Pink Power: How Pink Ribbons Came To Stand For Breast Cancer Awareness

Today’s powerful pink ribbon — the international symbol of breast cancer awareness — had a humble beginning. It started with one person’s passionate crusade to convince the federal government to set aside more money for breast cancer research with a peach ribbon. Then, other advocates began producing small pink ribbons in the 1990s.

Since then, pink ribbons have become one of the most recognized icons for awareness. Pink ribbons can be inspiring, encouraging — and sometimes controversial.

Photo: AdobeStock/mangostock
Photo: AdobeStock/mangostock



The story of using ribbons for breast cancer awareness goes back to 1979, according to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. At that time, the wife of a hostage in Iran tied a yellow ribbon around a tree to signify support for her husband’s return home. In 1990, AIDS activists turned yellow ribbons in support of the Gulf War into smaller, looped red ribbons to signify AIDS awareness.

Susan G. Komen for the Cure had used the color pink since the organization’s founding in 1982. A stylized pink runner symbolized the group’s run for a cure starting in the mid-1980s.

The breakthrough came in 1992 when Self magazine ran a spread on pink ribbons for the second annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In the first race, each participant had pink ribbons to wear, so the magazine distributed these ribbons all over New York for the second race and the idea grew from there. However, Self found its own inspiration for pink ribbons thanks to one woman’s passion.


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Charlotte Haley

In 1991, Charlotte Haley wrote to members of Congress and prominent women about how breast cancer research didn’t receive enough funding. In addition to letters, Haley handed out simple cards and handmade peach-colored ribbons at her local grocery store, notes Think Before Your Pink. Each card stated, “The National Cancer Institute’s 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’s quest was personal. Her grandmother, sister and daughter all battled breast cancer. By the time Self magazine interviewed her, Haley already distributed thousands of peach-colored ribbons. Taking its cue from Haley, Self magazine worked with Estée Lauder to create looped ribbons that people could pin to their shirts. Haley had chosen not to work with commercial interests, so they turned her peach ribbons pink — and an international marketing sensation became a reality.


Distribution and Marketing

In 1992, Estée Lauder distributed 1.5 million ribbons made from grosgrain material in the color “150 pink.” At the time of this huge campaign, the makeup company also had a personal connection to breast cancer. The previous year, Self magazine ran a story by guest editor Evelyn Lauder, an executive at Estée Lauder who survived breast cancer herself. For the second annual run for a cure, the company promised to distribute ribbons at every makeup counter in the United States.

The phenomenon of the pink ribbon had begun. In just four years after Estée Lauder’s push, nearly 100 companies made pink ribbons or products that showcased pink ribbons. Nowadays, many more companies tout pink ribbons on products as a way for consumers to assist companies that support breast cancer research, says Think Before You Pink. Haley’s initial run of thousands of homemade ribbons turned into a massive awareness campaign across many industries, product lines and charities.


Haley passed away in February 2014 at the age of 91, according to Breast Cancer Action, but her worldwide legacy lives on thanks to the offshoots of her original grassroots efforts. The documentary “Pink Ribbons, Inc.” shows how she created her handmade ribbons and simple cards as a personal crusade to help find a cure for breast cancer.

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