Over the years, the symbol of a looped pink ribbon has become synonymous with breast cancer. The figure-of-eight in Barbie pink fabric has come to represent the many charities raising money and awareness for the disease. It also encapsulates this whole strain of cancer and everything with which it associates. I’ve always thought of the pink ribbon as a symbol of hope and potential health in connection with a terrible illness close to everyone’s hearts. Because of the tender topic of cancer and the respect I’ve always had for the cause, I was shocked when I switched on my radio over Easter to hear about many women who oppose the goings on within the charities. A new film, directed by the Swiss-Canadian filmmaker Léa Pool, documents the anger at the over-commercialisation and widespread marketing born of the pink ribbon.
The iconic fuchsia symbol has had global success in increasing awareness and raising funds to support the constant struggle against breast cancer. But this has not stopped women across the world becoming angry at its use to represent what is a heartbreaking and painful disease. With pink being such a typical ‘girly’ colour, it’s easy to put the rebellion down at first to a minor aesthetic disagreement – perhaps coming from those who’d rather forget their dreaded ‘pink phase!’ So at first, I was sceptical of the claims. Surely the colour doesn’t really matter – the focus should be on the achievements of the charity itself, not a petty debate over what colour it should choose to correspond to. And yet, giving it more thought, pink is plastered across girls’ toyshop sections across the world, itappears everywhere to represent sweetness, femininity and innocence. Research has shown that psychologically, shades of pink are the most naturally soothing. And it’s these connotations which make up part of the frustration amongst women who have suffered from breast cancer: it is not something pretty, certainly not soothing, and not something that should be marketed as so.
Looking back to the origin of the pink ribbon, we find Charlotte Haley who, in 1992, made peach-coloured ribbons and distributed them in her local grocery stores. She asked people to wear the ribbons to raise awareness about breast cancer through word of mouth. Later that year, Estée Lauder attempted to work with her to widen the impact of the ribbon symbol. Charlotte refused their offers, believing the company would commercialise her idea – she was right. Estée Lauder changed the colour of the ribbon to the bright pink we all see and wear today. It was a huge success.
Adding to the worry that beauty companies are glamourising breast cancer, there is another huge and more serious concern. Many of the popular brands who extensively support breast cancer charities manufacture products containing synthetic chemicals known to be human carcinogens. Beauty care companies such as Revlon, Estée Lauder and Avon advertise their own campaigns in aid of breast cancer. But in spite of the awareness they raise, many of their products contain chemicals which could trigger the disease. This has become known as ‘pinkwashing,’ and has been sparking remonstration on a global level for a number of years. It seems more than slightly hypocritical that all of these companies shamelessly advertise their ‘support’ for sufferers using the pink ribbon. I began to understand why so many women are furious with its use. In these cases the ribbon seems to have become purely a commercial device, with companies’ interests in profit overruling the serious realities of a devastating sickness.
But this is not to say that we shouldn’t support the brilliant work of charities such as Breast Cancer Care and Breakthough Breast Cancer who do so much for an extremely worthy cause. Although it’s incredibly sad to see so many women hurt and upset by the misuse of pink, I can’t help thinking that this anger can be put to good use. If the controversy can be used to provoke new thoughts and inspire conversation, then surely it can do wonders in terms of raising awareness. Léa Pool’s feature documentary Pink Ribbon Inc was released last year to widespread acclaim. It shows the devastating realities of cancer as they are, asking the difficult question of where our support actually goes. We all know that we should all be wary of what the media spring on us, but letting our superstitions, emotions and questions out could really be the way forward for breast cancer charities. Hearing about women like Léa Pool, Charlotte Haley and many other breast cancer sufferers and survivors angry at the use of the pink ribbon really opened my eyes to a huge sense of frustration. Ultimately though, women are the only ones who can change this. Channelling anger into inspiration and creativity might just be the way to keep these important issues in the spotlight, and to pave the way for change.