From the annual ‘Pink Test’ cricket match in Australia to Mother’s Day fun runs, there has been a proliferation of ‘pink’ uniformed charity events. This article analyses the pink uniform of the 2020 Cancer Council Tasmania’s Women’s first virtual 5K walk/run (W5K). The Women’s 5K event took take place virtually in September 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. The annual event, which runs through the CBD of Launceston, a regional city in Tasmania, typically attracts around 2,000 participants and is Cancer Council Tasmania’s major annual fundraiser. Cancer Council received 798 registrations for the 2020 virtual event and raised over $120,000. Locating the W5K pink uniform within the emergence of “embodied philanthropy” (Robert), this article analyses how pink uniforms were used by virtual walkers and runners to recreate the mass affective and community spectacle of the usually in-person event. Drawing upon Vilnai-Yavert and Rafaeli’s artifacts framework, the article extends the concept of “embodied philanthropy” to outline the instrumental, symbolic and aesthetic dimensions of the pink sports charity uniform. While acknowledging the risks of “pinkwashing” in reproducing narrow gender ideals and bright-siding cancer, the article argues the pink uniform was vital in staging a meaningful and impactful virtual event.
Uniforms are central to the formation and expression of collective and organisational identities (Craik; Timmons and East; Joseph and Alex). The classic sociological articulation of uniforms is that they function to define boundaries, ensure conformity, and suppress individuality. Sport provides a key space to analyse how uniforms discipline individuals and bodies but also challenge and reject rules and bodily regulations. Sport is a window to examine how uniforms involve a tension between both tradition and innovation and regulation and experimentation (Craik 139). While research has examined sport fans and team uniforms there is little research on the sport charity uniform. Much of the sociological literature on sporting uniforms focusses on male football fans. Back et al. point out that “the notion of “wearing the shirt” summons the “deepest level of symbolic identity and commitment” (82). For dedicated fans, wearing their team’s apparel is a potent and embodied “emblem of locality and identity” (82).
More recent research has focussed on the ways in which sporting uniforms can be used in social movements and political protest. These include the inclusion of LGBTQI ‘rainbow’ tops in basketball (Bagley and Liao) and the ways in which Serena Williams’s clothing choices were used to challenge traditional race, class and gender assumptions in tennis (Allen). Redressing the skewed focus on uniforms among male sports fans, Sveinson, Hoeber, and Toffoletti argue that pink merchandise and clothing are cultural artifacts worn and conceptualised by female fans as representing different aspects of their identity. Their findings show that women who follow professional sports teams tend to reject “pink and pretty” offerings, as they reproduce a traditional view of femininity that delegitimatises their fan identity. This laden symbolism is critical to understanding the pink uniform of the W5K.
Pinkification of Cancer
One of the most well-known aspects of the pink uniform is the “pink ribbon” campaign. Ribbon wearers acknowledge that they are connected to cancer in some way; as a survivor, a friend or relative, or as advocates committed to the medical research needed to find a cure for breast (and other) cancers. Moore’s ‘ribbon culture’ identifies four main symbolic uses of the ribbon: show solidarity with a cause or group; tool for community campaigns; a token of mourning; or to display ‘self-awareness’ in the wearer.
The emergence of the pink uniform in sports charity can be linked to the Susan G Komen foundation, one of the early pioneers of cause-related marketing and the founder of the Race for the Cure, the earliest of sports charity events (Palmer). King suggests the colour pink was chosen for race merchandise as it conveyed traditional notions of femininity and was part of the Foundation’s strategy of normalising discussion of breast cancer. The associations between pink, breast cancer, and identity categories of women (mother, sister, daughter, etc.) have been key to the fundraising success of Komen, largely because they were implicitly positioned in opposition to other health promotion campaigns (e.g., AIDS) also competing for market attention in the 1980s and 1990s. While AIDS was associated with “deviant” identities of gay men, drug users, and sex workers, breast cancer was made visible “through straight, White, married, young to middle aged women” (King 107).
Since this time many men’s sporting leagues and events globally have partnered with breast cancer and other “pink” initiatives. In Australia, the annual ‘Pink Test’ cricket match raises money for breast cancer care nurses, while in the US NFL players wear pink socks and gloves. The proliferation of pink events and associated merchandise has led to criticisms of “pinkwashing” (Lyon and Montgomery 223), whereby corporations exploit pink branding to promote products which contribute very little – if anything at all – to cancer research, education, and advocacy efforts (Carter; Devlin and Sheehan). Sociologists like Ehrenreich and Moore have been critical of this “pinkification”, suggesting that it “bright-sides” breast cancer – by relentlessly emphasising a positive resolve – while simultaneously amplifying concerns about the illness. Rather than “awareness raising”, Moore suggests the close association of pink ribbon culture with consumer beauty and fitness products (e.g., Estee Lauder; LessBounce sports bras) reinforces narrow ideals of femininity, but also adds to the pervasive dread of breast cancer in relation to these same ideals (for example, via chemotherapy-induced hair loss and mastectomies). The following section introduces the theoretical framework.
Embodied Philanthropy and Material Artifacts
Julie Robert’s “embodied philanthropy” provides a useful theoretical starting point for analysing the pink uniform of sports charity. Robert (1) describes embodied philanthropy as part of a cultural movement where people "pledge their bodies to raise funds for and awareness of a variety of causes". Embodied philanthropy often relies on the body to publicly display altruism and one’s own ‘will to health’. Embodied philanthropy thus offers a highly visible means of modeling “good citizenship”, particularly in practicing both care of the self and civic minded entrepreneurialism (Wade et al.). While embodied philanthropy draws attention to the body and its emerging role in charitable endeavours, it overlooks how material “things” such as clothes, costumes, and uniforms are integral to the embodied performances characteristic of sports charity events.
Vilnai-Yavetz and Rafaeli’s interdisciplinary organisational artifacts framework provides a useful way to extend Robert’s focus on the body in philanthropy to include embodied artifacts such as uniforms and clothing. For this article, artifacts are conceptualised as material objects such as pink t-shirts, ribbons, and hats purposely worn for W5K participation and fundraising. Vilnai-Yavetz and Rafaeli posit three dimensions through which organisational artifacts produce meaning: 1) instrumentality: the “impact of an artifact on the tasks or goals of people, groups, or organisations” (12); 2) aesthetics: the “sensory experience an artifact elicits” (12); and 3) symbolism: the “meanings and associations an artifact elicits” (14). Vilnai-Yavetz and Rafaeli’s model offers a way of conceptualising the embodied role of uniform for understanding more short-term or ephemeral types of sporting community, such as the “neo-tribes” (Maffesoli) that form around fitness philanthropy events (e.g. annual fun runs).
How then do people understand the role of the pink uniform when participating in sports charity events? What role does the pink uniform play instrumentally, aesthetically, and symbolically? Do cancer charities need to rethink their use of pink considering concerns about pinkwashing, bright-siding cancer, and reproducing constrictive gender ideals? The following section uses the findings from a wider qualitative interview-based study on motivations and experiences of participating and fundraising in the 2020 virtual W5 to help answer these questions. The interview sample comprised 12 women and one man with an age range of 32 to 75. Transcribed interviews were thematically analysed, guided by the theoretical framework.
Recreating the ‘Sea of Pink’: Instrumental, Symbolic, and Aesthetic Dimensions of the Pink Sports Charity Uniform
Most participants framed their virtual participation in terms of missing the in-person spectacle of the “sea of pink running through the streets” (Emily). In the context of this mass “absence” of pink, wearing and displaying artifacts such as pink T-shirts, ribbons, bandanas, hats, face paint, and dyed hair were assembled as an “informal” sports charity uniform. The following participants capture this creative use of the pink uniform:
I had the pink shirt and then we had pink hats and my neighbour who’s had cancer came and she had pink on. (Grace)
I decked myself out in pink and all the number and whatever else and yeah, I had a great time by myself. I had music going and yeah … I think I might have even had pink hair at the time. (Leah)
These descriptions evoke Robert’s claim that embodied philanthropy leans heavily on the “showiness of the body for philanthropic ends” (4). However, rather than moralised displays of suffering or neoliberal models of self-responsibility, the pink uniform plays out as part of a rejection of more ‘elite’ forms of embodied philanthropy with the emphasis on ‘fun’, ‘play’, and ‘enjoyment’. The pink uniform figures as a rejection of martyr-like displays and expectations commonly observed in other forms of embodied philanthropy, with participants not expected to suffer for the cause but rather to gather, play, remember, and celebrate.
Building on uniform as a feature of embodied philanthropy, the following section uses Vilnai-Yavetz and Rafaeli’s framework to analyse the instrumental, symbolic, and aesthetic dimensions of the W5K pink uniform.
Instrumentality relates to how artifacts serve to achieve individual and organisational goals (Vilnai-Yavetz and Rafeili). Three key instrumental functions of the pink uniform can be identified in the participants’ stories. First, wearing and displaying artifacts such as pink T-shirts and hair-dye enabled participants to become producers of their own sports charity events. As Elizabeth said: “I would happily wear my t-shirt and do my own fun run”. Displaying the pink uniform enabled participants to stage their own “micro” fitness philanthropy event in the absence of the “sea of pink”. The pink uniform was central to participants and organisers being able to produce and stage individualised embodied philanthropy events without the corporeal ‘mass’ of the mass-participation event.
Second, the pink uniform helped participants simulate the affective spectacle, ritual, and “neo-tribal” warmth (Maffesoli) of the face-to-face event. The pink uniform was key to producing a sense of ritualised ‘atmosphere’ and generating feelings of connection and solidarity. The shift to a virtual format meant greater reliance on participants producing imagery of their participation to generate a sense of online community and affective spectacle. Social media affordances, including the use of the #doitforher hashtag, were vital to creating this collective affect. Without sharing and circulating imagery of the pink uniform through social media, organisers would have struggled to host a meaningful and viable event. Chloe commented how “I felt the presence with the online kind of sharing of other people’s experiences, quite motivating and really wonderful … just being out and seeing other people in a sea of pink and doing their version of the event was quite special”.
Third, participants used their own creative labour to craft and display pink uniforms that expressed their connection to the cause (fighting cancer) and organisation (Cancer Council). In Robert’s terms, the pink uniform transformed the body into a charitable “billboard” and “income generator”. For example, Penelope discussed how their running club made their own t-shirts for their event – complete with individual nicknames –, while Elizabeth described how they designed a stamp that featured a picture of herself wearing a Cancer Council t-Shirt to publicise the event. This echoes aforementioned claims that ‘wearing the shirt’ establishes symbolic identity and commitment. However, rather than generating feelings of allegiance to a club, the pink shirt expressed connection with the cause or organisation while also serving advocacy purposes. As Chloe said: “just getting out there in the pink top is raising awareness”. The t-shirt also operated as a communicator of “good citizenship”, implicitly enjoining others to support the cause (Palmer). Elizabeth, for instance, described wearing her pink Cancer Council T-shirt to an aged care facility where she volunteers to solicit “a couple of extra donations”, while Katie and Sandra explained how they wore pink shirts during their walk/runs as a way of gaining recognition and showing others “you’re doing that good work”.
The pink charity uniform had powerful symbolic functions for participants. Participants discussed how wearing pink was linked to honouring loved ones who had died from cancer. Leah discussed how she ran her event wearing the same pink ribbon she wore at the funeral of her friend’s mother, who died from breast cancer. This aligns with Moore’s research, where ribbon wearing to signify mourning proves one of the key symbolic uses of ribbon culture.
Zoe similarly expressed the links between wearing pink and rituals of reminiscence: “we both made sure we had some pink on … as we walked, we talked about [their friend] and her battle and why we were doing it … we were thinking of who we were walking for”. Pink was also worn by survivors of breast cancer such as Sandra who walked with her mum (also a breast cancer survivor) and friends: “we all had pink stuff. We painted pink on our faces. Walked the main road when we knew there was going to be a lot of traffic … so people could see us dressed in pink”. Sandra described “walking the streets with pink love hearts on our faces” as her most memorable moment of the event. While “pink ribbon culture” and the wider “pinkification” of cancer has been critiqued as “brightsiding” cancer and reinforcing narrow ideals of femininity (Ehrenreich; Moore), it is hard to deny the symbolic power of pink for these participants as a means to mourn, remember, and celebrate survivorship.
The meaning of pink clothing as a gendered marker was also important in this research. While Sveinson et al. highlight problems that female sports fans have with pink merchandising, this was not an issue for the charity participants. There was a congruence between wearing pink and participants’ charitable identities. Despite pink being a close signifier of breast cancer fundraising (King), participants reflected on the importance of the W5K in supporting all cancers, particularly as breast cancer attracts “more donations” (Sandra) and “gets a lot of attention in the media” (Maureen). However, W5K’s pink branding did lead some participants, like Greg, to mistakenly believe the event is a “breast cancer race”, despite the target audience being all Tasmanians impacted upon by cancer.
The feminine associations of pink – coupled with the event name – also meant some participants were unclear whether men could participate. Katie said “I love that they have the pink colouring” but it “wasn’t obvious to me that both men and women could do the walk”. Katie showed how there can be an incongruence between masculine identities and the “pink run” uniform. She commented: “my Dad was a bit reticent about wearing pink ...but he was willing to take it for the team for the day”. While Greg said he was a “metrosexual man” and “didn’t mind wearing a bit of pink”, he agreed the pink uniform created a strong impression the W5K was a “women’s only race”.
Both Katie and Greg suggested that organisers should look to include more men wearing pink as part of promotional materials. Unlike Sveinson et al., who showed a tension between pink clothing and women’s fan identities, in the W5K men and women were generally comfortable wearing pink due to its higher-order symbolism as part of “fighting” cancer and “doing something good”. More widely, these findings highlight the unstable gendered meanings of pink and that rather than the pinkification of cancer simply reinforcing narrow gender ideals, it may also open possibilities, particularly for men, to express inclusive and ‘caring’ masculinities (Elliott).
The Cancer Council actively encourages fun and creativity in costumes for the W5K event. Images of this irreverent costuming and effervescent spectacle are re-circulated via social media to promote future participation. This is illustrated in the image below from Cancer Council’s Instagram account:
Fig. 1: Instagram post by the Cancer Council
While pink clothing is encouraged by the Cancer Council, individual comfort and expression is emphasised in efforts to make the event as inclusive as possible. Hence, some participants – especially ‘serious’ runners – dress in purely utilitarian modes, opting for pink running singlets, shorts, tights etc., while others embrace comically non-utilitarian styles, such as wearing tutus, feather boas, fairy wings, colourful wigs, face paint, or dyed hair. Unlike comparable events – like Nike’s women’s-only ‘She Runs the Night’ event, where all participants were required to wear identical Nike-branded pink singlets or t-shirts – the Cancer Council’s W5K encourages individual expression and creativity in clothing and adornments. In short, a kind of non-uniformity of uniform is actively promoted, so long as these displays can still be captured and circulated as signifiers of support for the cause.
While the aesthetics of the ‘sea of pink’ inevitability reproduce narrow gendered tropes, it also resists others, including the ‘tailored modesty, neatness, demureness’ (Craik 13) expected of women in uniform, along with burdensome cultural ideals around the ‘fit’ and ‘feminine’ body. The lighthearted, intentionally comical pinkification – while introducing ambiguities about whether the W5K is a women’s only event – does potentially make it easier for men to participate, enabling them to shake off any stereotypical assumptions related to wearing ‘unmasculine’ colours and clothing. Greg said that ‘while I don’t think I wore pink on the day … I would’ve been happy to put some pompons on, and really jazz it up!’
Using Cancer Council Tasmania’s first virtual 5k walk-run as an empirical case-study, the article discusses creative pink adornments as a unique sports charity uniform. Locating the pink uniform within the rise of global “pink events” and initiatives, the article suggests that the pink uniform provides a new lens to examine the material role of uniforms beyond existing research in the sociology of sport and leisure. Theoretically the article positions the emergence of the pink charity uniform as part of Robert’s “embodied philanthropy”. A key theoretical argument is that while Robert’s framework helps grasp the push toward the body-as-signifier in mass participation fundraising events, it downplays the role material artifacts such as clothing play in embodied sporting performances. It is suggested that Vilnai-Yavetz and Rafaeli’s organisational artifacts model provides a useful way to attend to the extra-corporeal aspects of “embodied philanthropy”, underlining the instrumental, symbolic, and aesthetic dimensions of uniforms as artifacts.
Empirically the article highlights three key instrumental uses of the pink uniform for W5K participants. First, the uniform enabled participants to produce their own charity event; second, it helped recreate the affective spectacle and “neo-tribal” (Maffesoli) warmth of the physical event; and third, the uniform expressed connection to the cause or organisation and turned the body into a “charitable billboard” (Robert). Symbolically, the uniform, via practices such as wearing pink ribbons, helped foster rituals of mourning and remembrance. Notwithstanding persuasive critiques of pinkwashing, participants celebrated the use of pink, though some felt it sent an ambiguous message about whether men were welcome. Nonetheless, there was little identity incongruence between wearing pink and expressing sports charity identities. These findings highlight how the gendered meaning of pink artefacts are fluid and thus challenge ideas that the pinkification of cancer simply reinforces narrow gender ideals. For example, the men interviewed show how pink artefacts may work to symbolically and materially challenge traditional gendered orthodoxies and even help men express more progressive gendered identities. Aesthetically a “non-uniformity of uniform” was promoted, with the pink uniform working as a loosely aggregated symbolic system accommodating both utilitarian and non-utilitarian styles. While many theorists have raised concerns about the pinkification of cancer – both in its insistent positivity discourses and reproducing narrow gendered ideals – the aesthetics of the pink uniform in the W5K were overwhelmingly celebrated and embraced as light-hearted and fun: as material artifacts key to a joyously inclusive and community-building spectacle.
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