Racism, targeted ads, stereotypes about Black women, drove vaginal product use, experts say

“There’s this unrealistic standard of what a vulva and vagina should smell like, look like, feel like,” says Fatima Daoud Yilmaz, a specialist in obstetrics and gynecology.

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Black women for decades have turned to a slew of products to maintain feminine hygiene, but many of these intimate-care douches, washes and powders are rooted in racist stereotypes about the smell of dark-skinned people. 

“We as gynecologists realized a long time ago that vaginal douching was just not a good thing for women to do,” said Tacoma McKnight, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, The Washington Post reports.

Several experts have noted that the evolution of vaginal-care routines is tied to anti-Black racism.  (Adobe Stock Image)

“There’s this unrealistic standard of what a vulva and vagina should smell like, look like, feel like,” said Fatima Daoud Yilmaz, an obstetrics and gynecology specialist in New York. “People with vulvas and vaginas are spending their money chasing after an ideal that’s not rooted in reality or being made to think that their normal, healthy bodily functions are somehow pathologic and need to be addressed.”

Several experts have noted that the evolution of vaginal-care routines is tied to anti-Black racism. 

“Since the earliest contacts between Europeans and people of African descent, negative olfactory stereotypes have been wielded against those with dark skin,” historian Michelle Ferranti asserted in a 2011 research article.

“For many recently emancipated African Americans, a clean and odor-free body signified personal progress and enterprise, and the hope for racial assimilation,” Ferranti wrote. 

Ami Zota, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at George Washington University, told The Post that white men justified slavery by creating a “construct of race” based on “phenotypic differences” that included body odor. 

These constructs are still making an impact. Research has shown that douching may directly be linked to infections or skin irritation and health risks, such as infertility and STDs. Health experts continue to wonder aloud why these products sell. Part of the answer, according to researchers, is tradition and targeted advertising focused on Black women. 

According to The Post, Ferranti found a Lysol douching ad in a 1958 issue of Chicago’s Black newspaper Daily Defender that emphasized to Black women, “you know you can’t offend.” Her research could find “no commercials for vaginal deodorants” in any Life magazine issues published in 1970, but that same year, Ebony “typically included more than one per issue.” An ad for FDS “feminine deodorant spray” appeared in the 1982 issue of Jet and stated the product offered “important odor protection to keep you feeling fresh and confident all month long.”

The CDC’s National Survey of Family Growth conducted a study in 2002 that discovered more than 30 percent of women ages 15 to 44 reported douching. That number dropped to 11 percent in the most recent survey conducted from 2017 to 2019.

Targeting Blacks for intimate care did catch up with one company eventually. Johnson & Johnson faced fierce backlash for marketing its talcum-based baby powder to Black women in the 2000s despite knowing it could cause cancer. The company was ultimately slapped with a lawsuit filed by The National Council of Negro Women. 

“This company, through its words and images, told Black women that we were offensive in our natural state and needed to use their products to stay fresh,” Janice Mathis, the council’s executive director, said in a statement at the time. “Generations of Black women believed them and made it our daily practice to use their products in ways that put us at risk of cancer — and we taught our daughters to do the same.”

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