One of the issues that often gets all wrapped up in feminism and empowerment is vaginal odor. How are vaginas supposed to smell? How are we supposed to clean them? These are surprisingly fraught questions, considering we don’t think that hard about any other part of our bodies. I don’t see a lot of political groups campaigning against deodorant or shampoo, though sexism is rampant in those ads as well. But feminists get really angry about advertising for any sort of vaginal hygiene product. I’m not going to say that those ads aren’t regularly sexist, because they are. The difference is that instead of attacking the sexist ad campaign, people are opposing the product being advertised.
Here’s an example. This is a men’s deodorant ad. It’s a fairly typical sexualized rendition of a woman, with the added bonus that she is rendered non-threatening by cooking a turkey in a 1950’s style oven (subtle, right?). The tag line, “Can she make you lose control?” tells us how desirable she is, and that this deodorant is SO amazing that you can look at her and not get all sweaty. Right. I’m not going to even bother with the issues of male sexuality and their depiction in mass media in this post, so that’s enough said for that ad.
Switch to a women’s deodorant ad. Here we have…well…a fairly typical sexualized rendition of a woman, though in this case she is posed to be less “come-hither” and more “look-at-me!” But here we’re supposed to want to BE the woman, because she is brave, and look at how she waves that scarf around. We’re ready to expose our skin because this product has made that skin acceptable to be seen in public. (Don’t even get me started on advertising for razor blades along those lines.)
My point is, we can look at these ads and say “why yes, those are sexist and stupid,” without throwing away all our deodorant.
Here’s my stance on the whole line of vaginal hygiene products. Douching, and anything that is designed to rinse out the inside of your vagina is scary and dangerous and bad for you. Don’t do it. However, a lot of the companies that make douches also make body washes designed to be used externally, that clean your vulva without interfering with the natural pH levels the way soap does. I think that’s pretty great. Eve Ensler wrote, in the ever-famous Vagina Monologues, “I don’t want my pussy to smell like rain.” I don’t either, Eve. However, I also don’t want it to smell like I just came home from the gym – you know, after I come home from the gym. I don’t want lingering male fluids getting unpleasant after I have sex. And I don’t agree that “just water” is the right way to clean it. It’s true that soap is harsh and you shouldn’t use it. But for fuck’s sake, it’s 2013, and science has produced products that you CAN use on your vulva and not screw up your pH balance. And you can buy ones that smell like nothing. Not like roses, or rain. They have no scent at all. They just clean off the gym-sweat or the cum or the stubborn blood stains during shark week, without making me smell like I’m trying to perfume away my natural vaginal odor. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.
On the other hand, there is something very obviously wrong with the way these products are sold to us. They aren’t pitched for the uses I described above – they’re not just another soap or deodorant. Having a clean vagina, we are led to believe, makes us better women.
This is not an article in a magazine that just happens to have a Summer’s Eve ad underneath it. This whole page is the ad. Yes, that’s right, they wrote up an entire bogus article on being a strong professional woman, only to turn it around at the end and tell you that the best way to be successful is to have a pleasant smelling vagina. Thank you, Summer’s Eve, for reducing my worth to my sexual organs and their hygiene. Fun fact: unless a woman is suffering from a serious infection, a vagina cannot be smelled from across the room. I promise, no woman’s boss will ever judge her based on vaginal cleanliness, unless said boss is fucking her. And that just made this ad go from annoying to creepy.
This one I just…I hardly know where to begin. Helen of Troy was already the most beautiful woman in the world, but if only she had tried OUR products! Really? Did that really make it into print? The most legendary beauty in Western history: well, she was pretty great, but she would have been better if she douched. A woman’s value, in this case her beauty, once again dependent upon how she cleans her vagina. What the hell.
My point is, these ads are stupid and terrible, but so are those deodorant ads. Just because the ideology that a product is trying to sell us is complete sexist tripe doesn’t mean that the product itself is worthless. A woman shouldn’t measure her value by how much her vagina smells like flowers, or soap, or vagina; but that doesn’t mean she necessarily ought not to use a cleaning product. The Secret ad is trying to sell me self-confidence, and I reject their shallow notion of confidence, but I’m still going to buy deodorant. Summer’s Eve is trying to sell us self-worth, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t just buy body wash.