Written by Taylor Neal
I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say that any of us living in the Western, English-speaking, colonized world has heard, at one point or another, the term “feminine hygiene” in some public setting.
Perhaps this is the name of an aisle in your local drugstore, perhaps it is a notice on a toilet telling you what not to flush, perhaps it is on the box of tampons you just bought or in a commercial for menstrual products. This term has become so commonplace to us that it is used widely and very often, without notice or inquiry. Like so many other colonial terms, when we stop to think about this terminology we use on a daily basis to refer to womb-baring bodies, we realize the implications associated with our language, the violence in the way we refer to our bodies.
Folks with vulvas are taught from a very young age that so much about their simply having a vulva is dirty. Naturally, your body will produce smells, and that’s dirty. Your body will create discharge, and that’s dirty. Your body will bleed, and that’s not only dirty, but horrid and should be hidden as much as humanly possible, though it is the most humanly experience a human can have. With all this nastiness said to be happening down there, we are conditioned to be quite susceptible to anything that might solve our body’s sins, convenient for those looking to profit off of femme insecurities.
“Feminine hygiene” then, and the products associated with it, becomes something we believe we absolutely need. We need to purchase hygiene, because our bodies aren’t intelligent enough to maintain themselves.
What does “feminine hygiene” even mean?
To understand the origin of this term that marks where and how we access menstrual care and any product related to health and wellness for bodies with vulvas, we actually have to trip all the way back to The Comstock Act of 1873. In short, The Comstock Act made it illegal to send “obscene, lewd or lascivious,” “immoral,” or “indecent” publications or material through the mail, as well as deeming it a misdemeanor to sell, give away, or possess any sort of print material considered within this same scope of content; obscene, lewd or lascivious. This legislation included any writing or instruments pertaining to contraception or abortion, even if written by a physician.
The implementation of this legislation meant that birth control would remain illegal in the US until 1965 for married couples and 1972 for single people. The birth control industry of the time then, had to pivot substantially in the verbage they were using to market contraception if these products were to continue to be accessible over the counter.
We first see the use of the term “feminine hygiene” in 1924, put forth by the marketing teams at Lysol and Zonite. Both brands were widely consumed household disinfectant products, and were also known to be used as contraceptive douches. By marketing the products as “feminine hygiene,” Lysol and Zonite could create ads that imply women’s husbands being horrified by the odor of their vaginas, so that the products could be on shelves at drugstores without being linked to contraception. Within this loophole, these products became the best-selling method of birth control throughout The Great Depression.
Menstruation and Feminine Hygiene
Throughout the 20th century, women continued to receive a narrative of shame and disgrace around the natural processes of their bodies. While we now know as a general society that the vagina is self cleaning and douches are not only unnecessary but also unsafe, women of the mid 20th century were told that if they did not keep things squeaky clean down there, their lives would fall apart, their husbands would leave them and they may as well just curl up and die.
Unfortunately, the use of these products to prevent this feared fate was actually extremely dangerous. The product recipe was far more harsh than the ones the same brands sell today, and these products were severely corrosive to the vagina. Hundreds of deaths were associated with exposure to Lysol, among them many women using it to kill sperm.
Equally important to contraception for mid-20th century western women, was not, under any circumstance, letting the world know you were bleeding. Which is how this term became connected to menstruation and menstrual products. Terms like “sanitary napkins” became used to refer to menstrual pads, and menstruation was referred to as “women’s oldest hygienic problem.” This notion of hygiene in relation to vulva-bearing bodies became increasingly present throughout the 20th century, and remains in daily vocabulary today, carrying with it the violence against bodies we continue to struggle against over 100 years later.
Menstrual products often market themselves based on their ability to be discreet in packaging, while simultaneously promoting scented menstrual pads and tampons to solve the odor issue our world so loathes. Anything, to keep the pussy nice and clean and quiet.
What is interesting then, is the amount of products marketed to femmes that cause real health concerns which lead to side effects inclusive to odors, irregular discharge or skin reactions. Thinking of all of the different scented products, undergarments and condoms made from harmful materials, birth control pills that cause more harm than good; it all comes down to a lack of trust in the body.
Trusting Our Bodies
The reason why this fallacy of feminine hygiene has survived and thrived in our world for so long is due to the fact that we are taught to be distrustful of our own bodies. We have been told that no matter what our body does, it’s wrong. Marketing thrives off of this, because there is a never-ending flow of opportunity for profit in a world built on insecurity.
Slowly we are confronting this, slowly things are shifting. The way that this shift happens can only ever be through community. Through community we find knowledge, we find shared experience, we find safety for our bodies to be bodies and for our voices to be heard.
There is nothing unsanitary about our bodies. There is nothing particularly hygienic about menstrual products because there is nothing unhygienic about bleeding.
Where and when and how you can, care for and come into relationship with your body from a place of love rather than from fear.