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Dirty Down There: The Selling of "Feminine" Products

by Lu Bailey


April 12, 2011

Several years ago, I attended a workshop about the history of douching. The topic was very intriguing to me. In fact, the young lady who presented the workshop used part of her dissertation as the foundation for her presentation.

She mentioned that she was given a full scholarship to research women and douching. I didn't know what to expect. Would our presenter ask the crowd if we douched today? Would she show those terrible feminine hygiene commercials (where women are cowering in a corner with a hoodie on because they stink) and ask us to respond?

She did none of those things. She simply directed our attention to a table where she displayed a bottle of Lysol, bleach and a pop bottle. She asked if we knew what these items had in common. We didn't. She told us that all three items have been used to help eliminate feminine odor.

The presenter showed us magazine ads from the 1940s and 1950s, portraying a women cleaning the house with Lysol and a suggestive tag line that read ... "Lysol can clean the house and other important things, too." Another Lysol ad asked: "Why Does She Spend Evenings Alone?" A smelly vagina, no doubt.

We also learned that some women mixed a small portion of bleach with water for their douching purposes. And, women in Latin America mixed cleaning products with water, poured them into a pop bottle, shook it up, and then sat on top of the bottle for the full effect of douching to achieve vaginal cleansing. By this time, everyone in the room was on the edge of their seats.

During the breakout session, we talked about the presentation and most of the women couldn't believe that women used Lysol as a douching product. Is the vagina so smelly that we have to use a product that can strip dirt from a linoleum floor to remove dirt and odor from our vaginal canal?

The world, it seems, is concerned about the "scent of a woman." I've watched those feminine hygiene product commercials with a critical eye. The theme of the commercials are the same: sad looking woman with dingy clothes walking down the street (this huge street) hoping that no one can sniff out her smelly vagina. Actually, the woman in the ad looks more like a crack or crystal meth addict and I'm sure most of the people who pass her on the street are more concerned that she may rob them and not so much about her personal hygiene problem.

And then, of course, a friend tells the woman about a product that can make her vagina smell like flowers or a summer breeze and the woman is made whole again. The next time we see her, she's at an office party doing the electric slide or, even better, riding a mechanical bull. The voice over says ... our product makes you feel like yourself again. Fade to black.

My first gynecologist told me many years ago: "Douching is dangerous because it may actually push bacteria further up inside the vagina, causing an infection. Douching also robs the vagina of necessary (built-in) fluids." She also told me that the vagina is self-cleaning and douching is never necessary for any woman -- it's a choice. After the workshop I attended, I realized douching is a choice that's inflamed by marketing campaigns, focus groups, and the fear that a woman won't get (and keep) a man with a smelly "love box."

There may have been another intent to douching with such strong products. As the Museum of Menstruation and Women's Health notes, "Women also used Lysol as a birth-control device, douching with it to kill sperm."

But there is one thing we women do know for certain ... the financial impact of feminine hygiene products. Cleaning our vaginas is a multi-billion dollar industry. And thanks to pop culture's insistence that a clean, sanitized vagina leads to great sex and a happy marriage, the clean vagina business show no signs of slowing down. In fact, according to a report by Global Industry Analysts, Inc. and cited in January 2011 on the San Jose, CA Vocus/PRWEB the global market for feminine hygiene products is expected to reach $14.3 billion by 2015.

Coupled with the revenues generated by feminine products is the environmental impact. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, some feminine hygiene products (pads and tampons) still use a byproduct of the bleaching process used to manufacture tampons and pads. This process has been known to release a chemical known as dioxin.

In 2000, writer Gina Kolata at the New York Times reported that some scientists believe that the chemical dioxin is ten times more likely to cause cancer than previously estimated..

In addition, the website Organic Beauty Vixen states: "Feminine hygiene products that are not eco-friendly pose a huge environmental problem. Nearly 13 billion sanitary pads and seven billion tampons get dumped in landfills each year. With non-biodegradable constituents like plastic and dioxin, the materials severely pollute the environment." And, the environmental journal, Emagazine, reports that, according to the Center for Marine Conservation, over 170,000 tampon applicators were collected along U.S. coastal areas between 1998 and 1999.

The truth of the matter is that more independent studies documenting the safety of menstrual products are needed to ensure product safety. Right now, most of the testing is paid for by the feminine products manufacturers themselves and there are very few independent studies, according to The Fertility Sourcebook by M. Sara Rosenthal.

To douche or not to douche seems to be a defining moment for most women. I remember when I was faced with this decision. I also remember the red water bottle (with a white nozzle) that my mom had in the bathroom that hung behind the door. I never really knew why it was there, but it was a fixture in my house. I later learned about my mom's (other) monthly ritual. I never used the water bottle method. My generation used the pre-mix bottle. I tried douching with them a total of six times and realized it wasn't for me. I didn't want to smell like a summer breeze or a midnight oasis. As my grandmother would say ... "If hot water and soap can't get ya clean, you betta go see a doctor."

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Lu Bailey is the former president of the Chicago Council on Urban Affairs and the co-founder of the Women of the Millennium Project (an initiative to build partnerships and collaborations among racially diverse groups of women). Currently, she's working as a fundraising consultant for a program that provides "green" job training skills for low-income youth. She is also a recipient of several awards, including the Metropolitan Chicago and Lake County, Illinois YWCA Racial Justice Award.

Also see "Adding Environmental Footprints to Birth Control Choices" by Laura Eldridge in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See "Mother Nature Gets Naughty: Eco-Friendly Sex Toys" by Elizabeth Black in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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