XU JING, CHEN DAN and Lisa Torres appear on giant banners, wearing nothing but pink ribbon. Standing 10-metres tall, they flank the entrance to the Shangmei Gynaecological Hospital in Changsha, Hunan province, like protective deities in a temple. Their message to women: Love yourselves, take care of your health. The trio, all presenters for the Hunan Television group, were the public faces for a cancer prevention programme organised by the women's group Beauty Alliance. But one month after its launch, the banners are all that's left of the public awareness campaign. In early June, the three young women stopped traffic in the provincial capital when they appeared on posters, nude from the waist up, clad in only a strip of pink cloth, their breasts strategically covered by hands and hair. Sponsored by Shangmei, the campaign called on local women to conduct regular breast checks and take responsibility for their health. The poster appeared on 250 bus stops across the city, emblazoned with the Chinese characters 'Smart Women Love Themselves More'. Then Changsha, a city known for producing some of the most audacious entertainment on the mainland, choked on its own daring. Local newspapers first played up the trio's nudity, then condemned it. Diatribes filled internet chat rooms and bulletin boards. Speculation ran high over the morals and motives of the three women, but nobody mentioned breast cancer. As controversy raged, the station took the women off the air. By the end of last month, the posters had almost vanished from bus stops and the row has subsided. The call for women's health is reduced to an echo. Beauty Alliance founder Wang Xiaohua doesn't regret the high-profile campaign. 'We just wanted to express ourselves,' says the 23-year-old advertising agency director. Better known by her nickname 'Yaya', Wang says she and her friends initially formed the group just to have fun, but it soon became a platform for promoting women's health. 'We're children of the 1980s,' she says. 'People say we don't care about anything, but we're outspoken and engaged. We use new ways to pursue traditional goals like family and health.' They decided to focus on breast cancer, the No. 1 killer of women worldwide. In China, deaths from breast cancer have risen by 40 per cent over the past decade to about 40,000 last year. More than 200,000 women are diagnosed with the disease each year, with the incidence growing by 3 per cent annually. Despite the prevalence, most people remain ignorant about the disease. In recent years, health campaigners have stepped up education activities, taking a cue from Pink Ribbon, a movement for breast cancer prevention and awareness established in the US in 1992. The Shanghai Breast Cancer Prevention and Education Base highlighted the issue in 2003 by mounting a giant neon-lit ribbon on a ship sailing the Huangpu River. For most Chinese women, however, the first inkling of the campaign was when actresses Christy Chung Lai-tai, Wu Junmei and Li Bingbing shed all on the October 2005 cover of Trend Health magazine to promote Pink Ribbon. This was the image that inspired Beauty Alliance to paint Hunan pink. 'Almost everyone in our group comes from strong feminine upbringings,' says Wang. 'Whether due to divorce, forced separation or a deceased father, we were almost all raised by our mums.' From their modest ranks of about 20 members, the group chose as campaign frontwomen Xu, who worked for Hunan Education Channel, and Chen and Torres from Changsha Women's Channel. The trio did not undertake the mission lightly. Xu was motivated by her mother's experience with breast problems, two years ago. 'It took six months to cure and we worried,' she says. 'Women in China rarely care for their bodies, but she'd heard about breast cancer and got scared. We all did. So, when I was asked to do the ad, I remembered my mum's scare and thought, 'I've got to let people know.'' The waifish half-Filipino Torres was also encouraged by her mother, who had raised her single-handedly. 'When the Alliance chose us, I wondered if we were ready, but my mum immediately agreed,' she says. 'She had a tumour once. She checked regularly and got it removed, but she had friends who didn't, and suffered pretty badly.' They were conscious that their daring stance might not go down well with some sections of the community. 'I knew some people wouldn't understand,' says Chen. 'I struggled with myself before doing this, but I knew somebody had to. Women have to speak out for what they want.' Chen's father died while she was a child, and her mother, a factory worker, raised the family on her own. 'I deeply respect her,' she says. 'I owe her everything, and this is one way I can repay her. Self-sacrifice runs so deep here and I don't object; I just think that women should sometimes sacrifice for themselves.' Although the women had the support of family and friends, public reaction was harder to gauge. They shot the ad on June 5, and the result appeared citywide, two days later. 'We got almost immediate feedback,' Wang says. 'Negative reports began to flow in. Chat rooms filled with insults. Within three days, it was out of control. We needed the media to help us respond.' Instead, local media turned on them, lambasting the ad as being disrespectful to women and damaging to the image of television presenters. Most accused the women of taking money from the hospital or self-promotion. 'I was stunned. I had no idea they'd react like this,' says Wang. 'I never guessed it would get so big,' says Torres, a music major at the Foreign Economic Institute at the time. 'Everything I said was quoted out of context and twisted around. It was all 'cut and paste' to make us look bad,' she says. 'And the worst part was that nobody even mentioned Pink Ribbon.' The backlash is remarkable when the Trend Health cover ran without incident last year. Some attribute the furore to the fact that the actresses were more removed from people's lives, while the Hunan women were local television presenters and technically national employees. Plus, the magazine was only found on news stands while the Smart Women ads were prominently displayed on city streets. Wang suggests newspapers had hyped the controversy to boost sales, citing how a reporter friend pressed her for an interview, but used the material to condemn the group. 'When I confronted him, he said, 'Everyone's writing this. How can I write anything else?'' In the wake of the controversy, the Hunan Propaganda Department issued a gag order on media reports about Pink Ribbon. Employees of Hunan Television were barred from participating in Pink Ribbon-related activities. The women were suspended and urged to apologise. Chen did and saved her job. But Xu refused and left to join the Politics and Law Station as a newscaster. Torres, too, lost her television job, although she was not suspended by her school. Media insiders say Hunan Television's action were a bid to avoid censure by Beijing. The station had been particularly wary since the ratings and revenue for its wildly popular American Idol-style Super Girl programme surpassed those for the spring festival gala show from national broadcaster CCTV, drawing criticism from culture officials for promoting vulgar standards. Fearing they may be vulnerable to attack over the Pink Ribbon ads, Hunan Television authorities sacrificed the presenters. But the incident seems to have strengthened the women's resolve to carry on with public awareness work. 'I'm really interested in public service now,' says Xu. 'All these years in media, I was never fulfilled. Now I feel a sense of accomplishment. Even though people criticised us, we're getting more people to understand women's health. It's probably the first time anyone in Hunan has done that.' Torres, too, is proud of what she did, although she sometimes misses her television job. 'Many people are still ashamed to talk about women's health,' she says. 'I'm looking forward to visiting college campuses next school year and engaging more people in discussion.' Chen, however, says she will avoid activities that may clash with her job. 'Whether or not I continue to do Pink Ribbon work, I will always stand on the side of women's health,' she says. 'I will use my job on television to promote this.' Although the posters came down early, Wang says the group has made progress. They have, at least, persuaded Shangmei to offer discounted annual breast examinations for 20 yuan. Having weathered the storm, Beauty Alliance is now regrouping for its next health campaign and an online auction to raise funds for breast cancer education. In fact, the controversy has shored up her confidence, Wang says. 'To think that such young girls could make the whole nation take notice. It's amazing. There are too many people suffering out there. The important thing is to try and help them.'