February 20, 2013

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.
. . . truly cleanses the vaginal canal even in the presence of mucous matter.
. . . the very source of objectionable odors is eliminated.
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.

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.
Zonite... actually destroys, dissolves and removes odor-causing waste substances.
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.

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.

11 comments:

  1. Anonymous7:57 AM

    When she's really in the mood, and your nose is opened to that fresh hot p- smell? This moment never seems to be mentioned in otherwise pornographic ads. Very strong appeals to disgust are certainly in order here; we all have a sewer line through our Disneyland. You see the Brazilian as a simple appeal to effeminate adolescent disgust. Half the story. I remember the 90s when it started getting popular, just at the time internet porn focused on crotches got popular. Porn cameras don't focus on the female crotch to drive men off. Guys like gash. The Bald Eagle flies an appeal to appetite as much as disgust.

    Even those 50s ads suggest that a clean, fresh woman's p- smell keeps her man looking forward to evenings alone together.

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  2. We now know that they must have smelled worse on average in the heyday of douching because of the disruptive effect of clearing out all the flora down there.

    The longitudinal study I linked to shows that douching raises the risk of bacterial vaginosis by about 20% -- there's your pungent fishy odor right there.

    And of course that's just the tail of a distribution: some additional fraction of women will develop floral problems, and hence odor problems, that are bad enough to be noticed but not so bad that they meet the threshold for a clinical diagnosis.

    There's no need to be hypothetical, theoretical, and abstract about it, though -- people started having more frequent sex starting in the '60s and peaking somewhere in the '80s or early '90s. That was at the same time that douching began falling out of favor, and of course before pubic hair removal replaced it as a hygiene OCD ritual in the '90s.

    And yet, somehow all those guys and girls managed to enjoy themselves -- more than they had in the recent past, and more than they would in the near future, judging from the atmosphere at the time and from recollections ever since.

    Not that it never had its awkward or shameful aspects. It wasn't Margaret Mead's fake Samoa. But the crippling self-doubt and hang ups about non-existent or over-exaggerated hygiene problems melted away during that period.

    It was a more Pagan atmosphere, for lack of a better term. People didn't view their own crotch as some kind of mortal enemy. Girls felt comfortable using the words "pussy" and "panties," and guys felt confident enough to name their johnson and use phrases like "rock out with your cock out". And no one took personal offense to phrases like "furburger," "bearded clam," etc.

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  3. Anonymous11:38 AM

    Is it coincidental that this kind of neurosis manifests at promiscuous times? Grandmothers know that sluts get 'the Brazilian'...

    Is there correlation between douching and shaving?

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  4. I've seen data indicating the the prevalence of pubic shaving decreases with age, so we can tell a story of secular change there. I'd like to see data on douching over time to see if it fits the same sort of pattern described.

    Another contrast between the post-war era and today: the "baby boom". Is that also attributable to asabiya?

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  5. Anonymous7:18 PM

    Shows the same mocking, condescending attitude towards sex that is common nowadays.

    -Curtis

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  6. Anonymous6:18 AM

    Douching does seem more common among promiscuous women -

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2567125/

    "Independently of race, associations between douching and poverty, less than a high school education, a history of pelvic inflammatory disease, and having between two and nine lifetime sexual partners are reported (1).

    A lower educational level, many sexual partners, and poverty are also risk factors for sexually transmitted diseases and bacterial vaginosis, making it especially complicated to assess causality since women might douche secondary to infection-related symptoms rather than for routine purposes."


    It might be interesting if this was a common practice more among older women in the 40s and 50s, who had practiced more promiscuity in their youth, since there is a promiscuity connection.

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  7. Anonymous7:23 AM

    Searching for "pubic hair removal" and 1980s gives a slew of links which state the 1980s was the time when pubic shaving began to grow in popularity.

    This lines up the with google ngrams, where "pubic hair" becomes a much more prevalent term from 1970 to 1980, then holds constant and where "pubic shaving" and "shaving pubic" (rather uncommon terms, but the only ones which really generates a ngram) really increases in popularity (explodes!) between 1970 and 1980 and "removing pubic" shows an even upwards trend from 1980 to 1995.

    Some googling suggests that Playboy (the "mainstream" magazine) centerfolds only began changing in the 90s while stronger porn (Hustler?) began changing the 1980s. They don't provide anything quantitative. Even if so, I guess you could argue that stronger porn is consumed by people who are more "unwholesome" with issues with the female body and vagina.

    The little survey data there is (http://www.depiliacija.eu/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/herbenick-et-al-2010.pdf) suggests that women who shave have a more positive image of their genitals (even controlled for age). So if this is a practice to relieve anxiety, it is successful for them, at least.

    The correlates within a given time might be very different to those over time though - e.g. shaving vs not shaving in present day society is about trying to confront the source of their anxiety vs avoid anxiety (anxious women avoid anxiety by not looking at or thinking about genitals, including avoiding shaving them), whereas in an earlier time period it was to do with anxiety vs not having anxiety.

    This is probably an autistic way of looking at things, but I got the impression pubic shaving was a counter against the "hippy" / "feminist" practice of not shaving, that then became a norm.

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  8. Nobody in the general public shaved or waxed their pubic hair in the '80s. Playboy chicks only start removing it in the '90s. Hustler and hardcore porno videos might or might not show some noticeable removal in the '80s, but again no one in real life.

    For the very recent past, Ngram isn't much good to find out what was happening -- you can do much better by just asking people if something was common in the '70s or '80s, since there are people still alive who have vivid memories. And no, no one shaved or waxed back then.

    Memories can also tell us that it was the '90s when it began, and that it was more or less fait accompli in the 2000s.

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  9. "women who shave have a more positive image of their genitals"

    ...but not of their genital hair. So once it starts growing back in, they get anxious and feel gross all over again, until they perform their purifying hygiene ritual once more.

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  10. Anonymous2:25 PM

    I think we might be over thinking pubic hair removal thing. Women started wearing bikinis and more revealing bathing suits around the time hair removal became more common.

    In regards to the idea that women had been pushed into thinking their bodies are sexually offensive; this cannot be further from the truth. One reason women cared about pubic hair is because of how much they were showing off their bodies. Overall, that us not a signal for shame but a desire to remain desired (by many). I would expect that women saw more value to their sexuality than men. We even have the phrase of "why buy the cow if he gets the milk for free". That sums up the uselessness we would have seen in mens sexuality.

    This mentality persists very strongly to today. Any unwanted sexual attention a man gives to a woman, even if imagined, is "offensive". People call the guy a pervs or a creep... For expressing sexuality. We DO NOT say the same towards women. We tell female, pedophile, teachers or mothers that its not that bad when a woman targets a child for sex when we give them a slap on the wrists for what would land a man in jail for decades. We have a hard time grasping that a woman's sexuality CAN be bad and undesirable.

    "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."

    Agreed. Although a point I would like to add is that these feminists are not fighting standards concocted by men. These feminists are just projecting insecurity and their dislike that standard exist, ie that some are lesser and some are better. It is important to recognize this type of feminist. What she is really asking for is that ALL women be deemed beautiful. See the contradiction?!? She isn't saying that women should not care about looks, she is saying that men and women have to see every woman as a beautiful flower...

    What women really need, is to be told that its always possible that they aren't good enough. Then, women have to strive to reveal themselves as good, when they do good. But instead of promoting character this feminist author wants women to be protected wittle princesses whose shit never stinks. I find this hypocrisy repulsive.

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  11. Bikinis go back to the '60s. They were super-high-cut during the second half of the '80s. But they only shaved their bikini line that would show in public, not their entire pubic area out of some OCD hygiene freak-out.

    In their own words, the "looking sexy" motive almost never comes up. They're just about guaranteed to mention hygiene, clean, fresh, not disgusting, etc., as the reason. And if they let it grow in, they don't feel undesirable but disgusting, icky, ewwy, unclean, etc.

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