Pink Ribbon


The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation (now Susan G. Komen for the Cure) is largely associated with the color pink and of course, the pink ribbon. The charity started giving pink visors to breast cancer survivors in its Race for the Cure in 1990, and in the fall of 1991 the foundation gave pink ribbons to every participant in its New York City race.

However, Komen did not create the pink ribbon. Nor was pink always the color associated with breast cancer. The pink ribbon was introduced as the official symbol for breast cancer awareness during National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in 1992 by Evelyn Lauder of the Estée Lauder Companies and then-editor of Self magazine Alexandra Penney. This was after the magazine was turned down by a 68-year-old woman who had already been giving out peach ribbons to raise awareness about the lack of funding for cancer prevention.

Charlotte Haley had several family members who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and she believed the National Cancer Institute had an obligation to focus more of its budget on cancer prevention. To bring attention to this Haley made peach ribbons, thousands of them, by hand in her dining room along with cards that said, “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 started contacting public women to spread the message and giving out the ribbons and the cards in her community.

Haley’s message was starting to spread at about the same time Evelyn Lauder (who had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989) joined forces with Alexandra Penney to collaborate on Self magazine’s second annual breast cancer awareness month issue. Lauder had been the guest editor of the first issue and was keen to expand upon its success. Penney and Lauder decided that the best way to do this was to create a ribbon that would be distributed at Lauder’s cosmetics counters around the country. As the plans for the special issue were getting underway Penney learned of Charlotte Haley’s peach ribbon.

Ribbon Queen

According to Penney, Self magazine contacted Haley for permission to use her peach ribbon, telling her they wanted nothing in return, only to give the ribbon national attention. To their surprise, Charlotte Haley wanted nothing to do with them. Haley was an activist working on the ground to raise awareness about breast cancer and federal funding. She had no interest in commercializing the ribbon or the disease. Self magazine, on the other hand, was a commercial enterprise. Haley’s refusal may have prophetic. The magazine was committed to moving forward with its plans. It just needed another color.

Pink. It was a safe as sugar and spice, a color to evoke traditional femininity and the goodness and decency it conveys.

Capitalizing on assumptions about women’s emotionality, beauty, morality, and nurturance, the pink ribbon symbolized both the virtuous and blameless aspects of breast cancer and the femininity the disease threatened.

Though it was essentially a variation on the red HIV/AIDS ribbon, breast cancer came without the same social stigma. Breast cancer was not associated with lifestyle factors that easily construe a “blame the victim” mentality. Breast cancer afflicted our mothers, sisters, wives, aunts, and grandmothers. Innocent bystanders.

Largely due to the work of the early breast cancer movement, breast cancer had already shifted from being something kept quiet to a topic of polite conversation. The pink ribbon set the stage for the strategic use of symbolism and mass media to influence public opinion about breast cancer. Then the disease-specific symbol transformed into a brand logo.

[See also: History of the Pink Ribbon by Sandy M. Fernandez]

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