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Raining Pink Ribbons


Excerpt from “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,” by Stacy Malkan. For more information about the science of breast cancer, the marketing of the pink ribbon and the founding of Breast Cancer Awareness Month by a chemical/pharmaceutical company, see chapter 6, Pinkwashing.

The pink ribbon was originally neither pink nor was it intended to be used as a marketing tool. It was a peach ribbon developed in the early 1990s by Charlotte Haley, who watched her daughter, sister and grandmother suffer from breast cancer. Angry and determined to start a grassroots movement, Charlotte sat down at her dining room table and crafted thousands of peach ribbons by hand. She bundled them into sets of five, each with a card that read: “The National Cancer Institute annual budget is $1.8 billion; only 5 percent goes for cancer prevention.” She distributed the bundles at her local supermarket and wrote to Dear Abby and other prominent women to call attention to the campaign (i).

At that time, breast cancer was just starting to come out of the closet, and a couple of major corporations had big plans. Estee Lauder and Self magazine teamed up to create the second annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month issue, and they envisioned a breast cancer ribbon displayed on cosmetics counters from coast to coast. But somebody already had a breast cancer ribbon, they were told. So they called up Charlotte Haley offering to partner with her and take her peach ribbon national.

“She wanted nothing to do with us. Said we were too commercial,” Self magazine editor Alexandra Penney explained to MAMM magazine. For Charlotte, the ribbon was a tool to inspire women to become politically active, not to sell products. But her vision was not to be realized. Estee Lauder and Self really wanted that ribbon. Their lawyers advised them to choose another color. They chose pink, a life-affirming color known for its calming, quieting, stress-reducing effects.

“In focus groups and studies, pink came out as something that was warm, happy, pleasant and playful, which is everything that breast cancer is not for women who are living with the disease,” says Brenda Salgado of Breast Cancer Action (www.thinkbeforeyoupink.org). “So that’s where the pink ribbon was born. And Charlotte Haley’s peach ribbon just kind of disappeared, inundated under pink ribbons ever after.”

i. Sandy Fernandez. “Pretty in Pink.” MAMM magazine June/July 1998.