Yes, that’s right: when you spend your spare time thinking about the political significance of public hair, you never run out of fodder for party small talk. Nor do you ever run out of things to make you mad. Here’s the latest thing — send to me by a number of friends/readers/allies.
Seems besides having intimate bits that are too hairy, it’s also possible to have genitals that are “too brown.” At least that’s what the people who produce a new product aimed at Indian woman. Evidently, the product is some kind of intimate wash that also helps to make your vulva “many shades fairer”. Curious? Here’s the television ad:
Predictably, our protagonist is sad with her ordinary vagina, but is radiantly happy once she’s doused it in chemicals. I’ve written before about the notion of the vagina as being “dirty” until all its protective hair is whisked away. This is a product that actually exactly embodies “your vagina is dirty” mentality. That graphic, with the product lightening an animated groin seems to say it all. Sigh.
Huffington Post’s got a good article on the top. Have a read here:
And as I’ve written before, I love it when readers get in touch. I had a nice little note from Emily recently, who got in touch to tell me about a recent experience she had reading Cosmopolitan magazine.
Here’s what she wrote:
I was at a friend’s house the other day and found something in a magazine that seemed relevant to The Last Triangle.
Looking at Cosmo is like looking at a car crash. I know I’m going to be horrified by what I see, but if there is one there, I still look. The image I attatched is a snap of “99 sex questions answered”. I know not to expect much from Cosmo, but it was still upsetting to see that when one’s lover has a preference for pubes, this publication is encouraging her to leave him the bare minimum. Oh, the implications.
She also sent along this snapshot:
As Emily points out, the problem with this is, of course, that at no point is the poor woman told that her boyfriend would probably be just fine with nothing more than a little trim. But the only option this mainstream mag can offer up is the landing strip: a (probably) salon-driven grooming practice requiring pain, money, time, effort.
As I’ve said a million times: I believe women should be allowed to do whatever they want with their bodies, as long as they know what the options are. Magazines like this would have all young women believe there are only a few ways of being in the world.
Apparently, those of us who grew up with “more graphic language and sexual images in the media” can talk openly about vaginas, rather than skirting around the issue with cute euphemisms (perhaps like generations past?). We are (apparently) also more relaxed about our bodies, so we’re less embarrassed about talking bodily-functions, etc.
But it’s the numbers that are most interesting. According to the article, “ad spending for feminine hygiene products, including tampons, panty liners and cleansers, was up nearly 30 percent to $218.9 million in 2010 from two years ago.”
That’s a lot of money.
I’m fascinated by that increase: what, exactly, has changed? Are we really that much more open about our bodies, or does one or two racy, boundary-pushing ads pave the way for a whole bunch more? (and now it’s been totally normalized. Or have we merely run out of ways to ‘shock’ audiences?).
Interestingly, the article (which explores pubic hair dye and Vajazzling) doesn’t mention the impact that the normalizing of pubic hair removal has had on women (nor the pot loads of money to be had in making them feel insecure about their untended, ‘natural’ bodies).
And at the end of the day, it’s kind of more of the same old thing. The last quote in the article is from Rhonda Zahnen, a principal at The Richards Group (the company responsible for this horrible TV ad), who says predictable things about how excited this is about the fact that people are now “talking about feminine hygiene”. “We just wanted to be sure that the conversation is focused on celebrating and empowering women,” she adds.
(I, personally, feel empowered to hate Zahnen’s ads).
To me it makes perfect sense that the vagina would be having its day: as we all know, the giant money-making machine is always looking for new targets.
The whole vag-spectacle is only empowering, however, if we use the attention for good — choosing to love our lady-bits, rather than feeling ‘empowered’ to subject them to hot wax, labiaplasty, or generalized body-hate.
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).
Someone sent me a link to this fascinating little advertisement over the weekend. In it, our weary, satin-clad protagonist must rip up a dusty grey carpet and haul it down an impossibly long flight of stairs. Got a minute? Watch it here:
The ad, we soon learn, is for laser hair removal. The suggestion is that unless we get our hair permanently whisked away by lasers, we women are forever doomed to drag hugely heavy, dusty shag carpets down impossibly long flights of stairs for all eternity… uh.. I mean are forever doomed to shave and wax and pluck away our ‘unwanted hair’ until we die.
The things we do in the name of beauty…(at least this ad acknowledges that hair removal is a drag…)
Hi all – sorry for the radio silence over the last few days. I’ve been busy reading and thinking and trying to figure out where to take this conversation next. I’ve started doing formal interviews, too. This morning I interviewed a woman who has been working as an esthetician for 35 years. I’ll be offering up some of the best bits of that conversation in an upcoming post.
For now, I wanted to draw your attention to the wild world of YouTube — most significantly, to this commercial for a ‘bikini trimmer’. If you’ve got a quick moment, have a look at this:
This is a commercial that evidently ran on television in the United Kingdom (though I haven’t been able to discern exactly when). It has since enjoyed tremendous popularity here on the interweb.
It some ways, there’s nothing to say, right? It’s at once totally appalling and wonderfully hilarious.
I am particularly fascinated by how un-subtle it is:
I love that we start in a staid living room where our main character sits trapped between two bushy ferns, cuddling a particularly fluffy cat (be sure to note the shorn feline she’s holding in the final scene). She then bursts into the outside world (hair down and dressed in a flouncy skirt and bright pink topic) rarin’ to clip her topiary along with a collection of bubbly neighbours.
We then learn that “some bushes are really big” (black woman) and that “some gardens are mighty small” (asian woman) — but never fear, because “whatever shape your topiary, it’s easy to trim them all.”
In other words ladies: you can do whatever you like with your shrubbery, as long as you do something. Selling women on the idea that they should “never feel untidy” is pretty much at the crux of what I’m on about in this blog: that the unkempt woman is unacceptable. Buying the “Quattro for Women” bikini trimmer, however, oughta get you fixed right up.
(I love that one of the posted comments in response to this video is “This is the hint of all hints to leave on your girlfriends (sic) facebook. lol” Ah, technology: facilitating communication between the sexes for, oh, a handful of years or so).
Oh- and while I’ve got your attention — the American market got a similar but more subtle ad. This one is for the “Schick Quattro Bikini Trim Style”. Have a look:
I love that they encourage us to “Free Our Skin” by buying their product — again, drawing a not-particularly-subtle link between consumption and freedom.
And obviously, women aren’t the only ones being honed in on by the consumption machine. I recently came across this little ditty aimed at (presumably young) men:
It’s interesting to compare how markets tap into male and female insecurities when it comes to intimate grooming. With women, the focus is on feeling tidy and together. With men, it’s about “making the tree look taller”.