The pink ribbon and October awareness: a history

ping ribbonThe pink ribbon started out peach-colored. But its roots lie with the yellow ribbon, which has symbolized support for absent loved ones for more than a century.

In 1973, Tony Orlando and Dawn released “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.” The Library of Congress traces the cultural ubiquity of the yellow ribbon to that song.

In January 1981 the country sprouted yellow ribbons to celebrate the return of U.S. hostages after 444 days in captivity in Iran.  Penney Laingen, the wife of one of the hostages, had tied yellow ribbons around trees at her Maryland home. In a television interview, she said:

It just came to me to give people something to do, rather than throw dog food at Iranians. I said, ‘Why don’t they tie a yellow ribbon around an old oak tree.’ That’s how it started.

Then there was the AIDs epidemic. In 1991, the New York-based Visual AIDS Artists Caucus launched a red ribbon to support those with AIDS and their caregivers.

Ribbons became de rigueur. The New York Times declared 1992 “The Year of the Ribbon.

The Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation had used pink as part of its branding since its founding in 1982. In 1990, Komen began giving breast cancer survivors who were running in its Race for the Cure bright pink visors. And in 1991, Komen gave pink ribbons to all breast cancer survivors and participants in the New York City Race for the Cure®, “a detail in the larger and more important story of the race.”

Charlotte Hayley

In 1992, Charlotte Hayley, 68, introduced the concept of a peach colored breast cancer awareness ribbon. Hayley’s grandmother died of breast cancer. Her sister and daughter also had breast cancer.

She felt breast cancer was not getting sufficient attention. So she launched a personal “effort to increase the collective consciousness about breast cancer by getting people to wear small peach-colored ribbons.”

She asked anyone who was interested to send her a self addressed and stamped envelope. She would tuck five ribbons in the envelope; each was attached to a card that read:

National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 Billion. Only 5% goes for cancer prevention. Help us to wake up our legislators and America by wearing this ribbon.

Self Magazine and Estee Lauder

In October 1991, Self published its first Breast Cancer Awareness issue. When Alexandra Penney was working on the 1992 issue, she was intrigued with Hayley’s peach ribbon. “I was passionate about finding a symbol that would be equally influential and conspicuous as the red ribbon,” she wrote in her 2010 memoir.

Then things got a little messy:

Self magazine called [Hayley].

“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.

Penney turned to Evelyn H. Lauder for help; Estée Lauder distributed  1.5 million ribbons at its cosmetics counters. As part of the awareness campaign, they included a laminated card describing a proper breast self-exam.

In the October 1992 issue of Self magazine, Penney wrote:

I’m sure you’ve seen the red ribbon symbolizing AIDS awareness on lots of lapels. Now there’s a pink ribbon for “Breast Cancer Awareness”. We’ll be collecting signatures from all of you who write us for a ribbon or who go to an Estee Lauder counter for one, and I’ll take the signatures to Washington as a reminder to the President that breast cancer research and treatment should remain a top priority. 

Lauder went on to found the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, a four-star charity from Charity Navigator.

October awareness

October as breast cancer awareness month launched in 1985 as a “partnership between the American Cancer Society and the pharmaceutical division of Imperial Chemical Industries (now part of AstraZeneca, producer of several anti-breast cancer drugs).”

Today, consumers are inundated with PinkTober promotions. From the NYTimes, 2015:

Breast cancer awareness, critics charge, has become a sort of feel-good catchall, associated with screening and early detection, and the ubiquitous pink a marketing opportunity for companies of all types.

For all the awareness, they note, breast cancer incidence has been nearly flat and there still is no cure for women whose cancer has spread beyond the breast to other organs, like the liver or bones…  

“The pinkification of the month of October, from football cleats to coffee cups, isn’t helping women,” said Cindy Pearson, the executive director of the National Women’s Health Network, an advocacy organization…

On Oct. 2, the start of this year’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the National Breast Cancer Coalition, a nonprofit organization representing breast cancer groups across the country, put out a news release calling for “action, not awareness,” and for channeling billions of dollars that pay for awareness campaigns toward research instead.

Before you donate, walk or buy products, please check out the ratings at Charity Navigator. And learn more at Think Before You Pink.



Pink ribbon by MesserWoland [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


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