The Feministing Five: Karuna Jaggar

Karuna Jaggar

Karuna Jaggar

I don’t know about you, but I can’t stop shaking my head at all of the poor taste, misinformed, and flat out irresponsible pink-ribbon “breast cancer awareness” campaigns that crawl out of the woodwork every year during the month of October. This year’s apparent winner of “are-you-kidding-me” pink-washing goes to Susan G. Komen and its pink fracking bits, but as we have continued to cover here at Feministing, the breast cancer pink marketing juggernaut overlooks the experiences, perspectives, and goals of actual breast cancer survivors.

Thankfully, organizations like Breast Cancer Action exist and are fighting to reclaim activism for this disease. We were so thrilled to speak with its Executive Director Karuna Jaggar where she just came from delivering over 150,000 petitions to the Susan G. Komen to stop supporting fracking companies that lead to cancer. Breast Cancer Action and its initiatives “Think Before You Pink” motivate us to continue pushing against the co-opting of a deadly disease by massive corporations and profit-lead marketing campaigns.  I am so grateful for their passion, work, and activism.


Now without further ado, the Feministing Five with Karuna Jaggar!

Suzanna Bobadilla: Thank you so much for speaking with us today. I learned about your organization this week while reading about the Susan G. Komen Foundation and pink-fracking bit fiasco. In particular, I was interested in learning about how Breast Cancer Action was involved in the creation of the term “pink-washing.” Could you define that term for our readers? 

Karuna Jaggar: To start, Breast Cancer Action launched “Think Before You Pink” over a dozen years ago in response to the tremendous number of pink ribbon products flooding the market. Anyone can put a pink ribbon on anything. We have seen pink ribbon hand-guns, pink ribbon port-a-potties, pink ribbon toilet paper. You name it. Selling a pink ribbon product is not necessarily pink-washing.

We have a very specific meaning when we are talking about pink-washing, which is those companies that claim to care about breast cancer and yet their own product and services are putting women at increased risk of the disease. It may be that companies are selling products that they themselves contain chemicals that are linked to breast cancer. For example, we saw Susan G. Komen sell “Promise Me” perfume that contained chemicals of concern.

It can also be companies like Baker Hughes, a fracking company, that is inherently hazardous to health and many of their chemicals are linked to breast cancer specifically. Baker Hughes is then claiming to care about breast cancer by painting a thousand drill-bits pink, and donating $100,000 to Komen. You can see that if Baker Hughes really cared about breast cancer they would stop poisoning our food and water.

SB: I understand that Breast Cancer Action is hosting a rally tomorrow in Pittsburg that calls out the NFL’s celebration of the Susan G. Komen foundation and fracking giant Baker Hughes. For those who might not see it immediately, why is the NFL’s recognition misguided? Also, how people can support your efforts? 

KJ: There is so much irony here. First, we have the world’s largest breast cancer organization partnering with one of the world’s largest fracking companies in this pink-washing PR stunt. Then, they have chosen to do the deal in Pittsburg, which is the first city in the country to ban fracking. So, add another layer of irony there. Finally, they are doing it at the NFL game. We have been very vocal in challenging the NFL’s Crucial Catch program. Last year, there was some investigative journalist work that followed the money and examining how much of these sales of the NFL pink-ribbon products actually went to a breast cancer organization, and I believe it was 8%. There has been a lot of questioning about how much money has been going to breast cancer and given all of the resources that the NFL is putting towards pink fields, pink cleats, pink whistles and pink helmets.

We are not only questioning the money, but are actually calling out the NFL for putting out misleading medical advice for women. This is not only a question of whether or not the NFL is giving enough money. This is actually a question about why do we have a professional sports league engaged in providing medical advice for women and bad medical advice at that. The NFL claims that annual screenings save lives and it is very clear, thanks to a huge amount of research this spring, that there are flaws behind this early detection promise. We have seen a lot of data that despite the claims, early detection is not saving lives and 40,000 women continue to die of breast cancer very year. 

But back to what people can do! It’s been really exciting to see the interest here in Pittsburg from people who have been working for a long time against fracking, but we always need people to spread the word. Call your friends, tell your family — we know that public pressure matters. We have seen Komen respond to public pressure before. Join us, spread the word on social media, and we are very hopeful that we can put an end to the pink-washing.

SB: The rampant marketing of pink ribbons has long made me uncomfortable, but it has been difficult to share that uneasiness in the face of those folks who support these apparently positive campaigns. Do you have words for others that also feel conflicted in the face of pink ribbons? 

KJ: I want to tell people that they are not alone. We and our members have had these feelings for a dozen years or more, and that’s the origin of “Think Before You Pink.” We are a grassroots organization, and there was a growing discomfort with all of the pink ribbon promotion campaigns. This year’s campaign, “Stop the Distraction,” is really taking our critique to the next level, and calling out pink ribbon culture for its empty awareness, misinformation, pink-washing, profiteering, degrading of women, and tyranny of cheerfulness that obscures the harsh realities and social justice inequities of this disease.

No longer is the question, “Is the pink ribbon not doing enough?” We’re making the assertion that the pink ribbon culture is doing more harm than good. It’s doing more harm than good by defusing and distracting our righteous anger into this empty awareness. It’s doing women harm through misinformation. At the end of the day, these campaigns are meant to sell products and they manipulating our emotions by manipulating statistics. These campaigns are based on fueling fear and offering false promises. If and when a woman is evaluating to get a mammogram or is choosing to a breast cancer treatment, she has all of these marketing messages echoing around in her head that really is a disservice to women.

In regards to profiteering, corporations are exploiting the public’s concern and arguably, the public thinks they have done something, but in fact they have just lined corporate pockets. In regards to degrading women, I can’t tell you how many women I have spoken to who just want crawl under a blanket for October because of all of the “Save the Ta-tas” t-shirts and the “I Heart Boobies” handbag. It’s not doing any of us any good to reduce women to a pair of breasts and say, “Save the Boobies.” What about saving women’s lives? At the end of the day, all of these promotions through these sanitized images of white, able-bodied, thin, and very young women just send messages that women just need to fight hard and be positive to beat cancer. The implicit message is, “If you succumb to the disease, you didn’t fight hard enough. You were positive enough.” So pink-ribbon culture is not only failing to do good, but it is actively doing harm to women.

SB: Rather than engaging in pink ribbon culture and pink-washing, what are other ways people can fight against breast cancer? 

KJ: There is no single most important issue in breast cancer. While we do education and activism at Breast Cancer Action, other organizations do really important direct services, and there is a need for support groups, especially for unserved communities. There is a need for emergency services so that low income women have transportation and child-care stipends and can get to their treatments. There is a need for more research into the root cause of the disease, because despite the billions of dollars spent in the name of breast cancer, we still don’t know what causes most of it. There is a need for more effective and less toxic treatments that are affordable and can get in the hands and mouths of women who need them.

I really encourage people to think about their values and what they think is the most important, and donate directly to the organizations who are doing that work. Beside donating, I think that pushing back on the tyranny of pink-ribbon culture is an important way of reclaiming breast cancer as a women’s health and social justice issue.

SB: And for our last question, you are stranded on a dessert island and you get to take with you one food, one drink, and one feminist. What do you choose? 

KJ: I’d love some kale or brussel sprouts! I’m a water person, but if I can’t have water, give me some black tea. I’m British to my bones and some really strong black tea is a good thing. For a feminist, I’d bring my sister. I have the best sister in the world, and I would take her.

Suzy 1 

 Suzanna Bobadilla is grateful for health and family.  

San Francisco, CA

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist. According to legend, she first publicly proclaimed that she was a feminist at the age of nine in her basketball teammate's mini-van. Things have obviously since escalated. After graduating from Harvard in 2013, she became a founding member of Know Your IX's ED ACT NOW. She is curious about the ways feminists continue to use technology to create social change and now lives in San Francisco. She believes that she has the sweetest gig around – asking bad-ass feminists thoughtful questions for the publication that has taught her so much. Her views, bad jokes and all, are her own. For those wondering, if she was stranded on a desert island and had to bring one food, one drink, and one feminist, she would bring chicken mole, a margarita, and her momma.

Suzanna Bobadilla is a writer, activist, and digital strategist.

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