A pink explosion has come to signal October aka Pinktober aka breast cancer awareness month. This year was no different, as more organisations/brands jumped on a pink bandwagon to raise awareness of breast cancer while also shilling their products.
One in eight Pakistani women are impacted by breast cancer, according to Prof Naila Zahid, the head of the oncology department at Liaquat National Hospital. Awareness campaigns across the board by corporations may be well-meaning, but do “pink purchases” help women afflicted with breast cancer or is the awareness misplaced?
It didn’t start off as Pinktober. In 1985, the American Cancer Society partnered with a pharmaceutical company now known as AstraZeneca to create Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Unrelated to this, in 1991, breast cancer survivor Charlotte Haley created peach-coloured ribbons which she would attach to notes seeking donations for the cancer society.
Later, Self Magazine partnered with Estee Lauder and began a pink ribbon campaign — because Haley refused to work with them on account of them being too corporate, they changed the colour to pink to avoid a lawsuit. Decades later, here we are, awash in pink.
Pinktober sees a slew of companies attempting to raise awareness for breast cancer. But few rise to the challenge to empower women with life-saving information
One can’t deny that the pink ribbon campaign has helped raise awareness about breast cancer. Campaigns such as recorded messages on the telephone on the importance of women conducting self-exams, as we witnessed this year, go a long way. As does Faisal Mosque turning pink one night in 2017 and the Minar-i-Pakistan in 2019 — they’re not just symbolic, they are conversation starters.
Because Pakistan has the highest incidence of breast cancer in Asia, according to the Journal of Pakistan Medical Association, such campaigns help normalise the discussions around this fatal disease. However, has that normalisation led to a desensitisation — ie is it more about companies attaching pink ribbons to their products and less about how that purchase will benefit breast cancer?
Should the focus shift from brand awareness to actionable items, such as ensuring more women have access to mammograms? Early detection is key to beating the disease. The Aga Khan University Hospital, for example, reduced the price of mammograms during Pinktober, which was a welcome initiative but also a reminder how the disease remains unaffordable to treat for many women who get it. Perhaps the costs of mammograms should be reduced year-round, perhaps employers can offer to pay a portion of the price.
It is against this backdrop that I found the awareness campaign by the clothing brand Generation perhaps one of the most powerful initiatives on social media this year. The company partnered with sculptor Misha Japanwala, and Mirrah Bashir, who runs the science blog Mirrbiotic and did the research for this campaign, to create an instructional video of how to conduct a self-exam. The video was done in a tasteful and educational way, bearing in mind all the cultural sensitivities.
The clothing company’s director Khadija Rahman told me on the phone that she wanted to build on an earlier campaign she made in 2016, which was an instructional self-exam video on a mannequin. Then, they used floral crochets as nipples while a woman stood behind the mannequin and guided users on how to conduct a self-exam.
This time, Rahman wanted to up the ante with another video but she didn’t want it to be an animated one. She partnered with Japanwala, whose body casts, wearable sculptures and breastplates have received much acclaim all over the world, because she believed the artist’s work in normalising breasts allied with her own vision.
The sculptor was already working on a self-exam video with Bashir and the partnership with Generation made sense, as all three were committed to creating content whose message was focused on saving lives, not profiteering.
“A lot of people are extremely angered by my work,” Japanwala writes in an email to me, but she wanted to move forward with the project because it was important to do so.
“The point of this collaboration was not to gain popularity or followers, but rather to create as honest a visual depiction and conversation about breast cancer that was void of shame and moral policing,” she writes.
The video is certainly a piece of art, as a woman — dressed in Japanwala’s bronzed sculpture of a bust — tells women how to examine her breasts for any abnormalities. When I first saw it a few days after it was released on Instagram on October 12, I was stunned by both its beauty and its straightforward message, devoid of coded words.
The five Instagram text posts about breast cancer, also featuring images of Japanwala’s bust art, were informative as well. They addressed issues such as how, due to social stigma, “people conceal their breast lump until the pain becomes unbearable, or the breast lump becomes so large that they can no longer conceal their illness from their spouse or family.”
The campaign was also devoid of pink, which Rahman and Japanwala say was deliberate, as their focus was sharing life-saving information.
“On our first call, Mirrah and I spoke to the Generation team about ‘pinkwashing’ and insisted we steer clear of pink imagery in our collaboration, both because of how corporations manipulate consumers using buzzwords and imagery, but also because attaching pink/femininity to an illness that affects all genders is something that we need to move away from,” Japanwala says in her email.
What really surprised me, however, were the words of encouragement, praise and support the campaign received on social media. Rahman tells me “she had a lump in my throat” before she posted the video, but that she has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. When we spoke, the video had reached an audience of 1.2m, had been shared 45,000 times and saved 40,000 times.
I searched for hateful comments but was pleasantly surprised at how receptive people were. And, of course, the video wasn’t flagged by Instagram, presumably because the nude bust was a sculpture.
This campaign is a great example of how to create awareness in an innovative, thoughtful, inspiring and beautiful manner, and its response has shown how receptive audiences are.
The writer is currently researching newsroom culture in Pakistan. She tweets @LedeingLady
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 20th, 2022