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.
Ten Things Wrong With the Pink Ribbon
A version of this post first appeared on Nancy Stordahl’s blog, Nancy’s Point.
What’s wrong with the pink ribbon anyway?
I’ve been asked this question more than a few times. It seems like a fair question, so I thought I’d share some thoughts about why the pink ribbon has lost its appeal to many, including me.
There’s nothing wrong with pink. There’s nothing wrong with ribbons. Pink is just a color and ribbons are just ribbons…
Of course the particular ribbon that has come under such intense scrutiny of late is the pink ribbon. I wonder if there is anyone who hasn’t at least seen the pink ribbon. It turns up almost everywhere these days and not just in the Breast Cancer Awareness Month of October anymore. And this is part of the problem. It’s everywhere.
What may have been a good idea or symbol at one time quickly became overused and then misused.
It reminds me of when parents, coaches and yes, educators hand out ribbons to kids for everything. In an overzealous attempt to make all kids feel good, sometimes there can be too many “ribbons” handed out, literally and figuratively. When something is handed out too often, it loses meaning.
But back to the mother of all ribbons…
The problems with the pink ribbon continue to mount. For starters, I compiled a list of ten problems.
- The pink ribbon has lost its effectiveness, becoming merely a marketing tool to sell stuff and I mean lots of stuff. Products adorning pink ribbons are everywhere. And the very fact that breast cancer awareness is so literally “tied into” shopping is in itself very questionable if not blatantly sexist. Why is breast cancer the “shopping disease”?
- When utilizing this pretty pink marketing tool, the intent is not only to sell a product; it’s to sell good will as well. Everyone is supposed to feel good about buying pink stuff with pink ribbons on it.
Pretty pink ribbon = good cause/good feelings for all.
Pink ribbons are too often used in an under-handed way to make consumers feel good about what they are buying and who they are buying from. In other words, pink ribbons boost profits and image for a corporation or organization at the same time. Pretty good bang for your advertising buck wouldn’t you say?
- However, pink ribbons can be and often are misleading. Sometimes the sale of a product with a pink ribbon on it results in not one dollar or even one penny going to breast cancer anything. Or sometimes there is a “cap” on how much will be donated no matter how many dollars get raked in.
- Too often the product adorning the ribbon is questionable, or even actually “tied” to possibly contributing to cancer risk. Here are a few examples of controversial pink products.
- Many find pink ribbons to be insulting as they seem to represent an attempt to “dress up” breast cancer and to portray it as the feminine, pretty, almost acceptable kind of cancer. It’s a tidy way to “package” breast cancer.
- And of course, pink ribbons represent females. Where does this leave the men who get breast cancer? As outcasts, that’s where.
- Next, let’s not forget all that hope, faith and courage stuff. The pink ribbon is often used to represent hope, faith and courage; which is fine to a point. I’m not against hope. I’m certainly not against faith or courage either. No one is.
But when hope, faith and courage become entangled with a pink ribbon, are we unintentionally suggesting that women quietly and demurely sit back and accept their breast cancer and the lack of progress in prevention and treatment, much less a cure?
Is the message, even if unintentional, just remain hopeful and you’ll be fine? Think about it. Is this really such a stretch? Remember all that sugar and spice nonsense?
- The pink ribbon has turned into the “bully of ribbons” by overshadowing all the rest of the ribbons.
What about all those other colored ribbons? What about all those other diseases? I wonder how many people can name even one other colored ribbon and its “matching” disease. Don’t feel badly if you can’t. You are not alone.
- And of course, there are too many to count lame attempts to make breast cancer awareness campaigns sexy or more light-hearted by adorning those sassy pink ribbons here, there and everywhere. Sexism is alive and well in breast cancer land.
- Finally, the pink ribbon has been around for decades now and the results just are not good enough.
If you measure results in the only way that truly matters — fewer deaths from breast cancer — this has not been the outcome from all that ribboning. Every year breast cancer continues to claim about 40,000 lives in the United States alone.
So there you have it, a list of ten things wrong with the pink ribbon. I’m sure I’ve missed a few. It’s time to untie, retie, throw out or at least get the knots out of this pink ribbon, don’t you agree.