Breasts Yes, Vaginas No? How to Fight Back Against Komen "Race for the Cure" Foundation's Bizarre Capitulation to Right-Wingers

It’s probably the fastest-spreading story in Internet history about the relationship between two non-profits. Late Tuesday afternoon, Planned Parenthood and Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure announced that Komen would be withdrawing grants given to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings. Despite Komen’s lame attempts to claim otherwise, it was widely understood that this was about Komen aligning itself with the anti-choice movement, despite the anti-choice movement’s long history of opposing not just safe and legal abortion, but also access to contraception and even the prevention of cervical cancer through the use of the HPV vaccine. 

So what gives? Why would Komen, which purports to be a women’s health organization, choose to align itself with an anti-health, anti-science movement instead of with another prominent women’s health organization that actually helps prevent and detect cancer? What role does Komen’s hearty corporate fundraising efforts play in all of this? Is there anything that people who care about women’s health concerns can do?

In the past couple of decades, one of the biggest accomplishments in women’s healthcare advocacy is destigmatizing breast cancer, and Komen certainly played a major role in this. In the past, women didn’t talk much about breast cancer, because like all things related to women’s sexuality, breasts were considered naughty and unspeakable and therefore so was breast cancer. Through cutesy methods, such as draping everything imaginable in pink ribbons, advocates were able to get breast cancer out of the closet and into the public discourse. 

Unfortunately, in doing so, they weren’t quite able to lift the taboo on all of women’s healthcare. In place of the old taboo against all of women’s reproductive healthcare, there was now an above-the-belt/below-the-belt divide. When it comes to healthcare that allows women to keep their breasts, everyone from baseball players to every corporation looking to shore up its image was happy to talk about it. But anything below the belt, especially with regard to women managing their actual sex lives, remained taboo. STDs, pregnancy prevention, cervical cancer, abortion? All still considered dirty, and all still available for conservatives to demagogue about sin and sexuality. We are a country where everyone was clawing all over each other to talk about how important it is for women to get their boobs squeezed in a vise to look for cancer, but we’re also a country where a vaccine that’s been proven to prevent cancer below the belt is excoriated by prominent Republican politicians who want you to believe it gives “license” to female sexuality. 

Anti-choice activists have been trying to exploit this divide for years now, demanding that when it comes to women’s healthcare, our bodies should be divided against themselves. Boobies are apple pie and baseball, but vaginas are subversive pits of hell, and all funding aimed at their upkeep is suspect. While the anti-choice movement has been pressuring Congress to cut federal subsidies for below-the-belt care such as contraception and STD treatment, they’ve been also pressuring Komen to distance itself from Planned Parenthood. With this decision, Komen reinforces this illogical divide between above-the-belt and below-the-belt healthcare for women. 

In a sense, it shouldn’t be surprising. As illogical as it is to offer only piecemeal support for women’s healthcare, it also fits into a larger pattern of Komen putting its corporation-friendly image before women’s actual health concerns. For instance, Komen allowed KFC to sell “pink ribbon” buckets of fried chicken, even though it was obvious that KFC was trying to distract from scientific evidence showing that a diet high in saturated fat is linked to breast cancer. 

Of course, relying so heavily on corporate partnerships can cut both ways. Many brands that want to cultivate a pro-woman image partner with Komen for that purpose. This year’s national sponsors of Race for the Cure could double as a list of brands that very much want female customers to like them: Yoplait, Ford, Bank of America, Caltrate, New Balance, and Self magazine, among others. The massive media hit demonstrating how little Komen actually prioritizes women’s health could really ding the impact of these partnerships. 

Take, for instance, Yoplait. Most yogurt companies target female consumers with glowing images of health and good digestion, mixed with suggestions that yogurt be substituted for more fattening desserts for weight control, but Yoplait maximizes that marketing strategy. Draping its product in pink ribbons helps tie the product to the concept of “health” in women’s minds. For this same reason, Caltrate, a supplement designed specifically for women, has also become a sponsor of Race for the Cure.

New Balance gets a double whammy for supporting Komen. Not only does it get its sneakers associated with general health, but because Komen fundraises through 5K races, New Balance gets a chance to advertise directly to women who have an undeniable need for running shoes. Komen’s “soccer mom” image dovetails nicely with New Balance’s own image as being the sensible shoe of the moderate exerciser, in opposition with a brand like Nike, which prefers to associate itself with high-level athletes.

Self magazine is a relatively new sponsor of Komen, but like Yoplait and New Balance, it very much benefits from Komen’s base of support in women who are eager to take a personalized approach to good health and cancer prevention. Self tries to distinguish itself from other women’s magazines that are more fashion- and man obsessed, instead staking itself out on the rack as the sensible health-oriented magazine that just happens to have similar diet and exercise advice as those other magazines. Komen’s branding can certainly help Self distinguish itself from its competition on the magazine rack.

Ford Motor Company may not need the health glow these other companies get from the association, but it definitely needs the audience of women. Sixty percent of new cars sold in a year are sold to women, meaning that if you want to sell a car, you should appeal directly to female consumers. The Komen brand helps Ford seem like the sensible, safe brand, the sort of thing ordinary women racing for the cure might find attractive, especially if they’re mothers. 

For the same reason, Bank of America has a strong need to appeal not just to women, but specifically to the stable, often married women that make up the majority of organizers and runners for Komen’s Race for the CureWomen tend to handle more of the household finances than men, meaning that anyone trying to get families to switch banks needs to address themselves directly to wives and mothers. Enter the pink ribbons. 

This all means that American women have the power to vote with their dollars. The pink ribbon on a product used to symbolize health, safety, and a general pro-woman attitude. Now, for increasing numbers of women, it symbolizes capitulation to the belief that women don’t deserve healthcare that addresses all their needs, not just those above the belt. We need to let corporations know that if they want to market to women, they have to market to the whole woman, the one who has a vagina as well as a more PG-friendly pair of breasts. 


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