An Odor of Racism: Vaginal Deodorants in African-American Beauty Culture and Advertising
Abstract

Abstract:

The use of vaginal deodorants such as douches and feminine sprays is a troubling phenomenon due to its association with many adverse health consequences. Complicating this issue is the fact that African-American women are four times as likely to use these products as Caucasian women. This essay seeks to explain this practice as an element of African-American beauty culture. By reframing the use of vaginal deodorants as an aesthetic rather than hygienic practice, the historical racist underpinnings of vaginal deodorization are made evident. Moreover, an examination of advertisements for douches and related products provides significant insight into the historical and contemporary meanings of vaginal deodorization practices in African-American women’s lives.

The essay begins by examining how pervasive olfactory discrimination against African Americans established personal deodorization as a key to social and legal acceptance in White society. The supposed malodor of African-American women was also linked to damaging sexual stereotypes that made Black women highly vulnerable to predation and violence. The essay continues by showing how manufacturers of vaginal deodorants attempted to exploit racist notions by appealing to African-American consumers’ insecurities about personal odors. This appeal is still evident in targeted marketing strategies today. Finally, the essay concludes that aggressive advertising is no longer necessary to maintain the practice of vaginal deodorization among African-American women. The habit has been institutionalized as a cultural norm and is now perpetuated outside the market. Nonetheless marketers have embraced the image of cosmetics for the vagina and are using it to stimulate sales without regard for women’s health.