not-so pretty & pink

26 October 2012

I have been wanting to write this post for a long time. I have written, re-written, and deleted drafts, trying to figure out how to make my academic work more accessible, how to to write about a widespread cultural issue for a non-academic, general readership. I decided some time ago to include more content on this blog as an extension of my research interests as an art historian, rather than to simply use it as a creative outlet and distraction from my academic work, as if I live two separate and unrelated lives. But as much as I might self-identify with a simple, honest life outside of academia, I don’t live two lives. My knowledge of the history of art and extensive training in how to look and think visually affects so much of what I do and am deeply passionate about. It’s time that I acknowledge and embrace the unique perspective that comes with my background in humanities and the arts, and allow it a proper place on this blog among my other interests and creative pursuits.

Given that the visual and cultural representation of cancer is a topic in which I am deeply invested and have already written extensively about, I thought that publishing a post on unruly, un-idealized representations of cancer during Breast Cancer Awareness Month might be the most appropriate way to introduce the kind of things I research and write about. I have been waiting for October to do so, and October is finally here, with breast cancer “awareness” and pink-themed marketing and fundraising campaigns in full swing. Even more fitting, a community of bloggers and writers whom I highly respect has called Etsy out for being grossly and unethically misleading in their recent email newsletter, “Tickled Pink,” which featured a curated collection of pretty, handmade “pink” goods in celebration of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. The email encouraged readers to “show your love to the women in your life” with a range of pink-coloured wares, most of which do little to actually raise awareness or contribute to cancer organizations and research.

Acacia, Hila, and Jane have already written beautifully and poignantly about pinkwashing and Etsy’s unethical exploitation of an often devastating disease, as well as the company’s lack of a sincere or adequate response to its community, while Bethany started this controversial thread on an Etsy team, which was subsequently shut down by an admin, only to prompt another member of the Etsy community to start a second one. So I wanted to add my voice to what I see as a wider cultural issue in a slightly different way, addressing the visual representation of cancer and the failure of pink ribbons and other pretty pastel trinkets to adequately represent the disease.


I want to acknowledge from the outset that I am focusing here primarily on images of breast cancer not because they are the only contested sites of representation, but because it is arguably the most visible form of the disease in contemporary mainstream cancer culture, in which its high incident rate among Western women and the cultural specificity of breasts have produced a powerful rhetoric of visibility that has not yet fully emerged in the case of other sex- or organ-specific cancers. Despite increasing efforts, we don’t see nearly enough media representations or symbolic referents of ovaries, hearts, lungs, or prostates. Breasts (round, perky, firm, and perfectly shaped rather than imperfect, scarred, or missing as a result of mastectomy) still take centre stage in the popular drama of cancer.

Campaigns like Save the Ta-tas and the Keep A Breast Foundation’s signature I Love Boobies hyperfocus on breasts, reinforcing the normative cultural construction of breasts as the ultimate visual mark of femininity and women as desirable objects. Even those that claim to “think differently” about breast cancer and pioneer a new breast cancer movement, like the Canadian breast cancer organization Rethink, inevitably fall back into the mainstream culture and fail to forge new images. While provocative, Rethink’s controversial 2009 video campaign, Save the Boobs, overtly sexualizes the disease and does nothing to communicate its realities or the risks that women face. The message is to save the “boobs” or the “ta-tas” rather than the women whom breast (and other forms of) cancer aggressively kills.

So, about cancer’s visibility. When I say “visible,” I mean so in the most tenuous of terms. While cancer has achieved wide visibility in contemporary culture, it is through strenuously upbeat, sexualized fundraising campaigns and popular imagery such as the ubiquitous pink breast cancer ribbon, producing what Barbara Ehrenreich has playfully termed “the cult of pink kitsch.” Although they provide comfortable ways for the public to visualize cancer and show support for cancer patients and research, these symbolic artifacts act as visual referents for the disease without actually imaging in, displacing its unsettling images and material realities.

Jo Spence and Tim Sheard, Exiled, 1989. From Narratives of Dis-ease (1989).

In contemporary medical discourse and media cultures, cancer is marked by a cultural imperative to conceal the material signs of the disease and its treatment according to Western standards of appropriate bodily display. In the 1980s, feminist writer and activist Audre Lorde famously criticized the cultural construction of breast cancer as a cosmetic problem that could be solved by “prosthetic pretense,” rejecting what she called a “cosmetic sham” propagated by organizations like the American Cancer Society’s Reach to Recovery program. Cultural critic Susan Sontag similarly noted the strenuous “conventions of concealment” in Illness as Metaphor (1978), observing “all this lying to and by cancer patients... because [the disease] is felt to be obscene—in the original meaning of the word: ill-omened, abominable, repugnant to the senses.” Since these landmark politicized criticisms, non-biomedical makeover or “image” programs like the widely popular Look Good...Feel Better program continue to promote beauty aids as prosthetic means of recovery from the disfiguring effects of cancer, advocating mainstream conceptions of beauty, gender, and illness.

As a result, the conventional image of cancer is one that conceals all signs of the disease, cosmetically transforming the often destabilizing experiences of diagnosis, treatment, and recovery into something pretty and pink. Even when “alternative” images that reveal scars, hair loss, and other obvious signs of medical intervention for cancer do enter the public sphere, they are almost always of “survivors,” of triumphant bodies that have “defeated” cancer, won their “battle,” and reclaimed health, reinforcing conventions of beauty and popular metaphors of cancer as a battleground. Beneath the dominant representations of cancer and the almost excessive public images celebrating survivorship, however, there are a number of artists, photographers, and activists who have worked tirelessly to challenge dominant representations and make visible embodied experiences of the disease.

In her 1989 photograph, Exiled, with which I opened this post, British photographer Jo Spence exposes her torso with the word “monster” inscribed across her scarred chest. Having undergone a lumpectomy to remove the cancer from her breast, she no longer fits into the normative categories of ideal female or healthy bodies, but must negotiate her identity as a newly disfigured or “monstrous” body in a culture that stigmatizes and constructs her as “other.” Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1982, Spence furiously resolved to "document the procedure of being 'processed' through the hands of the medical profession" in a series of self-portrait photographs, employing the camera as a tool for empowerment. Engaging the cultural and political practices that effect the representation of illness, she performed her naked, ravaged, and diseased body to expose the ways in which medical knowledge and cultural consumptions are visually constructed about her body. “This isn’t just an artwork,” Spence declared about her work, “this is an actual body that someone inhabits.” And actual bodies, as she effectively demonstrates, are not always easy or comfortable to look at.

Jo Spence, Untitled (Mammogram), 1982. From The Picture of Health? (1982-86)

Left: Jo Spence and Rosy Martin, Infantilization, 1984. From The Picture of Health? (1982-86)
Right: Jo Spence and Terry Dennett, The Body is the Hero, 1989. 

Left: Jo Spence and Terry Dennett, The Property of Jo Spence, 1982. From The Picture of Health? (1982-86)
Right: Jo Spence and Terry Dennett, Crash Helmet Portrait, 1983. From The Cancer Project

Jo Spence and Terry Dennett, 15th October, 1984, 1984. From The Cancer Project. 

Left: Jo Spence and Tim Sheard, Exiled, 1989. From Narratives of Dis-ease (1989).
Right: Jo Spence and Tim Sheard, Booby Prize, 1989. From Narratives of Dis-ease (1989).

Like Spence, American artist Hannah Wilke unapologetically and critically represents the sick, unruly, dying body afflicted with cancer. In her photographic diptych, Portrait of the Artist with Her Mother, Selma Butter (1978-81) from her So Help Me Hannah series, she portrays her then “healthy” body alongside her mother’s cancerous body. On the left, lying naked from the waist up, Wilke symbolically wears her mother’s wounds as small metal objects (a toy gun, fragments of tools) across the surface of her “pristine” youthful flesh, her characteristic long, dark hair sprawled out on the floor beneath her. On the right lies the artist’s mother, Selma Butter, whose disease-ridden body is disfigured by mastectomy and recurring cancer growths pitted against her sagging flesh. Her face is downcast in pain and exhaustion, her bald head modestly covered by a thick, dark post-chemotherapy wig. Wilke mimics her mother’s wounds in an attempt to internalize or share them and alleviate some of her pain, while also calling into question normative standards of appropriate bodily display and constructions of femininity.

Hannah Wilke, Portrait of the Artist with Her Mother, Selma Butter. From the So Help me Hannah Series (1978-81). 

When she was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1987, Wilke turned the camera towards her own cancerous body, photographing it in excruciating detail as she continued to negotiate the trauma of illness and expectations of the diseased female body in representation. In Intra-Venus (1992-93), her final project before her death from lymphoma in 1993, she charts the effects of cancer and its medical treatment on her body in a series of large-scale “performalist” self-portrait photographs taken over an eight-month period with her partner Donald Goddard. Challenging viewer expectations and conventional representations of the female nude, she bravely exposes her ravaged, diseased, and medicalized body—naked, discoloured, bloated, bruised, bloody, and bald—as openly and obsessively as she displayed her young, healthy, and “too beautiful” body in her performative works from the 1970s.

Throughout Intra-Venus—a title that refers both to the medical term intravenous and to the goddess Venus, the quintessential sexual object of art historical paintings—Wilke insistently deploys her well-developed strategy of the pose, appropriating traditional female archetypes and high art nudes that range from the Venus and Madonna to the contemporary cover girl. But in place of a lively face, youthful flesh, smooth contours, and long flowing hair that these traditional poses falsely promise, Wilke’s face is sagging with exhaustion, her flesh is discoloured and scarred with marks of medical intrusions, her slim body is swollen and bloated from cancer therapies, and her luxurious, long hair is either thinning or completely gone. This effect of chemotherapy on her body is brilliantly and viscerally conveyed in Brushstrokes, a series of unconventional "paintings" composed of the artist's hair as it fell our during chemotherapy, which she collected and displayed on sheets of Arches watercolour paper. I can still recall encountering these works for the first time, my body sick with the memory of having lost my own hair as a result of chemotherapy treatment over ten years ago. It is the power of photographic works such as Wilke's and Spence's to evoke such visceral responses that keeps me returning to them, unable to look away as I am confronted by their unsettling bodies and arrested by the unforgiving gazes with which they directly address their viewers.

Hannah Wilke, Intra-Venus Series No. 6, February 19, 1992, 1992.

Hannah Wilke, Brushstrokes, January 19, 1992, 1992.

Hannah Wilke, Intra-Venus Series No.4, July 26, 1992 and No.10, June 22, 1992, 1992.

Hannah Wilke, Intra-Venus Series No.7, August 18, 1992, 1992.

Spence and Wilke were among the first contemporary artists to visually represent their own diseased bodies and cancer experiences in attempt to counteract dominant representations. No less relevant today than it was twenty or thirty years ago, their work continues to challenge the conventions governing the visual representation of cancer. More recently, projects like The SCAR Project, a series of large-scale portraits of young women profoundly affected by cancer by fashion photographer David Jay, aim to put forth an awareness-raising public image of what cancer really looks like, foregrounding the mastectomy and other scars as an object of aesthetic and political significance. The photographs are at once starkly beautiful and empowering, but also brutally honest and deeply unsettling, exposing real women struggling with the cultural implications of having lost their breast(s) and hair as a result of treatment for cancer. As the project's tagline boldly declares (and both the photos and the young women whose experiences of cancer they convey attest), "Breast Cancer Is Not A Pink Ribbon." 

David Jay, photos from The SCAR Project, 2011. 

As more explicit images such as those from The SCAR Project gain increasing visibility and become more popular, my hope is that they will slowly and effectively replace the pink ribbons and other pastel trinkets that act as visual referents for cancer. In doing so, they have the potential to transform the way people look at the disease, encouraging viewers to see cancer as terrifying, disfiguring, deadly, and ugly rather than something cheerful, pretty, and “tickled pink.”


  1. What an amazingly powerful post. Both your words and the images you chose. I'd write more but I'm just going to go off and process all of that….wow!!

    1. thank you so much, Kerry! it's a heavy post, I know, so thank you for taking the time to read and process it. I thought about editing some of it out, but it is a topic that I am just not willing to compromise on. and in the end, I think that the images are powerful enough to speak for themselves....

  2. Now we are parsing hairs. It seems so misguided to complain that disease A is misrepresented while diseases B through X go completely unrepresented. And who are you to speak for the millions of women to whom the pink campaign may appeal? And let us not forget about the worldwide acceptance of Movember... Should I go on? It is very nice that you are taking an interest in this but your energies may be better spent elsewhere. This campaign is clearly well-intended, to say the least. Many things in this world are not. Let us focus on those issues.

  3. Thank you for this post. I have found it while doing research regarding artists struggle with cancer for my semester work at the university. This blog entry, as well as your MA thesis wre realy helpful to me - thank you.

    I'd like to draw your attention to two more artists which used their bodies in art in connection to the ilness: performer Katarzyna Kozyra and her work Olympia and sculptor Alina Szapocznikow (for a few more days her works can be seen in NYC, at MoMA), some basic information about her:


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