Neuroses about feminine hygiene: The past (douching)
Part 1 here covered the trend toward pubic hair removal of the past 20 years. It's not an aesthetic or sexual thing, but a hygiene/disgust thing, in their own words. They obsess about it if it begins to grow in, and they compulsively remove it to alleviate their anxiety. Yet the OCD woman of today never feels real relief because the damn thing keeps growing back in.
Now let's turn to the previous outbreak of both OCD and of neurosis about feminine hygiene, the mid-century.
The prevalence of OCD back then is pretty easy to diagnose from the ubiquitous hygiene films that were screened to schoolchildren. Here you can see stills and summaries of a couple dozen of them, mostly from the '40s and '50s. They didn't fall on deaf ears either: most candid pictures from the mid-century show people who are fairly fastidious about grooming and hygiene.
As for their obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior about feminine hygiene purification rituals, they centered around douching rather than hair removal back then. A concise account can be found in chapters 8 and 9 of Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation. (I know, the things I read to uncover the truth...) The tone is your standard snarky sassypants, and the rest of the book consists of predictable feminist griping about having to live up to male-determined standards bla bla bla. But the chapters that stick more to primary sources like ad campaigns are quite revealing for just how out-there the mid-century zeitgeist was, and how similar to our own.
Unlike the seeming mystery of pubic hair removal, it's a no-brainer to interpret douching as a hygiene and disgust-related practice. Not always -- sometimes they market them about feeling comfortable and fresh, not appealing to the yuck factor. But in the mid-century, the mindset was all about purifying her disgusting, offensive odors.
There were two major purveyors of douching solutions, Zonite (weak bleach) and Lysol -- I mean, why only disinfect your counter-tops with the stuff? To see how widespread they were, do a Google image search for douche ad lysol, and douche ad zonite. These dozens of ads span decades and appeared in perfectly mainstream magazines like Woman's Day and Good Housekeeping. You want to see how surprisingly bizarre the '40s and '50s were? -- take a look for yourself. Below are only a few that illustrate the pattern.
Her husband has locked himself away from her disgusting odor, which because of doubt and inhibition she's neglected to do anything about. Some of the copy:
One most effective way to safeguard her dainty feminine allure is by practicing complete feminine hygiene as provided by vaginal douches with a scientifically correct preparation like "Lysol." So easy a way to banish the misgivings that often keep married lovers apart.Once again we see the crippling self-doubt of the mid-century on full display. Women who are more well-adjusted don't get hysterical about this kind of stuff, and would not be susceptible to these kinds of ads. The fact that these campaigns lasted so long, and so presumably drummed up so much business, tells us that women of the time really were ashamed of their sex and neurotic about feminine hygiene, far beyond taking basic care of themselves. Just like today's hair-removers.
. . . truly cleanses the vaginal canal even in the presence of mucous matter.
. . . the very source of objectionable odors is eliminated.
Also note how disgustingly palpable the word choice is -- "mucous," "matter," "odors," etc. They had little sense of taboo when talking about the effluvia and odors of the female sex organ, no roundabout references here. This taboo-violating word choice is not uncommon to find across the ads.
Young married couple were supposed to enjoy a little roll in the hay during their quiet evening at home, but the disgusted huband just can't bring himself to tell his eager wife that it stinks.
And she must constantly be on guard against an offense greater than body odor or bad breath -- an odor she may not detect herself but is so apparent to other people.Again the appeal to self-doubt and shame, the OCD emphasis on "constantly" being on guard, and the vivid description of "odor-causing waste substances". Here are a couple other funny ones from Lysol and Zonite, but again just wade through the Google image results for yourself. To find ads for other brands, try douche ad 1940s, or douche ad 1950s.
Zonite... actually destroys, dissolves and removes odor-causing waste substances.
So what's the big deal, you might ask? Wasn't it great that ads could so freely shame women for not pleasing their husbands, and that husbands were still allowed to look disgusted if their wives didn't meet the standards?
Well, no, that atmosphere is just like ours today with hair removal. Women feel a crippling shame themselves, other women try to shame them if they don't shave or wax, and hysterical "men" get all grossed out by normal female appearance and texture. Indeed, the guys' inflexibility and appeal to violations of hygiene/disgust norms shows that the guys themselves suffer from OCD and fetishism, almost as though they'd be unable to perform if her vulva didn't look the way they preferred.
A normal woman has nothing to be ashamed of down there, unless she truly does have an infection or something. Clearly the douching phenomenon was hysterically blowing the "problem" out of all proportion. We don't know how men felt, but if they were like those depicted in the ads, then they were psychologically stunted too, in that "ewww, girls are yucky!" stage of childhood.
Crippling shame and juvenile girls-have-cooties disgust are not signs of healthy minds. Rather, we've found yet another case of the broader picture that the mid-century was the "Age of Anxiety". They make the population look more like that of tropical gardening societies (horticulturalists), where there's a pervasive fear and disgust of female sexuality. These are the societies with little to recommend them, they're the most savage. Think of your first impression of the Amazon, New Guinea, or sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, even today African-American women are much more likely than whites to douche, owing to the tropical gardening culture of their ancestors.
The ads are more disgusting than the "problem" they seek to treat -- imagine opening a mainstream magazine and reading the words "mucous matter," "odor-causing waste substances," etc., in the context of feminine hygiene. That's what's gross -- violating the taboo that you talk about that somewhere else.
Aside from warped minds and gross language, the douching phenomenon had real consequences for women's health -- negative. Doctors don't even recommend it anymore because it's now understood how altering the vulvo-vaginal ecosystem so radically can eliminate the good bacteria and allow the nasty ones to take over. See here for the negative outcomes that douching is associated with, and see here for a longitudinal study showing that douching raises the risk of getting bacterial vaginosis (similar symptoms as a yeast infection, including a fishy smell, but more common than it). So, douching causes at least some of those problems, including infection, rather than being a harmless bystander in a web of mere correlations.
We don't even know yet what the parallel harms are that pubic shaving and waxing do, but we don't need to right now. It's clear that they're there, because of such radical alteration of human nature. And no, as some airhead suggested before, it's not the same as shaving the armpits -- there are loads more pathogenic organisms in and around the vagina, which is an opening into the body, unlike the armpit. You're messing with something more serious when you remove pubic hair vs. armpit hair.
At any rate, harm is not the main issue here. It's how well-adjusted, healthy-minded, and socially integrated people are. Normal men and women will not show such an OCD mindset and behavior toward feminine hygiene, as indeed they did not during the '80s, the '70s, and even most of the '60s. The neurotic preoccupation with douching provides another example, then, of how unwholesome the mid-century culture was.
I'm sure it didn't occupy their every waking moment, but then neither does pubic hair removal today. It was so common -- if 30% douche today, when doctors discourage it, it must have been near or over 50% during its heyday. And it was so centered on shame. As with pubic hair, it's just not the kind of thing women should be obsessing over and compulsively trying to "treat," only to remain neurotic.