N.J. Firefighters Banned From Wearing Pink Shirts In Public

Breast Cancer Awareness censorshipOctober is Breast Cancer Awareness month, something that many will have noticed by the pink that's flooding supermarket aisles, as reliably at this time of year as snack-size candy value packs. For a few days mid-month, even the Empire State Building will be a rosy glow. But some face opposition to spreading the good word. A group of firefighters in New Jersey were banned this week from wearing their pink T-shirts in public, Gilbert High School prohibited its cheerleading team from wearing its "Feel for Lumps, Save your Bumps" tees, and numerous school districts have banned kids from wearing the popular "I (heart) boobies!" rubber bracelets.

Breast cancer used to be a deeply stigmatized disease, affecting a part of the body that few could discuss in polite company. But it managed a profound PR turnaround in the last two decades, spawning one of the most successful awareness-raising campaigns of all time.

One woman, who lost her mother to colorectal cancer, even complained that it now steals the spotlight from other diseases. "Any cancer diagnosis means joining a club you'd rather not be a member of," she writes, "but some clubs are better organized than others, and breast cancer is one of the best."

Critics come from many corners. For the firefighters it was simple; their superiors believed that altering their uniform in such a way would be inappropriate. Jeff Welz, co-director of the department, who insists that he supports breast cancer awareness, and is a colon cancer survivor himself, said that firefighters should maintain their image when on duty outside. "We want to have a uniform so people know they're really firefighters and they look professional," he told The Jersey Journal.

Youth-oriented campaigns, that substitute the clinical word "breast" for something spicier, raise other problems. The Gilbert High School principal deemed "Feel for Lumps, Save Your Bumps" an inappropriate couplet in a school setting. Gayleen Skowronek, the cheer booster-club president, rebutted: "We're not saying anything a doctor wouldn't say."

The Keep A Breast Foundation's pink $4 "I (heart) boobies!" bands began stirring controversy last year, when two middle school girls in Pennsylvania were suspended for wearing them despite a ban. They sued the school district, and 17 nonprofit organizations submitted filings in their support. In April, the judge ruled that the girls should be permitted to wear the bracelets until the suit was decided.

"The bracelets ... can reasonably be viewed as speech designed to raise awareness of breast cancer and to reduce stigma associated with openly discussing breast health," she declared in her ruling.

In September, a Wisconsin girl filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the school district and her principal because of a similar prohibition.

Other ad campaigns like "Save Second Base" and "Save the Ta-Tas" try to make the conversation about breast cancer easier, funner, lighter. One breast cancer awareness ad in 2009, called "Save the Boobs," featured MTV Canada's Aliya Jasmine Sovan strolling around a pool in a bikini, with the slow-motion camera, and the poolside revelers, focused on her chest.

These attempts to lighten breast cancer awareness, and sell it with sex, alienate some survivors whose own experience of the disease doesn't jibe with images of bikini-clad models at poolside and the chirpiness of Pepto-Bismol pink. As writer and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich said in an interview for the documentary, "Pink Ribbon Inc.": "I wish that they could also hear from all the women who have been through breast cancer and resent the effort to make it pretty and feminine and normal. It is not normal. It's horrible."

Some research shows that pink-coding the disease is in fact counterproductive. Stefano Puntoni, an associate professor of marketing management at Erasmus University, found that after showing women a pink-tinted breast cancer awareness ad, they felt like they had a lower risk of developing the disease than after an ad with a gender neutral color scheme.

Before it was a movie, "Pink Ribbons Inc." was a book by Samantha King, who railed on the corporate co-opting of breast cancer awareness. So many companies splash some pink onto their products, she claims, and promise unspecified proceeds to relevant charities that it turns the suffering of others into a marketing ploy.

King finds this particularly troubling when some of the companies doing that marketing, and the phamarceutical companies sponsoring that research, are responsible for putting growth hormones and carcinogens into our environment, which may be the reason why the risk of developing breast cancer is so much greater today. In 1940, women had one-in-22 chance of getting breast cancer, today it's one in eight, according to National Cancer Institute estimates.

Last year, The Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation raised some eyebrows when it paired with Kentucky Fried Chicken to produce a pink bucket of meat. The Foundation faced controversy again last month for introducing a pink ribbon perfume, "Promise Me," which contained ingredients that may, in fact, be linked to breast cancer.

"Research doesn't come cheap. We need to raise money and we're not apologetic about it," Susan G. Komen for the Cure spokeswoman Leslie Aun told The Associated Press, defending all the pink. The Susan G. Komen for the Cure was founded almost three decades ago by Nancy Brinker, whose sister, Susan Komen, died of breast cancer at a young age. Brinker pioneered the breast cancer awareness movement. Before that, you could hardly utter "breast cancer" in the media, let alone eat fast food out of a bright pink bucket. "We don't think there's enough pink," Aun emphasized. "We're able to make those investments in research because of programs like that."

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