Yup, here we go again.
This time it’s a commercial for Summer’s Eve ‘cleansing wash and cloths.’ This video has been raising a few virtual eyebrows in the blogosphere for being stupid, sexist and generally dumb (oh- and for perpetuating the idea that women should be buying extra products for cleaning their genitals, because in our hygiene-obsessed culture, apparently plain old soap and water won’t cut it.
A woman of color in an animal skin dress holds up a baby swaddled in hide against the backdrop of the aurora borealis in a night-scape on a mountainside as “primitive” drums play. “It’s the cradle of life,” says a female voiceover. The music takes on a male chorus as the scene changes to a Cleopatra-like character lifting her arms into a V atop a pyramid over a cheering crowd. “It’s the cradle of civilization,” says the voiceover. The music takes on an action beat as the scene switches to a fight between two Asian men in a bamboo forest, as a mysterious Asian woman watches them. “Over the ages and throughout the world, men have fought for it,” says the voiceover, as the scene segues to a jousting match in Merry Olde England as a princess gazes on, “battled for it, even died for it.” One knight knocks the other off his horse, then raises his faceguard to look at the princess, who smiles at him. “One might say, it’s the most powerful thing on Earth.” The music crescendos, then immediately dies to muzak as the scene cuts to a grocery store, where a modern woman of color is standing in an aisle, holding a Summer’s Eve product in her hand. “Hmm!” she says, as if it’s a revelatory new product, looking at the bottle, then putting it in her cart. “So, come on, ladies,” says the voiceover, now in a conversational tone. “Show it a little love!”
Cut to a screen showing the products, labeled “Hail to the V.” “Cleansing wash and cloths, from Summer’s Eve,” says the voiceover. “Hail to the V!”
There’s nothing capitalism likes better than selling people (especially women) products they don’t need. A particularly effective way to do that, of course, is to make them feel really insecure about their bodies so that they feel obliged to buy stuff (what do you think the quest for the perpetual quest for the perfect pair of jeans is all about?).
And since these ads selling us ‘intimate cleansing products’ have been around for awhile (anyone remember this one?) you’d think we’d all be up to speed on the this-is-dumb-we-don’t-need-to-buy-products-to-make-our-vaginas-more-fresh-thank-you-very-much arguments.
But advertising and popular culture is powerful, and we’re surprisingly good at internalizing the messages we get.
American philosopher and cultural theorist Susan Bordo writes about these kinds of ideas (and because I’m writing an academic paper at the moment, I’m going to use some of her ideas here). In her 1993 text Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body, Bordo talks about the body being a “medium of culture.” She references Michel Foucault’s ideas about the body as a “direct locus of social control” — a “docile body” (ie. not a raw, natural body, but one that is “regulated by the norms of cultural life).
A douched body is most definitely a “docile body”. So, too, is a perpetually waxed one.
Bordo points out (and remember, she wrote this book in 1993, so things are probably more extreme now), that women are spending “more time on the management and disciplining of our bodies than we have in a long, long time.” She draws a connection (as others have) between the fact that as more opportunities for women open up in the public sphere, our body practices become more and more rigorous.
“Through the pursuit of an ever-changing, homogenizing, elusive ideal of femininity — a pursuit without a terminus, requiring that women constantly attend to minute and often whimsical changes in fashion — female bodies become docile bodies — bodies whose forces and energies are habituated to external regulation, subjection, transformation, “improvement”, writes Bordo.
“Through the exacting and normalizing disciplines of diet, makeup and dress — central organizing principals of time and space in the day of many women — we are rendered less socially oriented and more centripetally focused on self-modification. Through these disciplines, we continue to memorize on our bodies the feel and conviction of lack, of insufficiency, of never being good enough.”
Loving our bodies, we are not.
(Cut to the black woman shopping for Summer’s Eve products in a grocery store)
So while the Summer’s Eve commercial may be singing “Hail to the V”, the actual message that’s being internalized is (again, predictably) your untended vulva is gross and disgusting.
And it’s working.
And it’s extremely applicable to normalized pubic hair removal:
A young woman (a regular waxer) recently told me about her reasons for pursuing a practice that was painful and that she couldn’t afford.
“I guess I feel cleaner,” she said. “I like having no hair.” And then she paused. “I guess…vaginas are really…”. She struggled to find the right words. “When you have no (pubic) hair, it’s just less embarrassing. I feel like vaginas are…weird.”
(And yes, I did point out that keeping it bare might make it seem MORE weird than if it were blanketed in hair).
Vagina insecurity = 1
Body confidence = 0
Once again, waxing wins.