survivors seeking visibility within their illness towards shame and self-concealment instead.

How Cancer is Perceived

These issues of sponsorship then bring us to the ethics that surround the practice of pinkwashing itself. Building on the definition mentioned at the beginning of this piece, pinkwashing is outlined as the ways in which corporations commodify breast cancer as a means of enhancing brand image, raising revenue, and drawing attention away from their own production of carcinogens. An instance of this can be seen in a 2007 industry pledge launched by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics to remove harmful ingredients in their products linked to cancer. Notably absent within this pledge were major brands who concurrently held large stakes in their pink ribbon schemes, such as Estée Lauder, L’Oréal and Revlon. In shaping mainstream representations of breast cancer around a marketing campaign, corporate pink ribbon schemes knowingly downplay the direct accountabilities that they hold contributing to the wider burdens of the disease. In addition, they also risk interrupting the continuing health discourse surrounding cancer, by marginalizing conversations about the disease’s origins in lieu of their sponsorship for ‘a cure.’ 

As argued by Jain, in concealing breast cancer’s links to the production, suffering, and misinformation involved in its development, an emphasis on the ‘vague promise of a cure rather than the disease itself…diminishes the experience of breast cancer, diffusing other kinds of emotion, thus rendering them illegitimate or, worse, illegible’. Through commodification, patient inquiries into their illness’s origins, preventions of recurrence, as well as their sentiments of rage, frustration, or despair, are ignored by failing to match up to the triumphant ‘cancer survivor’ image. 

Such approaches to breast cancer fail to consider how awareness, cures, and beautification are often not the focus concerning many facing cancer treatment. As the leading cause of cancer in women worldwide, breast cancer diagnoses are often undergirded by a wide range of social determinants highly linked to the disease’s mortality outcomes, with causative factors including but not limited to inequities in nutrition, income, transportation, and healthcare, as well as the ability to afford sustained treatment. Pink ribbon marketing’s image of survivorship, therefore, often directed towards white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class consumers, risks excluding the voices of patients who are women of colour, or those within the LGBTQIA+ community, who, on top of often being less likely to survive the disease, are also excluded from the representations of sisterhood and survivorship as presented by these campaigns. 

In failing to address existing structural inequalities within their representations of breast cancer, pink ribbon campaigns arguably normalize the misleading image of triumphant survivorship as central to the process of cancer treatment and recovery. With the spotlight on ‘awareness’ or ‘empowerment’, what is often left unacknowledged are the physical and emotional hardships that patients, families and communities are made to face with every diagnosis. When attempting to market pink products as supposed solutions towards the personal nuances of illness as experienced by patients, corporations double their damage — by both obscuring their contributions towards wider burdens of the disease, and wrongly re-framing the experience of breast cancer as an image-centred impediment.

About the author

Eaint Wutyee May-Moe (she/her) is a third-year undergraduate at King's College London studying Global Health and Social Medicine. She is interested in the interconnections between science, technology, and society, with a particular passion for issues surrounding bioethics and health policy, scientific communication, and narrative-based approaches to medicine and illness. Eaint is currently on a year abroad through 2022 at the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Arts and Social Science. She can be reached on LinkedIn at Eaint May-Moe or by email at

Winner of the Feminist Analysis Essay Prize

Eaint May-Moe's piece came first in the Feminist Analysis Essay Prize, awarded in 2022. The jury consisted of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership, the Gender Studies Network, and Feminist Perspectives editorial.

Feminist Perspectives

Feminist Perspectives is a blog created to publish research-based work – like academic research and think pieces – and art-based projects that use gender as a category of analysis or explore…

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