What’s In A Color?

PINK—a pale tint of red lightened with a bit of white. That’s pink in the color palette.  But pink does more than occupy a unique position in the visual spectrum. This slightly reddish hue is imbued with meaning. In the last two decades the color pink, through its association with the pink ribbon, has come to represent the general cause of breast cancer. Yet, the color pink exists within a deeper semiotic system that is encoded with gender. Pink represents femininity: emotionality, beauty, morality, and nurturance. The dancing pink ribbon of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month captures the essence of pink femininity in breast cancer culture. With a smiling face, lipstick, and a get-up-and-go attitude, the spunky caricature is emblematic of the culture, which draws upon pink femininity to embolden support for the cause.

Though there is nothing inherent to the color pink to suggest a relationship to the feminine, American culture has invested a lot of effort into creating and upholding a system in which pink and blue represent gender differences. In fact, according to professor of American studies, Jo Paoletti, there was no sex-assigned color designation prior to the twentieth century. Babies wore white, and when colors eventually entered the nursery parents adorned them in pink and blue interchangeably along with other colors. Gender differentiated color preferences emerged around the 1920s. At that time, pink (as a variant of the strong color red) was associated with boys and blue (a paler, daintier, and more delicate color) was reserved for girls. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the pink-blue gender designation started to shift, and then reverse. The rise of popular culture from the 1940s to the 1970s played a key role in the pink-blue gender reversal through the codification of pink femininity.

Lynn Peril’s book Pink Think shows how cultural leaders actively sought to create the new (and pink) feminine ideal. Using popular culture as a medium to transmit cultural mores and attitudes about the “gentler sex,” advice experts and advertisers portrayed girls as inherently soft, pure, and impressionable but also sly, mysterious, and prone to temper tantrums. They depicted women as equally duplicitous: moral, emotional, and nurturing but also seductive, manipulative, and secretive. Attractiveness and good beauty habits were crucial for both girls and women, requiring an array of feminine accoutrements—from ribbons, ruffles, and dresses to jewelry, cosmetics, and accessories. Pink became the signature color of the truly feminine.

Pink ribbon culture meshes seamlessly with pink think to feminize the cause of breast cancer. Imagery and discourse feature stereotypically feminine attitudes, traits, behaviors, and products as pink culture emphasizes women’s place in society, the importance of the cause from a moral standpoint, the centrality of women’s bodies, and ultimately the pink stuff designed specifically for women. With pink at the center, pink ribbon culture enables the cause to blend in with popular culture and capitalize on women’s aspirations to fulfill a particular feminine ideal.

First, the pink ribbon evokes feminine purity and virtue. Unlike diseases that may arise from socially condemned behaviors or lifestyles, breast cancer afflicts the innocent—mothers, daughters, grandmothers, friends, and wives who did nothing to bring the disease upon themselves and who, in fact, may have done everything they could think of to prevent it.  The cause of breast cancer has been constructed as a moral crusade, a domestic war to be fought by and for women.

Long before it was associated with pink, however, the moral war on breast cancer still relied on notions of women’s innate nurturance, emotional sensitivity, and selflessness. Women’s fortitude in the breast cancer war has always rested upon their traditional roles as the caregivers and nurturers of society, but their voluntary participation as soldiers in a pink army harks back to the 1930s Women’s Field Army (established by the American Society for the Control of Cancer, later known as the American Cancer Society), when uniformed women went door to door to spread the word about breast cancer in their communities.

Secondly, pink references a society that routinely equates women with their bodies. Restoring the feminine body after breast cancer, or at least normalizing its appearance, is a sign of victory in the war. Wigs, makeup, fashion, prosthetic breasts, and reconstruction help women to maintain a socially acceptable feminine appearance. The Look Good, Feel Better program literally equates beauty with hope, courage, and survivorship. The program features before/after photos of cancer patients to stress the importance of outward appearances. Though the women in these photos looked good before the makeover (with or without much hair), the after photos further feminized them with wigs, makeup, jewelry, and clothing.

Pink femininity sets the aesthetic bar high, and every day women face scrutiny based on appearances. It’s fine for women to wear makeup if they want to, but putting pressure on cancer patients to normalize their appearance for the sake of others also has the potential to hide what breast cancer and treatment does. Seeing a bald woman or a mastectomy scar exposes the truth about the impact of breast cancer on women’s bodies in a way that is very different from the imagery of those who appear to be restored.

Finally, pink symbolizes a love of feminine accoutrements—jewelry, clothing, cosmetics, perfumes, shoes, and accessories ad infinitum… all with a pink ribbon on top. Especially with the rise of cause marketing, pink ribbon culture sells a pink lifestyle. Women supporters of the cause should pamper themselves with pink products. A fashionable person can shop for the cure, laugh for the cure, drink wine for the cure, buy shoes for the cure, listen to music for the cure, get a massage for the cure, spend a weekend in a fancy hotel for the cure, test-drive a BMW for the cure, or use their pink tech for the cure. A four-page ad in Self magazine for the “Cure Card” reads: “Tell your mom, sister, and best friend—it’s time to go shopping…Get special offers, discounts, and more from your favorite retailers and brands… Discounts Galore…So go ahead … Treat Yourself to the Cure Card.” Pink ribbon culture encourages women consumers to treat themselves to the vast selection of pink products and feel-good activities in support of the cause.

Pink ribbon culture is pink for a reason. After decades of sustained use, the color pink easily conjures the imagery and discourse of normative femininity. The culture uses stereotypical norms to encourage all women to have a moral stake in the war and to participate in all of the goodness pink culture has to offer.

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1 comment to What’s In A Color?

  • Gail, Registere Nurse

    Interesting concepts! Blows my mind! I never knew that pink used to be a boys color. But also, the idea that people might feel like they have to look a certain way for other people and not themselves is terrible.

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* GAYLE IN THE MEDIA *

"Seeing clearly through the pink haze" Toronto Sun

*Sad face*: Being happy does not help you live longer" New Scientist

How should we address breast cancer when norms continually change? The Guardian

Your Fun 'No Bra Day' Photos Are Overshadowing Terminal Breast Cancer Patients Broadly

Backlash against “pinkwashing” of breast cancer awareness campaigns BMJ

Breast Cancer to Rise 50 Percent by 2030? Hey, Not So Fast! Health News Review

Breast Cancer: The Flaws in the Cause iafrica.com

How to Make the Biggest Impact With Your Breast Cancer Donations Money

The Very Pink, Very Controversial Business of Breast Cancer Awareness Racked

NFL, Pink Ribbons Not Enough to Win over Women CNN

3 Questions We Need to Answer for Breast Cancer Awareness Month Chronicle of Philanthropy

The problem with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month Women's Health Magazine

Pink Ribbon Envy: Living with an Uncool Cancer The Nib

A Year After Bombings, Some Say 'Boston Strong' Has Gone Overboard NPR, All Things Considered

Canadian Mammogram Study KCRW, NPR Affiliate

Time to Debunk the Mammography Myth CNN

Breast Cancer: Awareness, Activism & Pinkwashing NPR Charlotte

Buying Pink Al Jazeera's The Stream Watch »

The Pink Backlash Orlando Sentinel

Why Jolie's Test Costs So Much CNN

Preventative Mastectomies: Disease and Deception BlogTalkRadio

Angelina Jolie and the 'Breast Cancer Gene' KCRW

Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer The New York Times Magazine.

The Story Behind the Pink Ribbon Campaign Sisters Talk Radio

WISH Interview Women's International Summit for Health

Making Cancer About The Patient, Not The Body Part CBS Pittsburgh

Sexy breast cancer campaigns anger many patients USA Today

The perils of pink The Daily

Komen pink campaign creates breast-cancer blues for some Dallas Morning News

A yellow flag for the NFL's pink New York Daily

Gayle Sulik named #7 in SharecareNow’s Top 10 Online Influencers in Breast Cancer

Breast cancer cancer causes so easily derailed Philly Inquirer

Komen Charity Under Microscope for Funding, Science Reuters

The Fight Against Cancer - And Abortion? Salon.com

Susan G. Komen For the Cure defunds Planned Parenthood. In Deep with Angie Coiro

Amid Breast Cancer Month, Is there Pink Fatigue? NPR's All Things Considered

How is Breast Cancer Culture Undermining Women's Health? America’s Radio News Network

Pink Ribbon Culture and Breast Cancer The Kojo Nnamdi Show

The Big Business of Breast Cancer
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Does Breast Cancer Awareness Month Crowd Out Other Diseases? Slate

Pink Inc. Has Many Starting to See Red The Sacramento Bee

Get Your Pink Off Ottawa Citizen

Komen Pink Ribbons Raise Green and Questions USA Today

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