hygiene

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So I’ve been thinking about periods – and no, not the punctuation kind.

That’s because I spent some time on the weekend thumbing my way through an interesting little book on menstruation. Called ‘Capitalizing on the Curse: The Business of Menstruation’, the book explores the impact that capitalist forces have had on our monthly periods. It’s by Elizabeth Arveda Kissling, a professor at Eastern Washington University.

I know, I know – I can hear you now: “this is a blog about pubic hair — why the period talk?”

Here’s why: because reading Kissling’s book about periods actually made me think a lot about women and their relationships to their own body hair.

Kissling’s interesting premise is that though it’s a regular phenomenon for half the world’s population, periods are typically seen as icky and gross — a troublesome interruption in the month that must be dealt with (ideally) in secret (god forbid your males friends should catch a glimpse of a tampon in your purse!).

What Kissling argues is that our periods have been sold back to us by corporations who capitalize on those negative attitudes in order to “sell us solutions for nonexistent problems.” She argues that although the hygiene industry has been good for women in some ways (ie. we have readily available, inexpensive and easy-to-use products which allow us to function ‘normally’ even as we’re shedding our uterine lining), the commercialization of an otherwise normal bodily process has also done us a disservice.

That’s because the capitalist agenda has women compelled to be constantly in pursuit of “freshness” — the preferred state, we readily learn, for women to exist in. I’ll quote Kissling here (from her conclusion):

“In the commercial world of so-called feminine hygiene products, menstruation is portrayed as a literal and figurative stain on one’s femininity. Women are urged by advertisements to “stay clean, stay fresh, stay free,” as if their freedom depends upon their freshness. The freedom (if not freshness) in women’s everyday lives enabled by modern menstrual products is truly transformative, but freedom is never really free, at least under consumer capitalism. To enjoy the liberty granted y products that reduce discomfort, relieve pain, and increase freedom of movement, women must participate in the construction of their own Otherness. In using these products, women are compelled to buy into the idea of the menstruating woman as one of tainted femininity.” (p. 124)

Kissling uses existentialist Simone de Beauvoir to investigate this idea of Otherness — something she describes as being an artifact of a male-dominated society wherein women learn to feel “an alienation from their own bodies.” As Kissling writes, “a properly socialized woman develops a sense of herself as object, an Other that is both venerated and feared, as she internalizes her society’s dominant ideologies about women.” (p. 3)

It helps explain why women feel such shame and disgust at the idea of their own periods. Our monthly bleeding is marketed to us as a “hygienic crisis”. Talking about ads for menstrual products, Kissling writes:

“It is a hygiene crisis that one must clean up, in secret, so that one’s public projection of ideal femininity is not damaged or polluted.” (p.12)

Kissling quotes another scholar, Tomi-Ann Roberts, who makes this wise observation:

“One of the obligations that women have in a culture that sexually objectifies their bodies is to conceal the biological functioning of their bodies.” (p.20)

And that’s where we come back to pubic hair.

Women learn early on to treat themselves as objects. And getting rid of body hair, whether it’s on our legs or between them, is just another way of doing that.

 

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Ah yes, the things we learn online…

Here’s a fine example: while doing my Vajazzling research the other day, I learned a new term: Vajacial.

What’s a Vajacial, you ask? Ah yes, I’m glad you did.

Well apparently it’s a ‘facial’ for your intimate bits.

According to The Luxury Spot, a spa in San Francisco has been offering what is essentially a facial for your labia. Apparently it’s geared at women who get Brazilian waxes but experience “unwanted side effects like ingrown hairs, bumps, and skin irritations.”

As the article explains, “the treatment is trademarked and takes about 50 minutes to give your crotch the best non-orgasmic experience you can imagine.  It’s meant to be performed the week after your wax and involves 4 steps. Antibacterial cleansing with witch hazel, papaya exfoliation, and an esthetician that personally removes your ingrown hairs (now that’s service!) are all standard.  The treatment is finished with a calming, anti-freckle, anti-acne mask and a lightening cream.”

This, my friends, is body insecurity taken to new heights. First we’re supposed to spend all kinds of time and money (and endure all kinds of pain) getting our vulvas into acceptable hairless shape, and then we’re supposed to spend MORE money ($60!) getting a 50-minute treatment to help counter the negative effects of the first treatment?

C’mon, people. Are we OUT OF OUR MINDS?

(BellaSugar provides a decent response – and more info – here)

 

 

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So my last entry was all about hygiene. And as I mentioned, hygiene is one of the primary motivators for pubic hair removal, at least among women.

It doesn’t take much searching to find the to-shave-or-not-to-shave hygiene debate raging on-line. Don’t believe me? See http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20080120195341AAEuBId or http://www.videojug.com/filmsuggestion/is-shaving-off-my-pubic-hair-a-good-hygiene-measure for examples…and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The amount of misinformation on-line is astounding.

Pubic hair on women is (if you only had these online forums to go on, anyway): unattractive, smelly, itchy, wrong.

I, however, find some interesting conversation on a Live Journal page about pubic hair, with some particularly interesting comments posted by ‘Queensugar’ on January 8, 2011:

The massive myth that hair is “unhygienic” has come about, essentially, as a direct response to cultural pressures that demand hairless women. Generally speaking, once culture has created a demand on the human body for cultural or economic reasons, it then creates health-related “arguments” to support that arbitrary demand, or creates those arguments when the old culturalized arguments fall out of vogue.

It’s always worth noting that this issue is never once raised when it comes to male pubic hair, or armpit hair, or leg hair. But with women, all three of those hair-points are referred to as potentially “unhygienic” unless you shave them off. Female bodies are not magically “less clean” than male bodies.

Overall, there’s no single compelling hygiene reason to shave, or not to shave. Most physicians I know who are experts in female genital health advocate not shaving, due to the risk of infection or irritation and the lack of hair to wick moisture away from the skin. But these are not make-or-break issues across the spectrum.

I don’t shave. Right now, I don’t even trim. Occasionally (like, once every three or four months) when I have a partner in my life I shave it all off for funsies, but my husband moved to the U.S. awhile ago and I don’t plan to do anything at all to “keep” my pubes for the foreseeable future.

Then she adds (in a follow-up post):

Oh, as another note: I always find it interesting — and I myself have done this countless times — that when women don’t shave their pubes, they often express the reason for that as being “lazy.” This is usually said tongue-in-cheek, but I find it really interesting at this word has become so common to use in conjunction with not shaving the pubes.

(the full dialogue can be found here: http://vaginapagina.livejournal.com/19330510.html)

Seems to me that ‘Queensugar’ nails it: women who don’t get on-board when it comes to body maintenance are not only dirty — they’re lazy, too.

In my reading, I’ve spent a lot of quality time with an article by Magdala Peixoto Labre called “The Brazilian Wax: New Hairlessness Norm for Women?” The 2002 article takes an in-depth look at a (then) developing trend towards the mainstreaming of the Brazilian wax. One of Labre’s concerns is that it is “contributing to the construction of women’s sexual organs as dirty and unattractive.

As Labre writes:

“In a sexist culture, women are not only socialized to be narcissistically obsessed with their bodies, but also are constantly reminded that their bodies are deficient to begin with (Bartky, 1990). As noted by Ussher (1989), the female body has been constructed in a derogatory light — women are made to feel embarrassed by the look and smell of their sexual organs.” (p126)

And now, almost ten years after Labre first published that paper, we’re embracing the idea that the vagina is ‘unclean’ more readily than ever.

Even “Spring Cleaning Should Start With a Brazilian Wax” (right ‘Shine’ magazine?).

Got thoughts on this whole hygiene issue? I’d love to hear ’em.

 

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One of the aspects of the pubic-hair-removal question that I’m particularly interested in is the question of hygiene. It’s an issue that has come up again and again in both my reading and in conversations with women.

I know we’re a cleanliness-obsessed culture, but when people tell me this issue isn’t worth getting worked up about because it’s merely a question of ‘hygiene’ (ie. it’s not a ‘feminist’ issue), I can’t help but think twice. Because I definitely think it’s a lot more complicated than that.

I spent part of yesterday flipping through a book by Elizabeth Shove called Comfort, Cleanliness + Convenience: The Social Organization of Normality. While the bulk of the book is devoted to issues of consumption and convenience as they relate to homes, cleaning practices (think laundry and housework), and the rise of the bathroom, she does spend some time considering body practices — particularly as they relate to bathing and showering. It definitely got me thinking.

Obviously, there is an easy connection to be drawn between cleanliness and morality in contemporary culture. After all, ‘dirty’ is a loaded word, implying all sorts of social ills that have nothing to do with being unclean. We are a dirt and germ-obsessed culture. We can beckon squirts of antibacterial hand sanitizer from dispensers in public places. We douse our floors and countertops with chemicals in a bid to banish microscopic bits of grime. We wonder about people who don’t take daily showers.

But as Shove writes, “moral regimes are to some extent commodified, scripted and embedded in the tools and infrastructures on which we rely.” (p.84). She continues, writing:

“Whatever the beliefs and technologies of the day, doing what people think of as cleaning, whether of the person or of clothing, generally requires a rather high level of active participation. Cleaning consequently involves the routine reproduction not just of classificatory schemes of delicacy, propriety and gender, but also of performance.”  (p.85)

And there’s this:

“It is the every day activity of laundering or showering that convinces people there is dirt to remove.” (p.85)

After all, as Shove explains so well, views on cleanliness change. In the 16th Century, people believe the body was porous and so didn’t encourage frequent washing lest you should fill up with water. In the 17th and 18th Century, people believed that stench — from nearby cemeteries and cesspools — could penetrate the body, so the priority became in removing smell, not dirt. Perfume was thought to be an effective protection against disease.

As Shove writes, “If smell spelt danger then the best indication of hygiene was the lack, rather than the presence of overwhelming scent.” They are, as she points out, “ideas that still inform contemporary bathing and laundry practices.” (p.87)

Since one of my questions is around how we got to this place where pubic hair removal on women is becoming the dominant body practice, I think it’s important that we think about this question of how we understand hygiene — especially in terms of how it relates to women’s intimate bits.

The short answer is that it’s all constructed, people: how we view our bodies, each other, the world. It’s never just about, say, hygiene.

If you’ve been following along, you probably know where I’m going with this…stay tuned for more…

 

(Work Cited: Shove, E. Comfort. Cleanliness and Convenience: the Social Organization of Normality. Oxford ; New York : BERG, 2003)

 

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