I understood it well enough when it started. Yellow ribbon = bring home the hostages. (Remember that, kids? Americans were being held hostage by Iran back in the late 1970s.) Even the hostages themselves wore yellow ribbons as a secret signal that they knew people back home cared about them.
To me, it made little sense and the message was just a tad “off.” The origin of the yellow ribbon meme (we didn’t call it that then) was in a song, “Tie a Yellow Ribbon ‘Round the Old Oak Tree,” which was about a prisoner coming home to find a celebration of “a hundred yellow ribbons” around the tree.
Which was okay as far as it went, prisoners coming home, yellow ribbons to celebrate. But in the song, the ribbons were an answer to the question “Do you still want me?” (after being in prison). Regarding the hostages, that wasn’t a question at all. Of course we still wanted them (except possibly the one who read the Koran while captive).
Later came the pink ribbons, for breast cancer awareness. I have problems with this, too. Pink is the color that in our present society represents girls, so you’d think that pink would be a good choice. But the fact is that men get breast cancer too. And there are other diseases such as endometriosis and cervical cancer that are unique to those with female reproductive organs. What color ribbon do they get?
Actually, there’s an answer for that.
Endometriosis awareness ribbons are yellow, which adds to the confusion about prisoners and hostages. Cervical cancer awareness ribbons are teal and white (combined).
The number of diseases and conditions associated with each color has proliferated. My personal cause, bipolar disorder, shares the ribbon color green with adrenal cancer, bone marrow donation, cerebral palsy, dwarfism, eye injury, gastroparesis, glaucoma, leukemia, literacy, neurofibromatosis, and stem cell research, to name but a few.
These days we are encouraged to wear or decorate our profile pictures with orange ribbons for gun control. But orange already signifies awareness of:
- Agent Orange
- Cultural Diversity
- Kidney Cancer – Renal Cell Carcinoma
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy (RSD) – Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS).
- Self Injury
- Sensory Processing Disorder
- Spinal Cancer
- Prader-Willi Syndrome
Admittedly, people who have those conditions and those who love them need support and awareness, but what does the ribbon actually mean when it means all of those things? Do people really go up to a ribbon-wearer and ask, “What are you wearing that ribbon for?” Or are they used only when a bunch of people gather who are advocating for the same thing, in which case why do they need ribbons?
The proliferation of ribbon colors is stunning, too. In addition to the green, yellow, pink, orange, and teal/white mentioned above, there are awareness ribbons in: black, blue (two-tone, blue/gray, denim jean blue, indigo, navy blue, light blue, robin’s egg blue, royal blue, pale blue), brown, burgundy, cloud (?), copper, cream, gray, gold, jade, peach, pearl, purple, puzzle (not technically a color), red, silver, teal, violet, yellow, and white, plus assorted combinations of the above and myriad shades of most. I could find only a few colors that represented a single condition or cause. And symbols proliferate, too: infinity, circle, star, butterfly, and even fox tail.
I once saw a person soliciting donations with a black-and-white cow-spotted ribbon, for a dairy farmer who’d lost his barn in a fire. A number of the other colored ribbons are used for fundraising too, particularly the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s pink ribbons, which can be found on nearly any piece of merchandise you’d care to name. But if you have a t-shirt with, say, a green ribbon design and a slogan about bipolar awareness, why do you need the ribbon at all? The slogan carries the necessary information.
Will ribbons for causes go out of vogue? Not soon, anyway. I’m not saying that all these causes and conditions don’t need awareness and understanding and fundraising. And there are certainly “orphan diseases” that don’t have the awareness factor that pink ribbons convey.
What I’m worried about is the signal-to-noise ratio. With all the combinations, what does any particular one mean? (I had to look them up on a chart to write this post – https://www.disabled-world.com/disability/awareness/ribbons.php.)
After all, what does a pink ribbon really convey? Self-check your breasts monthly? Get mammograms? Celebrate survivors? Give money?
Ribbons are easy to make and to wear, but knowing what to do about what they represent is a matter for education, not just awareness.