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It's a Vagina, Not a Yankee Candle!

May 26 2022 | In collaboration with Lily from @tiddygoals

All vulva-wielding humans aspire to have their nether regions smell like fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice on a warm summer’s day (not too warm, just like, comfortably breezy). At the very least, your lady garden should periodically release a flirtatious cactus blossom aroma every four to seven hours, right? Just kidding. Vaginas should smell like vaginas. In fact, I have already used the word “vagina” more times than the leading feminine hygiene brand, Summer’s Eve, has dared to use in any of their branding or marketing materials. The feminine hygiene industry, specifically the portion of the industry consisting of non-menstrual cosmetic products, “uses marketing that promotes unattainable standards of vaginal health” (Jenkins, Money, & O’Doherty, 2020). It is entirely built on myths about the natural vulva being unclean and unacceptable. In fact, the label “feminine hygiene” itself is misleading and stigmatizing. Having a vulva and menstruating are not “feminine” experiences. Not everyone with a vulva is a woman, and not every woman has a vulva. Furthermore, the term “hygiene” implies that there is something inherently unhygienic about having a vulva and menstruating. In reality, menstruation is a healthy bodily function, and the vagina is a self-cleaning organ. Summer’s Eve specializes in products meant to correct the objectionable nature of the vulva. The brand employs a delicate use of language to communicate this message under the guise of health and empowerment. Long story short, don’t fall for it.

The Rise of a $42.7B Industry

The “feminine hygiene” industry amasses billions of dollars annually advertising myths about female genitalia. Summer’s Eve is a leading brand in feminine hygiene, selling cleansers, cloths, sprays, and douches advertised for enhancing the “freshness” of vulvas since 1972. Despite the fact that the type of products Summer’s Eve sells are increasingly recognized as unnecessary, potentially dangerous, and based on myths, the global feminine hygiene market is still on the rise, expected to garner $42.7 billion in revenue through 2022 (Collins, Strugatz, and Thomas, 2017).

This industry emerged at the turn of the twentieth century, revolving around douching (the practice of flushing out the vagina by inserting water and usually a mixture of other fluids) as a contraceptive practice (albeit an ineffective one). Douching was once promoted by both physicians and entrepreneurs as a general hygiene practice in addition to contraception, despite a dearth of scientific evidence for these uses. The “feminine hygiene” label was conceived to replace overt references to contraception in douche marketing, since new federal advertising regulations prohibited explicit referencing to contraception. Businesses adjusted their advertising techniques accordingly, appealing to societal myths about the dirtiness of the vulva to create a demand for douches, cleansers, and the like. Over the twentieth century, advertising for douches and other “feminine hygiene” products consistently amplified the message that women must use vaginal cleanliness products in order to maintain both hygiene and social esteem (Jenkins, Money, & O’Doherty, 2020). 

Spoiler Alert: You Don’t Need to Clean Your Vagina

Wipes, cleansers, douches, and sprays for your genitals wouldn’t exist if they weren’t useful, right? Wrong. Rather, the market identified a lucrative insecurity among women and capitalized on it, in hopes that women won’t discover that these products are at best, useless, and at worst, physically harmful. In reality, “you don’t [need to] clean your vagina, full stop”. This statement from Dr. Elizabeth Farrell, gynecologist and medical director at the Jean Hailes for Women’s Health Organization in Australia, echoes a message of caution consistently voiced by gynecological and obstetric communities around the globe (Willis, 2017). The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists also recommends that females do not douche, as it is more harmful than helpful (Cohut, 2019).

To be clear, the vagina is self-cleaning, and the use of any cleansers, douches, deodorizers, or wipes is largely harmful and entirely unnecessary according to medical professionals and empirical research. Ingredients in these products are often found to be riddled with harmful chemicals with serious associated risks, from increased susceptibility to urinary tract infections, to ovarian cancer, and more (Willis, 2017). The vagina is a delicately self-balanced microbiome, so the best way to maintain vulvar and vaginal health is to leave this area alone (Willis, 2017). Feminine hygiene companies, however, capitalize on cultural messaging about female bodies being inherently unclean or inadequate. The popularity of these products can be attributed to people’s general lack of knowledge about female genitalia, and cultural beliefs that bodily functions, such as vaginal discharge and its natural scents, are problematic. Common misunderstandings about women’s own bodies are key to the persuasive power of feminine hygiene brands.

While walking through the feminine hygiene section of any drugstore, you can immediately notice the flowery packaging of “feminine” or “intimate” wipes, sprays, and more, labeled with tropical, fruity, even seasonal scents. I’ve always been puzzled by these products, since I had been taught that vaginas don’t require cleansers. Was I missing something? Can and should I make my vagina smell like pumpkin spice? This quandary led me to delve into a critical investigation of Summer’s Eve’s branding and marketing materials. Unsurprisingly, I found a lot of strategic, persuasive themes in their advertisements.

Messaging to Keep an Eye Out For

Here are two such marketing themes to look out for next time you’re in the family planning Isle:

The Medical/Health Angle:

Quasi-medical language, such as “gynecologist-tested” and “pH-balanced”, deliberately communicates the enhancement of health. What is less clear to consumers is whether this language actually translates to real health benefits. Yes, ideally any products that interact with the vagina should be approved by a gynecologist. And considering the vagina is naturally acidic, products should be balanced to the vagina’s natural pH levels in order to avoid throwing off your pH balance and increasing your risk of infections. Ultimately, these buzzwords boil down to the meaning that “this product will not likely cause intense medical problems”, but they certainly do not promote vaginal health (and honestly, according to the many women in my Tiktok comment section, infections from these products seem ubiquitous).

According to Lauren Streicher, MD, associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University’s medical school and medical director of the Center for Sexual Health and the Center for Menopause, “gynecologist tested” is “absolutely meaningless” from a medical point of view. Striecher explains that these endorsements usually occur when companies hire medical professionals with substantial sums of money and “say something along the lines of, ‘give this to five patients and see if their vaginas explode’”(Stieg 2018).

In reality, these products are completely unnecessary, and do not even achieve their promised effects, since the practice of introducing cleansers into this area is antithetical to the functioning of the vagina itself. In fact, it will probably throw off your vagina’s pH levels and the average gynecologist would not recommend these products. The actual way one would achieve a clean and balanced vagina is to leave it alone and not introduce any chemicals, since it is self-cleaning. This rhetorical pattern in Summer’s Eve’s marketing deceives consumers by making them think that applying these products to the vulva is a non-negotiable “health” routine. They tactfully sprinkle in medical language to endorse a non-medical practice. 

The Self Love and Empowerment Angle:

Another way Summer’s Eve frequently tries to build trust among consumers is its deployment of a tone of empowerment, solidarity among women, and self care. This language cements the irony of Summer’s Eve’s implicit message to women, that loving one’s own body is attainable only if one subscribes to demeaning myths about the female body, and acts accordingly to alter that body. Summer’s Eve frequently employs a “we’re all in this together!” tone, insinuating that women unite over the manufactured need to cleanse and change the scent of the vulva. Whether they are urging, “come on ladies, show it a little love!” (“it” being the vulva), or that their products are designed to “make sure you’re getting the proper attention you so rightly deserve”, Summer’s Eve deceivingly implies that this practice is non-negotiable, so women might as well find solace in uniting with each other over it. This messaging avoids acknowledging that women can and should love their natural bodies, because this acknowledgement would effectively erase the demand that Summer’s Eve has tactfully created for its products. When you’re being told to love your vulva by a brand that refuses to even say or write the word “vulva” on any of their branding, you should be suspicious. 

Let's Wrap It Up

Summer’s Eve is far from the only brand that utilizes deceptive marketing practices. The more you look, the more you’ll find them.  A good rule of thumb is that if the product sells based on peoples' insecurities, you probably don't need it - you've just been socialized to think you do. So, be mindful of companies’ claims, and celebrate the beauty of your vulva.