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.
What do you think about ribbons or bracelets as a form of advocacy / awareness-raising? Do you wear them or buy them?
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The ICU was created by Brian Lobel and Complicite, in collaboration with South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust. Web design by Chipp Jansen, films by Simon Eves and design by StudioThreeSixty. It was made possible by support from the Cultural Institute at King's College London, the Wellcome Trust and the National Theatre.