Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Mythbusting 'Feminine Hygiene' Products

For the longest time it has irked me that I can walk into any given pharmacy and not find a single packet of female condoms[1], but be faced instead with entire aisles of products devoted to treating and hiding the natural odors of the female genitalia. This is what they look like, in case you’re unfamiliar:

These products come in the forms of wipes, douches, sprays, and body washes. The myth that fuels their production is that the vulva is somehow naturally unclean and produces odors which are universally unappealing and shameful. These odors and dirtiness cannot be removed with regular soap and water, supposedly, so instead women are invited to choose from a range of products to take care of this eternal female hardship. The products claim to ‘cure’ natural feminine odors by cleaning the vulva (again, with some mysteriously undefined method that ordinary soaps cannot emulate) and balancing its PH.
The assumption that the vulva is unclean in its natural state is just untrue. In actuality the healthy vagina constantly cleans itself with its own natural discharge, which functions in a similar way to saliva in the mouth[2]. The vagina also naturally harbors bacteria, particularly Lactobacillus acidophilus, which is very important to controlling populations of yeast (also naturally occurring and normal) and discouraging other unwanted microbes from proliferating[3]. Most vaginas have this whole thing pretty much downpat and don’t need any help from questionably motivated hygiene companies. In fact, these products usually cause much more harm than good: the harsh chemicals used in most vaginal douches, washes and wipes get rid of Lactobacillus acidophilus as well as unwanted bacteria. Douching can even push these bacteria further in and increase the likelihood of infection. Furthermore, the perfumes in these products are a common allergen and a lamentably preventable cause of yeast infections (which happens when the pre-existing yeast colonies in the vulva get out of control, often because of the absence of Lactobacillus acidophilus).
The companies which market feminine hygiene products frequently reference PH balance and general vaginal health, but only as far as they can without revealing the redundancy of their own contribution. I.e., PH balance is presented as something that has to be achieved through artificial means, not as the natural state of the healthy, unassisted vagina. Likewise, it’s suggested (or stated outright) that the natural smells of the vulva are always unpleasant, and that cleaning and scenting products are the only means to keep your vulva from repulsing everyone around you. Because these are aromas that occur during the normal cycle of the healthy vagina, scented products are unlikely to cover them up for very long. For smells which aren’t normal and healthy, there is usually a medical explanation that should treated under the advice of a doctor, and not self-medicated with feminine deodorants which only aggravate infections.
These products depend upon women not knowing how their bodies work or what they’re supposed to smell like. Their marketing combines references to the natural, allegedly undesirable odors of the female body with pseudo-scientific mentions of PH balance and vaginal health, and the occasional feel-good girls-against-the-world sentiment. These ads tend to have a lot in common with the tampon and pad ads I explored last year. See the advertisements below.

Here Femfresh manage to insidiously connect the ideal of female self-love with their range of vaginal liquid soaps, deodorant sprays and wipes, without even using the words ‘vagina’ or ‘vulva’. Instead they rely upon a range of far-fetched euphemisms[4] (‘Yoni’ sounds like it could be a frozen yoghurt brand, and I have never heard anyone say ‘froo-froo’, in any context) to make their point. The implication is that their products are designed primarily to address a health concern, and not as a cover-up for female odors and a deterrent for the shame associated with them.
This ad extends the covering-up process enabled by their product to the very language they expect women to use when referring to their own bodies, and implies that it is only with their help that women can ‘love’ their vagina. Not by masturbating or having sex or anything though. Just keeping it tidy.
The passage about the dangers of regular shower gels and soaps has some truth – for many women, use of any soap can be irritating and can increase the likelihood of yeast infections – but the solution to this is not some new revolutionary Femfresh product. Actually, because the vagina is so good at cleaning itself, most women can just use warm water without any soap at all and have a perfectly hygienic, healthy vulva. Certainly it’s never necessary to use soap inside the vagina.

The underlying ugliness of these products seems to seep through even comparatively good marketing. I like that this ad associates traditionally feminine dress and appearance with the supposedly male characteristic of courage. But I don’t like that it’s being linked back to being ‘clean and fresh’ ‘down there’ (again with the inability of advertisers to say vulva) with the help of artificial cleansing products. It makes the whole ad seem sort of patronizing.

This one from Summer’s Eve really takes the cake though. The company actually has the nerve to submit vaginal cleansing with their product as the number one thing a woman should do before asking for a raise at work. This ad received a tremendously negative response, unsurprisingly, and was quickly removed from circulation, but the underlying implication – that a woman’s worth ultimately comes down to the condition of her body, and particularly her vagina – is still clearly prominent[5].

These products participate in wider myths about how the vulva is supposed to be and who gets to have opinions about it. They perpetuate and profit off unnecessary body shame, and prioritize the pleasing of other people (including employers, bizarrely) over personal health. Moreover, their marketing implies that feeling socially acceptable is essential to a woman’s confidence and self-esteem. And beyond all that, they’re not even good for the vulva! I look forward to the day when there’s no longer a market for this kind of nonsense.

[1] Recently, in fact, my local pharmacy has decided to remove their condom section entirely. Interesting decision.
[2] “Vaginal Discharge: Knowing the Difference Between Normal Discharge and Infections”. McKinley Health Centre. Accessed Jan 15th, 2014. http://www.mckinley.illinois.edu/handouts/vaginal_discharge.html
[3] Winston, Sherri. “Vaginal Ecology: an Owner’s Guide to Care and Maintenance”.
[4] Here is a list of intentionally ironic euphemisms I have created for possible substitution: brouhaha, hogwash, claptrap, humbug.
[5] Kiefaber, David. “Summer’s Eve Ad: Douche More, Earn More.” Adweek.com. Accessed 15.1.14. http://www.adweek.com/adfreak/summers-eve-ad-douche-more-earn-more-12304


  1. Solid post, really liked it. These ads are straight up ridiculous, though I don't think I've actually ever seen any of these or anything like them before. Maybe they're put in women's magazines or something.

    Funny how they're afraid of using the proper words. Reminds me of the rare times my mum swears, you can just tell how uncomfortable she is with the word.

    'Yoni' actually means vulva/vagina in Sanskrit, pretty much the equivalent of phallus, eg 'that orchid looks pretty yonic.'

    - Nicholas

  2. Replies
    1. Those are considerably less terrible than tampons, but still not great. I tend to use a mooncup, which is environmentally sustainable and body-friendly. :)

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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