An Odor of Racism: Vaginal Deodorants in African-American Beauty Culture and Advertising
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.
Despite its taboo nature, the use of vaginal deodorants such as douche preparations and aerosolized sprays is a common practice for many African-American women. Data from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth showed that 59% of Black women douche in comparison to just 27% of White women.1 Another study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that when “the effects of age, education, income, age at first sexual intercourse, and number of lifetime partners were controlled,” nearly four times as many Black women as White women douche regularly.2 Studies also show that women who douche are more than four times as likely to use scented sprays for vaginal deodorization as nondouchers.3 These figures are disconcerting because douching has been linked with many adverse health outcomes including pelvic inflammatory disease, bacterial vaginosis, cervical cancer, ectopic pregnancy, preterm delivery, infertility, and even increased transmission rates of HIV and other STDs.4 Likewise, medical authorities now believe that the use of so-called “feminine hygiene” sprays may increase a woman’s risk of ovarian cancer as much as 90%.5 The race-based disparity in the statistics of those who use vaginal deodorants has emerged as a troubling phenomenon in the field of women’s health today.
This essay will explore the use of deodorizing douches and vaginal sprays as an aspect of African-American beauty culture. While the term “beauty culture” in reference to African-American women often refers to hair care and styling, I will defer to Susannah Walker’s broader definition put forward in Style and Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920–1975, which refers to beauty culture as “the tools, methods, and business practices of altering and caring for…women’s hair, skin, and bodies.”6 This definition conforms closely to the Food and Drug Administration’s classification of cosmetics as ‘“articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, or introduced into, or otherwise applied to the body for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance.’”7 Indeed, the FDA categorizes vaginal deodorants like douches and sprays as cosmetics, meaning that they have eluded the stringent testing and safety regulations associated with drugs and other biological products intended to be introduced into the body. Nevertheless, vaginal deodorants compete openly on store shelves and appear in glossy ads promising increased confidence and aesthetic allure. One advertising agency even coined the term “gyna-cosmetic” to describe a high-priced douche.
The ubiquity and use of vaginal deodorants is problematic not only because of potential adverse health consequences. I will argue that, like the use of hair straighteners, the decision to use douches and sprays has vexing racial implications. Undoubtedly, many women view their use of vaginal deodorants as nothing more than a habit that makes them feel clean and “fresh.” However, the high prevalence of douching and use of feminine hygiene sprays by African-American women as opposed to women of other races suggests a more complicated explanation. In this essay, I will examine the history of racist beliefs about the Black body and its odors, as well as associations of Black women with promiscuity. These combined to produce a rhetoric of racial uplift that demanded meticulous grooming, lest one’s social or moral respectability be questioned.
I will also examine the ways in which advertisers capitalized on African-American women’s racial and feminine identity to sell vaginal deodorants. While such ads recognized Black women’s power as consumers, their appeal lay largely in stereotypes that undermined African-American women’s dignity and body esteem. Research on the effects of advertising on body image has become ubiquitous in the past three decades but has focused almost exclusively on the size and shape of women’s bodies, or on the perceived attractiveness of their facial appearance, skin tone, or hair texture. There has been little scholarly attention paid to non-visual aspects of body image, such as scent. In part, this reflects a privileging of White women’s concerns, which tend to center around dissatisfaction with body weight, caused in no small part by images in advertising that idealize underweight women and girls. While African-American women report less negative attitudes toward being overweight than Euro-American women,9 “target marketing”10 that fosters and maintains insecurities about body odors—particularly vulvar odors—among African-American women has not been subject to critique. Moreover, the internalization of cultural stereotypes has meant that the motivation to use vaginal deodorants cannot be attributed to advertising alone. Instead, the practice has come to be seen as a cultural norm and is now perpetuated outside the market.
Discriminating White Sensibilities
Since the earliest contacts between Europeans and people of African descent, negative olfactory stereotypes have been wielded against those with dark skin. Alongside pseudoscientific accusations of deficient cranial capacity and flat feet, an examination of the vast literature of race difference also yields up the repetitive assertion that Black people stink. In the first section of this paper I will examine how this stigmatization functioned to marginalize Blacks in White-dominated society and to regulate social interactions between the races. The lasting consequence of this olfactory discrimination was that personal deodorization was seen as part of the solution to social and legal acceptance in American society. However, this alone cannot explain the popularity of the douche and other vaginal deodorants among African-American women.
In addition to the supposed stench that was characteristic of their race, Black women also faced allegations of hypersexuality and lasciviousness. Unlike traditional perfumes that are purported to have aphrodisiac powers, vaginal deodorants are used to eradicate rather than enhance natural odors of attraction. Douches with names like Pristeen and Demure remind the purchaser of the necessity of appearing (and smelling) sexually unavailable. Likewise, ad text has stressed the importance of “daintiness,” “freshness,” and even “immaculateness.” Thus, the popularity of vaginal deodorants among Black women may also be seen as an attempt to negate accusations of moral laxity.
Observations about the odor of Black people have historically been used to justify their oppression and dehumanization. Many of the racial stereotypes that legitimized the enslavement of Africans and its legacy of segregation are first recorded in the accounts of European and American travelers, missionaries, and naturalists in Africa.11 Barton’s Africa recorded that “The sebaceous odor of the skin among [African] races is overpowering, and is emitted with the greatest effect during and after excitement, whether of mind or body.”12 J. H. Guenebault’s Natural History of the Negro Race was more specific, noting that:
When negroes sweat their skin is covered with an oily and blackish perspiration, which stains cloths, and generally exhales a very unpleasant porraceous smell. Caffers have not such a smell; it is very strong in the Jaloffs and Foulahs, but not quite so disagreeable in the inhabitants of Senegal, and the negroes of Sofola, when overheated. Jaloffs and Foulahs smell so badly, that places through which they have passed, remain impregnated with this effluvium for more than a quarter of an hour.13
Moreover, according to Guenebault, the same “black oily humor” that colored the skin and gave it its rank odor also covered “the muscles, blood, chyle, brain, nerves, and finally, all humors and organs.” Even “the lice which infested the bodies of negroes, are blacker, and generally larger, than those that are found on white people,” proving once and for all that the differences between Africans and Europeans were “innate and radical.”14
In the new world, authors made similar observations that sought to naturalize olfactory differences as a matter of biology rather than attributing them to the harsh circumstances of slavery. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Besides those of color, figure, and hair, there are other physical distinctions proving a difference of race. They have less hair on the face and body. They secrete less by the kidneys, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odor.”15 Likewise, Hermann Burmeister, a German professor of zoology living in Brazil, noted a certain “‘disagreeable property which always produces disgust on the part of the European in his intercourse with colored people.’” He was alluding to “‘the disagreeable smell emitted by their perspiration,’” which could be “‘diminished, but never completely destroyed, by cleanliness.’”16 Nearly 75 years later, Jerome Dowd, who once held the chair of Sociology at Oklahoma University, quoted many of Burmeister’s observations in his own book, including references to the “‘peculiar odor’” supposedly emitted by those of African descent.17
Scientific studies of racial characteristics simply gave authority to the unempirical impressions of racists. In 1846, an American physician and professor of anatomy at the University of Pennsylvania named W.E. Horner authored an article for The American Journal of the Medical Sciences that located the supposedly foul stench of Black people in their unusually large “odoriferous glands.” Horner wrote, “It is well known in our country that the smell of negroes is particularly redolent from the axilla [the armpits]…and that some of them, with the strongest efforts to free themselves of it, are so organized that they may be traced by the effluvium with which they impregnate the air.”18 A century later, an article in The Scientific Monthly similarly noted: “One of the most popularly entrenched beliefs concerning the Negro is that he possesses a unique and particularly objectionable body odor.”19 The author attributed this to a study showing that African-Americans had nearly three times as many apocrine glands as Whites.20
Olfactory stereotypes served Whites well during the eras of slavery and segregation. During the antebellum years, a racially mixed population and incidents of “passing” made it difficult to determine racial identity by appearance alone. By asserting that Black people had other innately inferior biological characteristics besides just dark skin, racial categories were stabilized: if one could not visually detect someone’s African heritage, they could at least smell it—or so it was claimed.21 Later, during the era of Jim Crow, the alleged malodor of African-Americans reduced segregation to a necessity in the minds of Whites. John Dollard, who produced a detailed case study of race relations in a small Southern city in the 1930s, wrote:
Among beliefs which profess to show that Negro and white people cannot intimately participate in the same civilization is the perennial one that Negroes have a smell extremely disagreeable to white people. This belief is very widely held both in the South and in the North. A local white informant said that Negroes smell, even the cleanest of them. It might not be worse than other human smells, but it was certainly different. It was asserted to be as true of middle-class Negroes as of others, at least upon occasion. Another informant swore that Negroes have such a strong odor that sometimes white people can hardly stand it. He described it as a “rusty” smell. This odor was said to be present even though they bathe, but to be somewhat worse in summer. Another white informant described the smell as “acrid.” White people generally regard this argument as a crushing final proof of the impossibility of close association between the races.22
Even educated people resorted to the stereotype that Black people smelled to justify segregation. When a sociologist interviewed 87 students at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, he found that 73 of the students objected to African Americans’ use of public transportation based on their “personal odor.”23 (Some cities even erected partitions between Whites and Blacks to protect Whites from this contaminating stench.)24 Yet when the same students were asked to choose employment opportunities for which Blacks were most suited, all 87 cited “Pullman porter” as a first choice, followed by “valet,” “waiter,” and “chauffeur”—jobs that would undoubtedly bring offensive-smelling Blacks within intimate proximity of White noses.25 Writing in 1946, the anthropologist Eric John Dingwall noted, “If it were true that Negroes as a group have a peculiar odour which is offensive to white people, then it is frankly incredible that they should be employed in the kind of services in which they indubitably are employed.”26 He was referring to the innumerable maids, nurses, and cooks working and often living in White households.
During the eras of slavery and segregation, the alleged odor of Black people was not used as grounds for avoiding interracial interaction, but rather for containing it. Constance Classen, a cultural historian, notes that is common practice to ascribe a foul smell to members of other cultures and races; however, this distinction is not so much aesthetic as it is symbolic. Classen writes, “It is evident in most such cases that the stench ascribed to the other is far less a response to an actual perception of the odor of the other than a potent metaphor for the social decay it is feared the other, often simply by virtue of being ‘other,’ will cause in the established order.”27 Thus, for African-Americans, deodorization and perfuming became an important part of social acceptance amid discriminating White sensibilities.
One need only think of Booker T. Washington’s strategy for racial uplift, which had cleanliness and deodorization at its foundation. Over and over Washington reminded his students at the famed Tuskegee Institute “that people would excuse us for our poverty, for our lack of comforts and conveniences, but they would not excuse us for dirt.” Washington’s obsession with personal cleanliness (and the odors of the body’s orifices) extended to what was termed “‘The gospel of the tooth-brush.’” In Up from Slavery, Washington wrote:
It has been interesting to note the effect that the use of the tooth-brush has had in bringing about a higher degree of civilization among the students. With few exceptions, I have noticed that, if we can get a student to the point where, when the first or second tooth-brush disappears, he of his own motion buys another, I have not been disappointed in the future of that individual. Absolute cleanliness of the body has been insisted upon from the first. The students have been taught to bathe as regularly as to take their meals.28
For many recently emancipated African-Americans, a clean and odor-free body signified personal progress and enterprise, and the hope for racial assimilation.29
Deodorizing one’s body not only demonstrated an aspiration toward respectability, “smelling sweet” was also an indication of moral virtue. Sociologists Gale Largey and David Watson have noted that “odors, whether real or alleged, are often used as a basis for conferring a moral identity upon an individual or group.”30 Historically, the imagined odor of African-Americans has been linked with assertions of their sexual immorality. For example, writing in the journal Medicine in 1903, Dr. William Lee Howard asserted that Blacks’ “‘attacks on defenseless white women are evidence of racial instincts that are about as amenable to ethical culture as is the inherent odor of the race.’”31 Likewise, Morton Rubin concluded in 1951, “To the question, ‘What is a Negro?’ the white man will answer, ‘He is not a real human being like you and me. He smells bad; he is sexually promiscuous; he is filthy and ignorant.’”32 Susan Bordo points out that such accusations of hypersexuality were not limited to Black men. “The racist ideology and imagery that construct non-European ‘races’ as ‘primitive,’ ‘savage,’ sexually animalistic, and indeed more bodily than the white ‘races’ extends to black women as well as black men,” writes Bordo. “Corresponding to the popular sexual myth that black men are genitally over-endowed are notions, harking back to the early nineteenth century, that African women’s sexual organs are more highly developed than (and configured differently from) those of European women, explaining...their greater ‘voluptuousness’ and ‘lascivity’.”33 Moreover, the sexual powers of the Black female were supposedly inseparable from her scent. Dollard wrote:
The remark is current in Southerntown that a man does not know what a sexual experience is until he has had a Negro woman….Possibly the factor of odor plays a role, since white people generally profess to be revolted by the body odors of Negroes. The association between odor and sexual attraction is an old and well-known one, and it may be that just those odors which are revolting when one is in a conventional mood may be exciting in the sexual mood.34
While the effect of pheromones on human sexuality is debatable, historical examples linking odor with sexual appeal are abundant. Napoleon reportedly wrote Josephine from battle, “Je reviens en trois jours, ne te laves pas!” (“I return in three days; don’t bathe!”) In his Memoires, Casanova wrote, “‘I have always found sweet, the odor of the women I have loved.’”35 A more negative link between odor and sexuality is linguistic: the Spanish word for ‘whore’ is puta, a derivation of the Latin word for putrid (a connection that exists in other Romance languages).36 Classen notes that the “association between corrupt women and corrupt odors” appears in many cultures, including our own. A woman who allows others to perceive her intimate odors, like a woman who engages in promiscuous sex, has failed to regulate her body “in accordance with cultural norms.”37 Likewise, Havelock Ellis, in his pioneering Studies in the Psychology of Sex (1928), noted that the belief that a woman’s virtue could be perceived by her odor dates to the classical world where ancient medical writers attributed “hircine” odors to “harlots,” “nymphomaniacs,” and even “the newly married.”38 The enduring cultural link between body odor and sexual vice meant that African-American women, who were stigmatized not only by their race but also by their sex, faced a double imperative to deodorize their bodies.
Moreover, in a culture where a Black woman’s consent was unnecessary, sending the wrong olfactory signals could be dangerous. Much has been written about the omnipresence of sexual violence in Black women’s lives. During slavery, a woman was at the mercy of her owner and overseer. Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson note that “Strikingly, when this issue has been dealt with in the past, historians have usually stressed how difficult the sexual exploitation of ‘their women’ was for black men and how destructive their inability to prevent it was to their ‘masculinity.’”39 Relatively little attention has been paid to how such exploitation altered women’s notions of their own femininity. Likewise, during the era of Jim Crow, rape was a common terrorist technique akin to lynching, though it received far less cultural scrutiny. In the postbellum South, White authorities paid little attention to Black women’s reports of rape because of the racist and misogynist characterizations of Black women as hypersexual and ‘unrapeable.’40 With little other recourse to protect themselves, Black women were careful to maintain a modest appearance and dignified demeanor that spilled over into their grooming rituals.41 Even ads for beauty and hygiene products aimed at Black women during this period emphasized the importance of racial pride and a neat appearance while downplaying the role of cosmetics in enhancing sexual attractiveness.42 While the link between the threat of sexual violence and douching may seem tenuous, a contemporary study shows that exposure to “intimate partner violence” (IPV), including involuntary sexual relations, is more strongly associated with douching than any relevant sociodemographic variables such as race and levels of education or poverty. Thus, the study’s authors showed that the dual health threats posed by domestic violence and douching are linked for women of all races.43
In Loose Women, Lecherous Men: A Feminist Philosophy of Sex, Linda LeMoncheck notes:
Women of color are multiply dehumanized by race and by gender, and often by class: white men often regard women of color as already inferior in virtue of their race or poverty so that their gender makes them even more vulnerable to the myth that women want, need, and deserve to be raped.44
Likewise, minority women frequently express frustration with the aggressive sex-seeking of men who equate darker skin with taboo sexual experiences.45 This phenomenon is mirrored in advertisements that exoticize Black women to sell myriad products.46 In short, the misuse of Black women’s bodies—and the misuse of images of Black women’s bodies—have coalesced to provide powerful enticements to douche.
Exploiting the Market
The history of the cosmetic use of vaginal deodorants and perfumes among African-American women closely parallels that of White women, except in regard to frequency of use. In the second section of this essay I will survey the commercial history of douches, vaginal sprays, and associated products as they relate to White and African-American beauty culture. I contend that while White women were originally targeted as the primary consumers of vaginal deodorants, in the last fifty years such products have been more aggressively and visibly marketed to women of color. Despite this, the influence of such ads on the deodorizing practices of African-Americans is questionable. The high incidence of douching today among African-American women may have more to do with the desire to challenge long-established cultural stereotypes than marketers’ manipulation techniques.
Historically, douching was not only a cosmetic practice. In fact, until the second half of the twentieth century, both Black and White women douched in large numbers for reasons other than vaginal deodorization and perfuming. The earliest published reference to douching in the Americas originates in a manual for the medical treatment of slaves. The book recommends a twice-daily vaginal “injection” of three drachms of alum dissolved in a quart of water to treat profuse vaginal discharge. However, the author noted that the condition was “a very common complaint in the West Indies, not only among the negroes, but also with white persons,” and women of both races douched to prevent or treat gynecological ailments.47 In the nineteenth century, douching was also believed to have contraceptive value. In 1832, a freethinking New England physician named Charles Knowlton published a short medical treatise that advocated post-coital antiseptic douching not only because it was “conducive to cleanliness, and preserves the parts from relaxation and disease,” but also as a method of birth control.48 While Knowlton directed his advice to his affluent White patients, douching after intercourse was the first clinical form of birth control to be openly advocated by a physician and was adopted by women of all socioeconomic levels and races eager to control their reproductive lives.49
Throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century, both African-American and White women continued to douche for therapeutic, hygienic, and contraceptive reasons. The admired “race” physician Dr. A. Wilberforce Williams, who began writing a weekly column in the Chicago Defender in 1913, responded to many questions about douching sent in by his African-American readers. These questions highlighted the various reasons women douched and the ubiquity of the practice. Under the heading “Wants to Know About Douching,” Mrs. M.S. wrote: “Please answer these questions: Every day or once or twice a week. Should a woman douche when she is pregnant?” Williams replied:
That will depend on the purpose for which douching is done. Where there is acute inflammation of pelvic organs and depletion, it may be necessary to douche four or five times a day. Every case is a law unto itself, except when advised by the doctor, there is no given rule. No there is no danger of infection.50
Williams’s promotion of douching was not surprising given his stance as a health reformer who was concerned with “racial fitness” and uplift, and who inveighed against the dangers of promiscuity and venereal disease as contributing to racial suicide.51 In fact, his advice column was so successful that it was often parodied by advertisers, including the Rose Medical Company, who placed ads for their Borotone [vaginal] Suppositories and Forrex Douche Powder in the Chicago Defender under the guise of “Dr. Rucker’s Advice.” The ads pictured an authoritarian-looking African-American man, who, like Williams, was credited as “one of America’s foremost Race Physicians.”52
Advertisements for douches and other vaginal preparations appeared frequently in the heavily segregated media of the 1920s and 1930s. The interwar decades witnessed the emergence of a mass consumer market and a dramatic increase in national advertising; however, most White-owned companies did not believe that African-Americans had enough “buying power” to merit the added expense of marketing their products directly to consumers of color. In the early 1920s the general household disinfectant Lysol began to be advertised as a contraceptive douche as well as a toilet-bowl cleaner in many popular women’s magazines directed exclusively toward White women like McCall’s and the Ladies’ Home Journal. The euphemisms “personal hygiene,” “feminine hygiene,” and “marriage hygiene” were used in place of the term “birth control,” which had been illegal since the 1870s, but the meaning of the ads was clear. One typically circumspect ad for Lysol first suggested using the solution to sanitize “toilets, closets, cuspidors, garbage cans, and places where flies gather,” before discreetly mentioning that “Women find Lysol Disinfectant also invaluable for personal hygiene.”53 Other ads for Lysol covertly equated the product’s germ-killing properties and its sperm-killing promises without ever mentioning the words “birth control” or even “douche” (Figure 1).
While ads that targeted White women emphasized pregnancy prevention, ads in African-American publications also marketed douches to prevent the transmission of venereal diseases and contain odors. Their appeals were frank in comparison with the more subtle tactics of ads directed toward White women. An advertisement that appeared in the Chicago Defender showed an African-American nurse holding a bottle of Hall’s Sani-Tabs and read:
SANI-TABS are unusually successful in preventing syphilis and gonorrhea. Remarkable effects have been secured in the prevention and treatment of influenza, colds, diphtheria and throat troubles. They are used with excellent results for healing bad wounds, sores and bruises. WOMEN find Sani-Tabs to be admirably suited for vaginal douches and use them extensively as a deodorant in connection with sanitary dressings during menstrual periods. Sani-Tabs will positively kill body odors arising from perspiration.55
Soon, advertisers that targeted White women would not only adopt deodorization and perfuming as a key reason to douche, they would begin placing ads in African-American publications to entice a profitable new market.
After World War II, postwar prosperity, changes in marketing methods, innovations in consumer research, and the launch of several new African-American lifestyle magazines increased advertisers’ incentives and venues for reaching Black consumers.56 When David Sullivan, the founder and president of the Negro Marketing Association announced in 1944 that in the areas of toiletries, drugs, over-the-counter medicines, and cosmetics, “‘Negro per capita expenditures exceed[ed] those of white people for the same goods,’” douche manufacturers took notice.57 Almost immediately, advertisements for national brands like Lysol began appearing in the newly updated and nationally circulated Daily Defender. The appeals made by advertisers also began to change as ads that had previously focused on the therapeutic, hygienic, and contraceptive value of douching were replaced by ads that emphasized douching for cosmetic enhancement. An ad for Zonite that reveals the new association of douching with beauty culture told women that “Luxurious baths, fine cosmetics, subtle perfumes, fresh and pretty clothes…are not enough. For women now realize that there is a newer law, a more important law of physical daintiness. This is the practice known as ‘feminine hygiene.’”58
There are several reasons for this change of strategy. By the mid-1940s, restrictions on birth control had loosened, and both Black and White women were beginning to seek more effective means of controlling their fertility. The value of routine douching to prevent or cure common gynecological ailments was also being questioned during this period, and advertisers’ appeals to the therapeutic and hygienic practice of douching were contradicted by the advice of public health authorities and consumer advocates.59 In response, ads for douches began to appeal solely to women’s concerns about vaginal odors. Moreover, the lives of African-American women were also being transformed as many participated in the “second great migration” to urban areas to seek opportunities in the booming postwar economy. For upwardly bound African-American women now surrounded by discriminating White sensibilities and inundated by attractive advertisements in the new Black lifestyle magazines, the imperative to add vaginal deodorization to their cosmetic routine must have been particularly urgent (Figure 2).
Throughout the postwar decades, douches and other vaginal deodorants like vaginal suppositories and sprays continued to be aggressively marketed to African-American women as advertisers’ awareness of Black spending power and patterns grew. In The $30 Billion Negro (1969), the African-American founder of the New York City advertising firm D. Parke Gibson Associates wrote:
Imagine a country with a per-capita income slightly more than the per-capita income of western Europe as a whole and considerably higher than the per-capita income in Asia, Africa, and Latin America combined.
Further, imagine this country with six million families or households, of which more than half own automobiles, which is thirty times more passenger cars than there are in the Soviet Union and more than in all of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. One of these families out of every sixteen has two automobiles, and one out of every one hundred has three or more autos.
In this country 40 percent of all the families own homes, and 75 percent of the homes have television, which is twice as many television sets as in all of France or Italy and four times as many as in East Germany or Sweden. Half of these households have automatic clothes washers, 8 percent have food freezers, and 4 percent of the dwellings of these families are air-conditioned.
These families have more of their members studying in colleges than the total enrollment in Britain or Italy and slightly less than in West Germany or France.
This “country” does exist—it is the Negro market in the United States.61
Gibson’s appeal to America’s advertisers also included relevant statistics about where the most profits could be had. In a chapter titled “Where the Business Exists” Gibson noted that African-Americans were disproportionately heavy users of soaps, detergents, and personal-care products. “Undoubtedly, much of the desire for cleanliness is to overcome the prejudicial old wives’ tale that ‘all Negroes smell bad,’” Gibson reported.62 Manufacturers of vaginal deodorants had already determined as much to be true (Figure 3 and Figure 4).
The “Black is Beautiful” movement had significantly altered the appearance of beauty culture advertising in African-American media by the 1970s. Ads for skin lighteners were obsolete, hair care ads emphasized natural over straightened styles, and cosmetics companies no longer exclusively featured light-skinned models who conformed to Eurocentric standards of beauty.65 Nonetheless, ads for vaginal deodorants continued to be overrepresented in Afrocentric publications. In the year after Gibson published his book, Ebony magazine printed a special issue titled Which Way Black America: Separation? Integration? Liberation? Amid the multitude of serious-minded articles detailing the progress of the civil rights movement were four advertisements for various vaginal deodorants: Bidette Towelettes and Mist, Vagisec Liquid douche, Norforms vaginal suppositories, and Massengill Powder douche.66 Researchers who study the racialized content of magazine advertising frequently compare Ebony magazine with LIFE magazine because both publications are considered “culturally distinct national picture magazines.” 67 However, despite similar content, format, readership, and circulation among the distinct racial groups they appeal to, a survey of all issues of LIFE magazine from 1970 reveals no commercials for vaginal deodorants, while Ebony magazine typically included more than one per issue.
Essence magazine, which first appeared in 1970, also regularly published ads for vaginal deodorants alongside other cosmetics commercials. Not only did multiple ads for vaginal deodorants often appear in a single issue, Essence further promoted douches and related products and devices by featuring them in the beauty-related editorial content of the magazine. A 1971 article began:
If you’re getting more attention in a crowd than usual, or if your ole’ man turns off the instant you come near, then it’s about time to check out why. Could be, your hygiene-thing isn’t as up-tight as it should be…and that’s inexcusable, my dears. With all the hygienic aids on the market today, a woman should no longer rely solely on soap and water—even though it is still the best beginning. For those purely feminine hygiene problems, try one of these…68
The article went on to suggest Avon’s Assura Feminine Hygiene Deodorant Spray and Towelettes, Jean Nate Feminine Hygiene Spray, and Kotique Feminine Deodorant Spray. (Avon and Jean Nate were well-established cosmetics brands, while Kotique was marketed by Kotex, a leader in feminine protection.) In 1972, Essence editors even selected an electrical feminine hygiene system called “Finesse” as one of their “Beauty Wonders.” The editors noted that the Waterpik-like appliance took the “hush-hush out of douching” and cost $39.95.69
While advertisements (let alone editorial endorsements) for vaginal deodorants became less frequent in White-oriented beauty culture magazines beginning in the 1970s, ads for douches, sprays, suppositories, and wipes continue to appear regularly in Essence magazine even in the first decade of the 21st century. Such ads are often full-page or multi-page in format and are placed in the highly visible front portion of the magazine. These ads specifically target Black consumers by featuring African-American models. Moreover, despite knowledge of potential adverse health outcomes, vaginal deodorants continue to be marketed and regulated as cosmetics; and an increasing line of fragrances and formulations offers consumers the perception of self-expression through product selection. For example, the popular douche brands Summer’s Eve and Massengill each offer four fragrances in addition to three unscented varieties, and the Summer’s Eve brand has further expanded to include a Feminine Wash (available in three fragrances), Bath and Shower Gel (available in two fragrances), Foaming Bath (available in two fragrances), Feminine Cleansing Cloths (available in unscented and fragranced), Feminine Deodorant Spray (available in four fragrances), and Feminine Powder (available in three fragrances)—all with the expressed purpose of eliminating potential vaginal odors.70
Contradictions and Conclusions
Recently, public health professionals who have studied women’s motivations for using vaginal deodorants have begun to examine the influence of media on women’s decisions. The results are surprising. One study conducted by a medical sociologist in Birmingham, Alabama collected anecdotal evidence from four focus groups divided by racial and socioeconomic characteristics. While douching and other deodorizing practices were common among both low- and middle-income African-Americans and low-income Caucasians, the reasons women douche and their perceptions of the practice differed across racial lines. White women noted the influence of media and advertising on their decision to douche, while African-American women noted the influence of social and cultural connections. The authors of the study reported:
Among the African-American women, there was a general consensus that mothers would discuss douching with their daughters at some time during adolescence, as reflected in this participant’s statement. “I introduced my 15-year-old daughter to it. I don’t know whether she has done it or not yet. I won’t be there to see or help her with it but I talked to her about it. Not that she has a smell or anything, but I just wanted her to know”….In contrast to the African-Americans, most of the Caucasian women said that their mothers did not discuss douching with them, and that they were influenced primarily by media. Douching advertisements on television and in teen magazines resulted in the practice seeming normative “because it’s so advertised you feel you need it.”71
The products women used to douche also differed across racial lines. While all of the White women used commercial products, many of the African-American women used homemade preparations, including mixtures of vinegar and water, Pine-sol and water, and bleach and water. A disturbing result of the focus groups was that women who had been using commercial preparations expressed a desire to switch to solutions of Pine-sol or bleach for odor removal upon hearing others’ testimonials, the researchers reported.72
Despite the disparity in the concentration of advertising directed toward African-American women, subsequent studies have reinforced these findings. A study of African-American women conducted at a Los Angeles health clinic reported, “Of the women who indicated they had douched sometime during their lifetime, mothers (57%) were most often named as influencing the initiation of vaginal douching, followed by friends (11%), sisters (10%) or grandmothers (4%).”73 Moreover, women who douched two or more times per week showed a much stronger preference for homemade over commercial preparations in comparison to women who douched less frequently.74 Both the Alabama and Los Angeles studies, therefore, cast doubt on the notion that commercial forces strongly influence African-American women’s attitudes and choices in relation to vaginal deodorization. Because the use of vaginal deodorants is a cultural norm within the African-American community, the authors of the Los Angeles study suggest that “alternative options to douching need to be tested and discussed with women who frequently douche to find an acceptable alternative to replace a practice that has been culturally identified from early womanhood and tied to past generations” (Figure 5).75
Efforts aimed at stopping both Black and White women’s use of vaginal deodorants will have to address the multifarious influences that underpin the phenomenon: familial and cultural tradition, racist and misogynist stereotypes, and commercial coercion. There is evidence that both female relatives and health care providers can effectively discourage women from douching.77 Further, some health authorities have called for the regulation of douches as drugs rather than cosmetics due to their association with possible adverse health outcomes, such as pelvic inflammatory disease and cervical cancer.78 The potential dangers of other vaginal deodorants like sprays and suppositories have not yet been seriously addressed. Meanwhile, the “intimate care” market remains a lucrative and competitive business.
A survey of recent industry analyses shows cause for concern. While sales of many feminine hygiene products classified under the “feminine protection” category (such as tampons and pads) have dropped off due to an aging baby-boomer population, the sale of vaginal deodorants has shown significant growth.79 A market-research report published in 2006 projects that “Innovative product launches catering to specific needs coupled with increased hygiene consciousness is expected to help the feminine hygiene market sustain growth and reach $3.15 billion in 2010.”80 One of the products the report cites as an “interesting introduction with an unusual form” is the Dissolving Vaginal Cleansing Film (VCF).81 Launched by Apothecus Pharmaceutical Corporation in 2005, the VCF is based on the popular breath strip form and is intended to be folded and inserted into the vagina, where it dissolves, delivering a deodorizing fragrance. Heavily perfumed, pre-moistened perineal wipes have also been released to the market in recent years as an attempt to capture consumer interest. Perhaps the most disturbing trend noted by industry analysts is the shift in the target audience for “intimate care” products. As baby boomers enter menopause, the teen population is expected to become the prime target of marketers in the coming years.82
This paper has relied on the definition of vaginal deodorants as cosmetics, not only because it is the FDA’s classification and because these products serve no legitimate therapeutic or hygienic purpose, but also because marketers themselves have embraced this image. In 2003, a former consultant to cosmetics brands Aveda, Aramis, Hard Candy, and Estée Lauder named Jesse Max Creed merged vaginal deodorization with the prestige beauty industry by launching Intimate Grooming Escensuals, Inc. and its subsidiary SweetSpot Labs, Inc. The company’s website boasts:
We’re pioneers, yet, what are we offering a woman? The right products for intimate grooming, as it should be, and her right to feel fresh and fabulous with a complete beauty ritual for her most intimate self. What do the women who have used SweetSpot Labs’ products say? A resounding, “FINALLY! What took so long?”83
In actuality, most of the SweetSpot line is typical of the external vaginal deodorants that have been on the market since the early 1970s—except at a much higher price point. Yet there is something refreshing about the candor of the sales pitch. Perhaps if more women recognized that the purpose of perfuming the vagina is purely aesthetic, and not a prerequisite of health and cleanliness, they would reconsider using dangerous or unregulated products. Like all aesthetic modifications of genitalia, vaginal perfuming, has a complex and revealing history. In this case, the marginalized status of African-American women in American culture is deeply implicated.
Until now, douching and other practices of vaginal deodorization have been examined only through the lens of gender. Feminists have recognized douching as one of the ways that women’s sexuality has been “exploited as a powerful tool for the social, economic, and political subordination of women.”84 Vaginal deodorization practices have been exposed as misogynistic by popular feminist voices including the National Organization for Women85 and even Nora Ephron.86 Feminist scholars, borrowing from Judith Butler’s insistence that the “feminine” body does not passively receive its gendered status from the surrounding culture but is instead actively gendered as “feminine” by certain practices, have recognized douching as one of these practices.87 Examples of relevant scholarship include Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls 88 and Elana Levine’s analysis of television advertisements for douches and vaginal deodorant sprays.89 But, as I have argued, the lens of gender cannot satisfactorily explain the racial disparity in rates of vaginal deodorization, nor can feminist activism alone remedy the historical inequalities that underlay the practice among African-American women. Instead, any attempt to mitigate the negative health outcomes of the practice of vaginal deodorization within the African-American community will need to address the racial history of the practice and the racialized ad campaigns that have transformed the practice into profits.
Michelle Ferranti teaches American history at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey. She recently received a grant to conduct research on women's motivations for douching at the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising, & Marketing History at Duke University. She has published articles in Women & Health, The Journal of Urban History, and Utopian Studies.
1. Anjani Chandra, et al., Fertility, Family Planning, and Reproductive Health of US Women: Data from the 2002 National Survey of Family Growth, Vital Health Statistics Series 23, no. 25 (Hyattsville, MD: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 2005), 145.
2. Sevgi Okten Aral, William Mosher, and Willard Cates Jr., “Vaginal Douching among Women of Reproductive Age in the United States: 1988,” American Journal of Public Health 82 (1992): 212.
3. Diane Grimley, et al., “Vaginal Douches and Other Feminine Hygiene Products: Women’s Practices and Perceptions of Product Safety,” Maternal and Child Health Journal 10 (2006): 307.
4. Jenny Martino and Sten Vermund, “Vaginal Douching: Evidence for Risks or Benefits to Women’s Health,” Epidemiological Review 24 (2002): 109.
5. Janice Horowitz and Nadya Lab, “Health Report,” Time, March 17, 1997, 15.
6. Susannah Walker, Style and Status: Selling Beauty to African American Women, 1920–1975 (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2007), 2–3.
7. Joseph Page, “What the FDA Won’t Tell You About FDS,” The Washington Monthly, March 1973, 20.
8. Philip Dougherty, “Advertising: New Era and New Products,” New York Times, January 5, 1970, 59.
9. Sarah Grogan, Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women, and Children (Florence, KY: Routledge, 1999), 133–34.
10. “100 Leading National Advertisers: SmithKline Beecham PLC,” Advertising Age, September 26, 1990, 109.
11. Charles Johnson and Horace Bond, “The Investigation of Racial Differences Prior to 1910,” The Journal of Negro Education 3 (1934): 328.
12. Hinton Rowan Helper, comp., The Negroes in Negroland; The Negroes in America; and Negroes Generally (New York: G.W. Carelton, 1868), 165.
13. J.H. Guenebault, Natural History of the Negro Race (Charleston, SC: D.J. Dowling, 1837), 47–48.
14. Ibid., 52–53.
15. Helper, 174.
16. Mark Smith, How Race Is Made: Slavery, Segregation, and the Senses (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), 38.
17. Jerome Dowd, The Negro in American Life (New York: The Century Company, 1926), 333.
18. W.E. Horner, “On the Odoriferous Glands of the Negro,” The American Journal of the Medical Sciences 21 (1846): 14.
19. M.F. Ashley Montagu, “Physical Characters of the American Negro,” The Scientific Monthly 59 (1944): 61.
20. Ibid., 62.
21. Smith, 4, 5, 7, and 41.
22. John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1949), 379–80.
23. Murray Spitzer, “What of the Negro Future?” Journal of Educational Sociology 3 (1930): 278.
24. Smith, 81.
25. Spitzer, 280.
26. Eric Dingwall, Racial Pride and Prejudice (London: Watts and Company, 1946), http://aae.greenwood.com/searchResults.aspx?qsText=Dingwall (accessed June 12, 2008).
27. Constance Classen, “The Odor of the Other: Olfactory Symbolism and Cultural Categories,” Ethos 20 (1992): 135.
28. Booker T. Washington, Up from Slavery (New York: Penguin Books, 1986), 174–75.
29. Suellen Hoy, Chasing Dirt: The American Pursuit of Cleanliness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 54–56, 88–90, and 119–20.
30. Gale Largey and David Watson, “The Sociology of Odors,” The American Journal of Sociology 77 (1972): 1024.
31. Randall Kennedy, Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption (New York: Vintage Books, 2004), 190.
32. Smith, 80.
33. Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 9.
34. Dollard, 144.
35. Havelock Ellis, Studies in the Psychology of Sex: Sexual Selection in Man (Philadelphia: F.A. Davis Company, 1911), 78.
36. Classen, 142.
37. Ibid., 143.
38. Ellis, 64–65.
39. Darlene Clark Hine and Kathleen Thompson, A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America (New York: Broadway Books, 1998), 98. See also John D’Emilio and Estelle Freedman, “Race and Sexuality,” in Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); and Dorothy Roberts, Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction, and the Meaning of Liberty (New York: Vintage Books, 1997).
40. Ibid., 168–71.
41. Ibid., 73.
42. Walker, 29–31.
43. Carol Weisman, et al., “Vaginal Douching and Intimate Partner Violence: Is There an Association?” Women’s Health Issues 17 (2007): 310–15.
44. Linda LeMoncheck, Loose Women, Lecherous Men: A Feminist Philosophy of Sex (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 188.
45. Camper, Carol, ed., Miscegenation Blues: Voices of Mixed Race Women (Toronto: Sister Vision Press, 1994).
46. Grogan, 316.
47. Dr. Collins, Practical Rules For the Management and Medical Treatment of Negro Slaves in the Sugar Colonies by a Professional Planter (London: J. Barfield for Vernor and Hood, 1803), 382–83.
48. Charles Knowlton, “Fruits of Philosophy,” in Birth Control and Morality in Nineteenth-Century America: Two Discussions (New York: Arno Press, 1972), 49.
49. Sripati Chandrasekhar, “A Dirty Filthy Book”: The Writings of Charles Knowlton and Annie Besant on Reproductive Physiology and Birth Control (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1981), 23.
50. A. Wilberforce Williams, “Talks on Preventive Measures, First Aid Remedies, Hygienics and Sanitation,” Chicago Defender, Dec. 12, 1925, p. A10, col. 7.
51. Michele Mitchell, Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny after Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 101.
52. Chicago Defender, Feb. 7, 1925, p. A4, col. 3.
53. Ladies’ Home Journal, November 1920, 104. For a closer examination of douching as birth control see Andrea Tone, “Devices and Desires: A History of Contraceptives in America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001); and Janet Farrell Brodie, Contraception and Abortion in Nineteenth-Century America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994).
54. Chicago Defender, July 27, 1946, p. 10, col. 5.
55. Chicago Defender, Mar. 7, 1925, p. 13, col. 8.
56. Walker, 85.
57. Ibid., 90.
58. McCall’s, May 1931, 135.
59. Dorothy Bocker, Birth Control Methods (New York: Birth Control Clinical Research, n.d.); Dorothy Dunbar Bromley, Birth Control: Its Use and Misuse (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1934); Rachel Lynn Palmer and Sarah Greenberg, Facts and Frauds in Women’s Hygiene: A Medical Guide against Misleading Claims and Dangerous Products (New York: Garden City Publishing Co., Inc., 1936).
60. Daily Defender, September 6, 1958, p. 15, col. 8.
61. D. Parke Gibson, The $30 Billion Negro (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1969), 7–8.
62. Gibson, 84.
63. Jet, January 16, 1973, p. 38.
64. Jet, May 17, 1982, p. 19.
65. Michael Leslie, “Slow Fade to ?: Advertising in Ebony Magazine, 1957–1989,” Journalism and Mass Communications Quarterly 72 (1995): 426–35.
66. Ebony, June 1970, 76, 89, 98, and 146.
67. Sharon Bramlett-Solomon and Ganga Subramanian, “Nowhere Near Picture Perfect: Images of the Elderly in LIFE and Ebony Magazine Ads, 1990–1997,” Journalism and Mass Communications Quarterly 76 (1999): 566.
68. “Beauty Wonders: No Smell So Sweet,” Essence, September 1971, 20.
69. “Beauty Wonders,” Essence, September 1972, 23.
70. Steven Heffner, ed., OTC Women’s Health: A Supplement to Women’s Health: Worldwide Prescription Drug Markets (Kalorama, 2003), 66.
71. Bronwen Lichtenstein and Tanja Nansel, “Women’s Douching Practices and Related Attitudes: Findings from Four Focus Groups,” Women and Health 31 (2000): 126–27.
72. Ibid., 128.
73. Lisa Smith, et al., “Characterization of Frequent Douchers Attending a Community Clinic Primarily Serving African-American Women,” Journal of the National Medical Association 97 (2005): 1387.
74. Ibid., 1391.
75. Ibid., 1390.
76. Jet, February 13, 1989, p. 31.
77. Ellen Funkhouser, Tameka Hayes, and Sten Vermund. “Vaginal Douching Practices Among Women Attending a University in the Southern United States,” Journal of American College Health 50 (2002): 179–181; Funkhouser, et al., “Douching Beliefs and Practices among Black and White Women,” Journal of Women’s Health and Gender-Based Medicine 11 (2002): 36.
78. Karyn Synder, “Women’s Health,” Drug Topics 141 (1997): 53.
79. Cara Morrison, ed., Feminine Hygiene Products in the US (Packaged Facts, 2006), 3–4; see also Heffner.
80. Morrison, 6.
81. Ibid., 15.
82. Heffner, 64.
83. Sweet Spot Labs, “The Sweet Spot Story,” http://www.sweetspotlabs.com/?rm=launch_pop&a=pop_thestory_nav&b=pop_thestory.
84. LeMoncheck, 10.
85. “Women’s Group Heightens Fight Against Spray Ads,” Jet, March 6, 1975, 19.
86. Nora Ephron, “Dealing with the, uh, Problem,” in Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), 76–99.
87. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York and London: Routledge, 1999), 9–11.
88. Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls (New York: Random House, 1997).
89. Elana Levine, “‘Having a Female Body Doesn’t Make You Feminine’: Feminine Hygiene Advertising and 1970s Television,” The Velvet Light Trap 50 (2002): 36–47.