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'No F****** Pink Ribbons!' Is It Time For The Bow To Go?

Jennifer Ho, English professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
UNC-Chapel Hill

When Jennifer Ho went to the hospital for testing on a lump in her breast, she encountered the image often associated with breast cancer: the pink ribbon.

A nurse led the UNC English professor to an exam room. She recalls, "And then I saw a tote bag with UNC hospital's name on it and the pink ribbon. And I had this immediate visceral reaction. And I'm walking with the nurse. And I said something I can't repeat on the air." Ho said, "I hate those *** pink ribbons."

Her reaction gave the nurse pause. "What did you say?" she asked. Ho replied, "If I actually do have breast cancer, I am never wearing a pink ribbon."

Just a day later, the 40 year-old was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts. Ho turned to writing to document and process the experience. In her blog "No F****** Pink Ribbons!" she expressed her feelings about the pink ribbon culture.

The branding of her experience with the pink ribbon troubled Ho.  "[T]he label to me seemed to be tremendously infantilizing. And overly feminized. And really not respectful of women in their full capacity to handle things," she says.

Ho writesthat the pink ribbon is a convenient mask for a horrible truth: fatality.

That's the reality that the pink ribbons mask. At the end of the day, despite all the treatments and surgery. No matter how many Avon walks you participate in, how many yoplait yogurt lids you mail off, how many buckets of chicken you eat, how many stamps you purchase or pink sweatshirts you don, at the end of the day women still die from this disease. I may die from this disease. I am going to endure months of a chemotherapy treatment so intense that my hair will fall out, I will more than likely develop mouth sores, I am supposed to avoid knifes and other sharp objects because my blood will have problems clotting and I could bleed out, and there are numerous other side effects too personal to get into. And all of this makes me angry. The whole cult of perky, positivity that the pink ribbon symbolizes makes me angry.

Jennifer Ho knows that her opposition to the pink ribbon runs counter to the feelings of many women. And she understands that the pink ribbon can be empowering for some patients and families.

"I recognize that in critiquing pink ribbon culture, I run the danger of critiquing women who have breast cancer," she says. "And there are friends and family members of mine who've had breast cancer, and know intimately women who've had breast cancer, (and) who really see the pink ribbon as something that is empowering, something that is positive, something that's really inspired them. And so I don't want my comments to be taken as denigrating any of those experiences."

Jennifer Ho explored the subject of the pink ribbon culture with host Frank Stasio on The State of Things. She also discussed her experiences as a Chinese-American woman in North Carolina. Dr. Ho will speak about her contribution to a new book, Asian Americans in Dixie: Race and Migration in the South, on Thursday, February 6th at the Center for the Study of the American South at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.