As a breast cancer survivor and activist, Bobbie Shay Lee is sometimes fed up with the amount of pink she sees. Businesses seem to bathe themselves in the color during October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness month, she said, without informing consumers of where the money goes or how much is collected. A former Tampa Bay Buccaneers cheerleader, Lee started a petition calling for more accountability and transparency from those using the symbolic pink ribbon on their products. She also asks these businesses to support not just research, but the aftermath of breast cancer treatment, including reconstruction surgery. Times reporter Shelley Rossetter talked with Lee, 41, recently about her crusade for change.
What is pink washing?
Pink washing has a couple of different meanings depending on the group you're speaking to. In my terms, pink washing is the exploitation of the pink ribbon symbol in order to profit for retail sale.
Are people taking advantage of the pink ribbon?
I believe the use of the pink ribbon came from a sincere place, that retailers wanted to engage with women. But I'm not so naive to disregard the fact that the key retail buyer is ages 25 to 49, which is parallel to the ages of those in the breast cancer support community. I believe that is has gone beyond a sincere interest and has been exploited by companies small and large for retail profit.
What are your worries?
There are three. First, we don't require retailers to provide specific information about the dollar amounts they are contributing or where the dollars go, which would give us the transparency we need to be informed on how to invest our money.
Second, the dollars collected for charitable contributions are often not reinvested into the nonprofit community in a decent turnaround time. Instead, companies are holding funds and collection interest before making contributions.
Third, companies will develop "pink" products in the month of October just to get on the bandwagon and not to necessarily raise awareness. It really has become a consumer rights issue.
Tell us more about your petition.
My petition is not to promote any one charity or any one product or denounce any company. My petition is to create new avenues and tools for accountability.
It specifically touches on the pink washing in the NFL. They bathe the fields and players in pink. I want to see how the dollars they are collecting are being redistributed. Is it a way to raise money and awareness for breast cancer or is it all for the marketing value, attracting women sports viewers?
In all fairness, the NFL is just the most obvious example. There are plenty of beauty products, grocery products and retail products everywhere you turn that use pink ribbons in an effort to promote their sales. All I ask is that people investigate and know where their dollars are going.
What made you start to look into this?
I encountered some latent effects of my treatment a few years ago (that included a total removal of my reconstruction.) Because of my inability to obtain health insurance I was in a position to need assistance to get the treatment I needed. The assistance was not available. There are no dollars for women who need reconstruction, especially some therapies that could mean the difference between successful remission or a more a harmful condition.
I had a suspicion that pink washing was exceeding my comfort level while watching football on Sundays. Being a survivor, it might be only my opinion and not that of the general public. I can't deny that there are survivors who feel very empowered by participating in NFL games or breast cancer walks and I would never deny them the opportunity to do that. I just want them to be educated.
What do you want Breast Cancer Awareness month to accomplish?
It serves a very valid and important purpose in education and awareness and reducing the stigma. And I felt the impact in the lack of education and lack of understanding when I was diagnosed, especially being so young. We've evolved beyond that. Now it is time to look at the medical and health care environment and address the gap in services for people who need care beyond the initial breast cancer treatment.