The Story of the Pink Ribbon

We’re more than halfway through October, and everywhere you look there’s pink. Pink ribbons, pink labels on products at the grocery store, and pink on NFL players’ shoes. Breast Cancer Awareness month has been associated with the color pink, and pink ribbons for decades, but how did all this color and ribbon symbolism come about?

First of all, there was the yellow ribbon, which burst onto the national consciousness in the late ‘70s. Penne Laingen’s husband Bruce was one of 52 American diplomats and citizens taken hostage in Iran in 1979. During the 444 days they were held in captivity, she decided to tie a yellow ribbon around an oak tree in her front yard to represent her hope that he’d return, motivated partly by the smash hit Tony Orlando song “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the ‘Ole Oak Tree.” Soon it seemed like everyone in America had a yellow ribbon on a tree in support.

Then, came the red ribbon to symbolize the HIV/AIDS crisis in the early ‘90s. A group of artists got together to brainstorm a symbol, and inspired by the yellow ribbon, they changed it to red to symbolize blood, anger and love, looped it and created a pin. Guests and presenters at the 1991 Tony Awards all wore them, and a movement was born.

The color pink has been used by the Susan G. Komen for the Cure group since the ‘80s, and the group’s first Race for the Cure logo was an abstract design of a female runner outlined in a pink ribbon. In 1991, the organization distributed pink ribbons to all breast cancer survivors and participants in the annual race in New York City.

In 1992, the editor-in-chief of Self Magazine was looking for something to make the magazine’s second annual Breast Cancer Awareness Month issue stand out, so she created a looped pink ribbon pin, and convinced big cosmetics companies to distribute them in stores throughout New York City. And so the color pink, and the pink ribbon, came to symbolize the fight against breast cancer in America.

One of the more visible examples of “Pink October,” as it’s come to be called, has been during NFL games. Starting in 2009, the NFL added pink touches to football fields and players’ uniforms, to raise money and awareness for breast cancer screenings and education. But a few years ago, in response to players whose family members had suffered from other forms of cancer, commissioner Roger Goodell decided to expand the NFL cancer awareness platform to include other types of cancer in 2017. The teams themselves now have a say about which type of cancer awareness they’ll promote during the season — likely one that the players or coaches families have a personal connection to. So, we’ll still likely see some pink on the fields in October, but we’ll see some other colors during the season too.