It's October! Are you thinking of apples, falling leaves and pumpkins? Neither am I. I can't help but see the hues of pink at every turn and it really got me thinking. I was curious about the origin of the pink ribbon and it's meaning in today's world. I spend some of my free time volunteering for an organization called Bright PInk. I love that the organization focuses on the prevention and early detection of breast cancer. I love that they encourage young girls to assess their risk of breast cancer. I love that their tagline is Be Brilliant. Be Bold. Be Bright Pink. I love the idea that somehow a simple pink ribbon can unite an entire group of people.
When I googled "pink ribbon," I found references to the same article posted again and again. It's an article called Pretty in Pink by Sandra Fernandez and it seems like a pretty good account of how the pink ribbon came to be.
"From the beginning, the pink ribbon connoting breast cancer awareness has been embroiled in controversy. Today, some members of the movement wear it proudly, giving thanks for both the symbol and its attendant charity-dollar largesse. Others hate it with a passion. But to much of the media and the world at large, the ribbon is the breast cancer movement. Where did the ribbon come from, where is it going, and what has it meant along the way?
The merging of the ribbon and symbolism in this country came about in two huge leaps. The first occurred in 1979, the year that Penney Laingen, wife of a hostage who’d been taken in Iran, was inspired by song to tie yellow ribbons around the trees in her front yard. The ribbon, Americans were told on the nightly news, signaled her desire to see her husband home again. For the first time, ribbon became medium, ribbon became message. Yellow ribbons sprouted up across the country in solidarity. That was step one.
Step two occurred 11 years later, when AIDS activists looked at the yellow ribbons that had been resurrected for soldiers fighting the Gulf War and said, “What about something for our boys dying here at home?” The activist art group Visual AIDS turned the ribbon bright red—“because it’s the color of passion”—looped it, spruced it up and sent it onto the national stage during the Tony awards, photogenically pinned to the chest of actor Jeremy Irons.
Ribbons had arrived. Overnight, every charitable cause had to have one. After just a short time, they were so ubiquitous that The New York Times declared 1992 “The Year of the Ribbon.”
The stage was set for the evolution of the breast cancer ribbon.
First on the scene was the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation. Komen had been handing out bright pink visors to breast cancer survivors running in its Race for the Cure since late 1990. In fall 1991, mere months after Irons’ electrifying appearance, the foundation gave out pink ribbons to every participant in its New York City race. This first use of the ribbon, though, was for Komen just a detail in the larger and more important story of the race. To really break out, the pink ribbon would need a situation in which the ribbon was the event.
And it didn’t take long for that situation to arrive. Early in 1992, Alexandra Penney, then the editor in chief of Self, was busy designing the magazine’s second annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month issue. The previous year’s effort, inspired and guest edited by Evelyn Lauder—Estée Lauder senior corporate vice president and a breast cancer survivor—had been a huge hit. The question was, how to do it again and even better. Then Penney had a flash of inspiration—she would create a ribbon, and enlist the cosmetics giant to distribute it in New York City stores. Evelyn Lauder went her one better: She promised to put the ribbon on cosmetics counters across the country.
Penney recalls the birth of the ribbon now from her office at Ziff-Davis. “You know how it is when things are in the air,” Penney says.
“A week later Liz Smith wrote about a woman who was already doing a peach-colored ribbon for breast cancer.” The woman was 68-year-old Charlotte Haley, the granddaughter, sister, and mother of women who had battled breast cancer. Her peach-colored loops were handmade in her dining room. Each set of five came with a card saying: “The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 billion, only 5 percent goes for cancer prevention. Help us wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.”
Haley was strictly grassroots, handing the cards out at the local supermarket and writing prominent women, everyone from former First Ladies to Dear Abby. Her message spread by word of mouth. By the time Liz Smith printed her phone number, Haley had distributed thousands.
Then Self magazine called.
“We said, ‘We want to go in with you on this, we’ll give you national attention, there’s nothing in it for us,” Penney says. Even five years later, her voice still sounds startled by Haley’s answer. “She wanted nothing to do with us. Said we were too commercial.”
At the end of September 1992, Liz Smith printed a follow-up to Haley’s story. She reported that Estee Lauder had experienced “problems” trying to work with Haley, and quoted the activist claiming that Self had asked her to relinquish the concept of the ribbon. “We didn’t want to crowd her,” Penney says. “But we really wanted to do a ribbon. We asked our lawyers and they said, ‘ Come up with another color.”
They chose pink.
There are many choices to be made after you decide “pink ribbon.” According to C.M. Offray and Son, the largest ribbon-makers in the world (they supply the ribbon on which Olympic medals are hung), ribbons come in three basic styles: woven, grosgrain and craft, each with its own variations. Given the plethora of decisions that had to be made in designing October’s surprise, it’s startling that hue wasn’t one of them.
“There are so many different shades, but it would have been our ‘150 pink’—basic, standard pink,” says Ellie Schneider, vice president of publicity and public relations for Offray, when the ribbon is mentioned. “It’s pretty, a pastel pink without being too washed-out or powdery-looking. It’s one of our best-selling colors. It’s been in our line forever.”
Because Estée Lauder and its corporate philanthropy, the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, did not respond to repeated requests for interviews, we don’t know who exactly ordered the 150 pink in grosgrain. Penney recalls only that Estée Lauder made all the manufacturing choices, leaving her to publicize the promotion and edit the accompanying issue of her magazine. What we do know is that because of Haley’s ribbon, Self and Estée Lauder had traded in a color that was merely peachy for one that was an icon, a semiotic superstar."
Ms. Fernandez seems to be a little cynical about the whole pink ribbon movement, even stating that "signs abound that the reign of today’s ribbon is waning" and "the decline of the pink ribbon comes none too soon." However, this article was written in the late 90's. In 1998 the internet was still via a crappy dial-up connection and your cell phone was likely a flip-phone that could, umm, call people. There was no high-def or dvr or instant anything. The "breast cancer genes" had not been discovered and the prevention of cancer was limited to "stop smoking" campaigns. In the 15 years since this article was published the use of the pink ribbon has not declined, but instead flourished. Whether you believe in the term pinkwashing or not, you cannot deny the power of pink in October. There are literally thousands of companies that promote pink products. What started as one simple ribbon has become an entire month of awareness. Why pink?
“Pink is the quintessential female color,” says Margaret Welch, director of the Color Association of the United States. “The profile on pink is playful, life-affirming. We have studies as to its calming effect, its quieting effect, its lessening of stress. [Pastel pink] is a shade known to be health-giving; that’s why we have expressions like ‘in the pink.’ You can’t say a bad thing about it.” Pink is, in other words, everything cancer notably is not.
I love that last line......."Pink is, in other words, everything cancer notably is not." Cancer is not calming. Cancer does not keep quiet. Cancer is stressful. Cancer sucks.
I've spent the last few years enveloped in a cancer filled world. After my son was born in 2007, my aunt was diagnosed with a recurrence of breast cancer. She fought the disease for an additional 4 years before she passed away in 2011. My mom was diagnosed with DCIS and underwent intense radiation treatments plus a bilateral mastectomy. Around the time of her diagnosis, she went through genetic counseling and discovered that all of the cancer in our family is hereditary, passed through generations of DNA as a mutation in our BRCA2 genes. I inherited this same genetic mutation and after a few years filled with one preventive surgery after another, I am at peace with my bad genes. It is actually a blessing to be in control of something that is not very well controlled.
To me, the pink ribbon symbolizes awareness and resonates hope.
The pink ribbon is my aunt's sweet smile and my mom's kindness. The pink ribbon is the hope of a better future for me and for my family. It is the fighting spirit of my friends Jennifer, Shannon and Melissa. It is the journey of my sister-in-law. The pink ribbon is the many lives that are forever changed because of breast cancer and the hope that someday things will be different.