A PR disaster for feminine hygiene company Femfresh developed on the internet this week after their refusal to use the word “vagina” on their facebook page. Femfresh make feminine hygiene wipes – that is, wipes for vaginas, among a range of other products from gels to washes that serve the same purpose. One would expect that a company in the business of selling vagina-related products wouldn’t have any problem with saying the word vagina.
It was not to be. Instead of saying the v-word they took to using a number of words instead of it such as “va jay jay, kitty, nooni, lala, froo froo!” to describe women’s vaginas. It would be interesting to see transcipts of the discussions of their marketing meetings where that decision was made.
Their Facebook page, which has now been deleted as a result of the uproar, was aghast with comments from rightfully disgruntled women who took umbrage with the fact that the Femfresh felt the need to give their vagina a new, rather infantilised, and for many insulting, name. The Facebook page showed an image of a woman at a festival under which someone added the most wonderful comment;
“I can’t go to any festivals! I’ll be too busy sitting at home crying about the embarrassing smell of my shame-shame.”
It generated a very interesting discussion on various blogs about why women took offence to the Femfresh idea that there was something offensive about the word ‘vagina’ and why it really didn’t need another name because the word ‘vagina’ was sufficient in itself.
The thing is though; nobody should be really surprised that Femfresh would consider that the word ‘vagina’ is too offensive to use on their facebook page and that a more sanitised word should be employed instead. Their whole business is based on the premise that vaginas are inherently offensive and in need of sanitising -coincidentally, women have the opportunity to make their genitals less offensive if they buy Femfresh products to wash themselves with. It wouldn’t do to let women believe that their genitals are pretty much fine in their natural state.
This is about sending women a message that female bodies, where they are not aided by products that alter their natural state, be it their skin colour, hair levels, or ph balance for that matter, are unfeminine and unnatural and it is imperative that women engage in the alteration and self-regulation of their own bodies. To just wash normally, according to Femfresh, would not be hygienic enough, despite being contrary to all known medical evidence, so one must buy their product and do something extra. Where is Foucault when you need him?
There are rules within patriarchal capitalism and women who do not conform to the self-regulation of the body must be painted as being abnormal lest it threaten the sales of body-altering products. Although she wrote on the issue of weight, it’s rather similar to philosopher Elizabeth Grosz’s idea that women’s bodies in their natural state in Western societies are construed as being uncontained, uncontrolled and dangerous to a Western Patriarchal order. The woman’s body is positioned as being in need of control when in its natural state – almost as if it possesses a formlessness and disorder that threatens the order of patriarchy if left untamed. A body in no need of “untaming” would have no need for the purchase of commodities to tame it, and where would that leave capitalism?
Medical discourse decides what is healthy, and Femfresh (as well as other companies selling similar products) have attempted to appropriate the ability to control the “ph balance” of a vagina despite the fact that the vagina is self-regulating when it comes to its ph balance. But products sell much faster when you convince people that it’s for the good of their health.
There are many similarities to the marketing of these products and menstruation products. Simone De Beauvoir wrote about the idea of shame attached to the female body as far back as 1949;
“It is not easy to play the idol, the fairy, the faraway princess when one feels a bloody cloth between one’s legs”.
And even today despite its normality (for the majority of cis-women at least) menstruation or even the natural and normal activity of what goes on between a woman’s legs is deemed to be a tainted aspect of femininity that she must keep hidden and secret at all times – because any other party’s knowledge of it would damage her femininity.
Advertisements for Femfresh style hygiene products as well as menstrual products depict the unattended woman’s genitals as a threat to the traditional image of femininity. Even the packaging for the products is specifically designed so as to be “discrete” and the secrecy of compliance with menstrual etiquette serves to reinforce to women their status as objects, and not as humans. This type of grooming is portrayed by these companies as a method for women to self-improve on the way to self-fulfilment; liberation will be found in the idealised body type – you must look a certain way, and you must smell a certain way. As they frame it, to not engage in this practice is to let yourself go and for a woman – according to the terms of patriarchal capitalism – to let yourself or your body go is to reject womanhood itself.
Thus self-improvement can be achieved, but it must be purchased by using more products and spending more money. For Femfresh the process is not an optional extra – it is about being healthy and maintaining a ph balance after all – it is about paying to bring the body to a state of normality as they have defined it and rescinding the body’s own control of itself.