Beauty: a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight. For girls and women, beauty requires living up to gender norms that center on physical attractiveness and good grooming habits.

Beauty norms create an ideal version of femininity that equates women with their bodies. Restoring the body after cancer treatment, or at least normalizing its appearance, has become a sign of victory in the war against breast cancer. Wigs, makeup, fashion, prosthetic breasts and reconstruction help women maintain a socially acceptable feminine appearance. Intensifying social norms of beauty, the image of the triumphant survivor, or she-ro, puts pressure on diagnosed women to look and act the part.

Example 1

It’s All About Outward Appearances

The “Look Good, Feel Better” program sponsored by the American Cancer Society (with support from the cosmetics industry) holds beauty workshops for women in treatment, along with free cosmetics.

The “HOPE is Beautiful” caption from one of the program’s print advertisements replaces the letter “O” in hope with a woman’s puckered, pink lips. We see only part of her soft, pale face.

The ad continues:


The alliteration of “face” in word and image further stresses the importance of outward appearances.

Many women do feel better after getting a makeover. Makeup is strongly associated with assumptions about health, heterosexuality, credibility, and women’s efforts to resist becoming invisible. Yet marketing beauty ideology to further a narrowly defined aspect of cancer survivorship has implications beyond dealing with treatment-related side effects. By prioritizing the return from illness to normalized femininity, there is little space in cancer survivorship (and pink ribbon culture in particular) for suffering, pain, disfigurement, or any other perceived threats to socially expected norms.

Note: Excerpt from “#RethinkPink: The Changing Social Landscape of Breast Cancer Advocacy” in Gender & Society.

Example 2


The breast cancer brand uses the constraints of gender for its own purposes. Femininity equals hope: if you look good, you will feel better. Femininity promises cure(s): purchase this product to have a future without breast cancer. This pink ribbon prescription is meant for survivors and supporters alike.

Example 3

Triumphant Survivorship

Pink ribbon culture relies on imagery of pretty, happy, optimistic survivors who wear their survivorship with pride, elegance, sensuality, and the perfect blend of cosmetic enhancements.

This “Inspired to Fight” ad for the 2010 Dallas Race for the Cure features a gorgeous bald woman made up to have eyebrows, eyelashes, and a healthy complexion. With head tilted back, a flawless smile, and a pink ribbon streaming around her neck and bare shoulders, this sexy “survivor” with moxy looks back at the camera as if she hasn’t a care in the world. She is “inspired” to wear a ribbon, to “fight” the good fight, to showcase the beauty of her survivorship.

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Incidentally, that beautiful bald women who is inspired to fight is a stock photo, “beauty girl on the blur background” from Shutterstock, Inc. Copyright: Yuganov Konstantin.


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