This month, the world glows pink with the “light of hope” that was first lit by Evelyn Lauder 12 years ago. New national and international landmarks such as Mumbai’s Bandra-Worli Sea Link and Dubai’s Burj al Arab join established stalwarts like New York’s Empire State Building and Belgium’s Amsterdam Bridge to remind women about the need for annual breast cancer checkups, thereby saving millions of lives across the globe.
But why pink? And while we are at it, why is breast cancer denoted by a ribbon? Rather than, say, a white flag? Where did the pink ribbon come from, where is it going and what has it meant along the way?
It began with yellow oak trees
Back in the 19th century, when the US Cavalry Soldiers traditionally wore a yellow scarf around their neck, one would see whole villages of women tying yellow ribbons in their hair to signify their devotion to a sweetheart away at war. There was even a traditional folk song that went ‘Round Her Neck She Wears a Yeller Ribbon, which later inspired the John Wayne movie She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.Around her hair she wore a yellow ribbon She wore it in the springtime In the merry month of May
And if you ask her why the heck she wore it
She wore it for her soldier who was far far away
Nobody knows the exact origins of these words but they have existed in various versions for almost 400 years now – reaching their zenith in 1973’s Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree by Irwin Levine and L. Russell Brown, written at the end of the Vietnam War.
Then came 1979, the year that Penney Laingen, wife of a hostage in Iran, was inspired by the song to tie yellow ribbons around trees in her front yard. Millions of yellow ribbons sprouted up across the country in solidarity. For the first time, ribbon became medium, ribbon became message. That was step one.
Then came red
The second major step was taken 11 years later, when AIDS activists looked at the yellow ribbons that dotted the landscape for soldiers fighting the Gulf War and said, “What about something for our boys dying here at home?” So, the ribbon became bright red — “because it’s the colour of passion” — and was sent on the Tony awards stage, prominently pinned to the chest of actor Jeremy Irons.
Ribbons had arrived. Almost overnight, every charitable cause had to have one. In fact, they quickly became so ubiquitous that The New York Times declared 1992 “The Year of the Ribbon”.
The stage was set for the breast cancer ribbon.
How pink got into the cancer business
The very first breast cancer ribbon was actually not pink. It was peach. And it was the brainchild of a 68-year-old Charlotte Haley, the granddaughter, sister and mother of women who had battled breast cancer (the disease is often genetic). These peach-coloured loops were handmade in her dining room and handed out along with a card asking women to campaign for higher funding towards breast cancer prevention. In the meantime, the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation had been handing out bright pink visors to breast cancer survivors running in its Race for the Cure since 1990. These were, however, just mere stepping stones. To really reach its true potential, there had to be a unanimous symbol for breast cancer worldwide and then there needed to be a situation in which this symbol was the event.
The situation came soon enough. In 1992, Alexandra Penney, Editor-in-Chief of Self, had an inspiration while designing the magazine’s annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month issue: create a ribbon and enlist Estée Lauder, the cosmetics giant that had fronted previous breast cancer initiatives, to distribute it in New York City stores. Breast cancer survivor Evelyn Lauder, daughter-in-law of Estée Lauder, went one better: she promised to put the ribbon on cosmetics counters across the country. The colour, as yet, was undecided.
Then they heard about Haley and 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 explained in an interview, years later. “She wanted nothing to do with us. Said we were too commercial. We didn’t want to crowd her but we really wanted to do a ribbon.”
So, they chose pink. Almost randomly. Because, sometimes, semiotic symbols are born simply by chance or accident.
In the Fall of 1992, Estée Lauder handed out 1.5 million ribbons, each accompanied by a card describing a proper breast self-exam. They also collected over 200,000 pink ribbon petitions urging the government to push for increased funding for research.
The pink ribbon had arrived.
In 1993, Pink Ribbon petitions were delivered by Evelyn Lauder and Alexandra Penney to First Lady Hillary Clinton at The White House, urging government support for breast cancer awareness. Subsequently, President Bill Clinton signed a proclamation naming October 19th as ‘National Mammography Day’.
Jumping on the bandwagon
Then Avon jumped into the fold. About two inches long, the original Avon pink ribbon (issued in 1993) was a formidable piece of jewellery – half pink enamel and half gold cast, winced in the middle by a flowering gold rose. In it’s first two years, the pin raised US$10 million.
Later that year, Estée Lauder introduced a heart-shaped compact with an enameled pink ribbon design, whose profits would go to its Breast Cancer Research Fund. The Susan G. Komen Foundation started offering a pink rhinestone brooch. Carolee Jewelry created one with a female runner in midstride, flowing ribbon in hand. Teddy bears, sports clothes, credit cards, bed linen, perfumes… name it and there was a version of the original Estée Lauder pink ribbon to match!
But it was not all about publicity and profits. Between 1991 and 1996, federal funding for breast cancer research increased nearly fourfold to over $550 million. And after increasing for more than two decades, breast cancer incidence rates began dropping from 2002 onwards. That’s not all: according to the American Cancer Society, the percentage of women getting annual mammograms and clinical breast exams has more than doubled over the last decade. Most importantly, it wasn’t just in the USA – the movement was worldwide and so were the results.
And while the pink ribbon was essentially an Estée Lauder creation, the company had no qualms about letting it be used by thousands of brands worldwide to create products that would increase awareness about breast cancer and bring in money for the cause.
Because that, after all, is the only thing that matters.
Weaving in the blue
In 1996, the pink and blue ribbon was designed by Nancy Nick, president and founder of the John W. Nick Foundation to bring awareness that “Men Get Breast Cancer Too!”. Later, a blue stone was added to the Estée Lauder Jeweled Pink Ribbon Pin to represent the 1% of all breast cancer cases that are diagnosed in men.
The light of hope
By the year 2000, Evelyn Lauder knew that someone had to start going further than pink ribbons. So, she launched the Global Landmark Illuminations Initiative to focus further attention on the importance of breast health and early detection. In its first year, 26 landmarks in 22 countries were lit in bright pink lights, including New York’s Empire State Building, Sydney’s Opera House and Italy’s Tower of Pisa.
By 2010, 38 global historic landmarks had joined the project, including Esterházy Castle (Austria), Niagara Falls (Canada), Zappeion (Greece), Taj Mahal Palace Hotel (India) and The Peninsula Hotel (Hong Kong). Pink had gone global and the BCA Campaign set a Guinness World Record entitled ‘Most Landmarks Illuminated for a Cause in 24 Hours’.
To date, over over 600 landmarks have been illuminated across 70 countries. And even though a few detractors question the effectiveness of this campaign, the fact remains that Estée Lauder has managed to link the colour pink with breast cancer so effectively that worldwide, when you see a pink-hued building looming on the horizon, it makes you pause. And think. And maybe take that life saving mammography test.
And that, in the truest sense is the achievement of ‘pink’ and the women who brought this lethal disease – which affects everyone yet was spoken about by none due to social and cultural constraints – into the global limelight. With every single woman (or man) who defeats breast cancer, the campaign gains a victory. So, go and visit the part of your city that has become a beacon for this glowing cause. Pause for a minute and think of all those who have gone before. And then take that test. TODAY.