Monday, August 30, 2010

Why It's Not Cool to Tell You Your Vag Smells

So the feminist world has been rocked by this Summer's Eve ad which ran in Women's Day magazine. Of course, the misogyny is obvious. They've tied your vaginal smell and "not so fresh feeling" to a woman's ability to ask for a raise. That sucks. And it's incredibly stupid.

But as the awesome title of this blog tells you, I have a few further things to mention about why it's really not cool to constantly tell women their vaginas smell. Let me back up---do companies really constantly tell us that our vaginas smell?

This sounds weird, but when you think about it, a whole industry has been built on the premise that vaginas are inherently gross, smelly, and not fresh. Here are just a few of the products built on this premise:

1) Douches: The biggest offender of these such products, douches are meant to "clean" the vagina. Here's the truth. Vaginas are self cleansing (pic on page NSFW) organs that generally don't require anything other than basic warm water cleansing. In fact, douching is horrible for a healthy, normal vagina. They strip away the healthy bacteria that maintain a balance against yeast microbes which cause infections. And guess what you buy when you get a yeast infection?

2) Yeast infection treatments: Hmm...interesting racket they've got going. While these treatments are often necessary for actual infections, much more often than not, women use these treatments when they are not really needed. Besides, there is much more than just the treatments--wipes, "satin" anti-itch creams, and screening kits, just to name a few. The problem being that they're based on the shaming of a totally normal vaginal condition. (Around 70% of women experience at least 1 yeast infection.)

3) FDS: I can hardly believe this is real, but it is. There is an entire market for deodorants for women's vaginas. Come on. If that doesn't show that we're told our vagina's smell, what does?

4) Scented menstrual products: Just in case you think your vagina 3 weeks of the month smells fine, but that "not so fresh" feeling creeps in during your period, never fear, you can buy deodorized tampons and pads. (For the record...deodorants of any type are NOT GOOD for the natural balance of your vagina.)

Ok, so I think I've pretty clearly demonstrated that there is a multi-billion dollar market built upon convincing us that our vaginas' natural state is nasty, gross stuff. So why is this so problematic?

Pretty simple. If you convince woman that something so fundamental as their vaginas are a source of shame and embarrassment, you undermine everything it means to be female.* And then you exploit them by marketing them products designed to capitalize on the insecurities you implanted in them. If you constantly teach women and girls that their natual female parts are disgusting, you can erode sexual self-esteem, making coercion more simple. And you create a nice little distraction in the world for women to be preoccupied with.

Like I said, it's stupid. Worrying about your vaginal smell (beyond legitimate infections) is stupid. Douching is stupid. FDS is stupid. Deodorized tampons are stupid. I'm not a "let's all go natural and be naked best friends running in a field of flowers singing Aquarius" kind of girl, but there is a certain point where I say: Just. Be. Natural.


*I should note that this is written from a cis woman perspective, and is not intended to erase the voices of transwomen or to equate a vagina as the only definition of women, but it is a vaginal centric discussion.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Allstate: Victim Blaming in Our Faces

Dear Allstate,

Thanks for making victim blaming mainstream.


That's a pretty big accusation, so let me back up. Perhaps you have seen the new Allstate Insurance "mayhem" commercials. The premise is pretty simple. A menacing guy in a suit plays the role of various forms of "mayhem" that one may encounter in her or his life which would make for a bad day and an insurance claim that your "cut rate" insurance may not cover.

Most of them are pretty straight forward. A rich guy unexpectedly slams on his breaks and you can't help but rear end his car. A random wind storm knocks a tree branch on your car. A puppy chews up your backseat.

All of these are pretty crappy things that could happen to your car. They suck. They might be considered by some to be "mayhem." But they're not anything for a feminist to really notice. Not yet.

Then Allstate takes a dive into sexist land with this gem. A teenage girl driver in a pink Hummer is texting while driving, gets emotional and swerves into your car. Oh fun. We're going to toy with some sexist stereotypes surrounding emotional female drivers. Cool times.

That was actually the first commercial of the "mayhem" series I saw because my friend Jessica brought it to my attention a few months ago as a blatantly sexist advertisement. Blatantly sexist, yes, but anything above and beyond the same blatantly sexist tripe we consume day in day out? No, not really.

But then came this.

This one is a whole new level. In this instance the man playing "mayhem" is a female jogger. An attractive female jogger. A "10" in fact, who catches the eye of a man driving and the man subsequently crashes his car into a light pole.

So what's the problem here? Let's review...a guy slams on his breaks out of nowhere in heavy traffic, so you crash. His fault. A wind storm knocks a branch on your car. Wind's fault. A puppy chews your back seat. Puppy's fault. A teenager is texting and driving and hits your car. Her fault. A woman jogs, you ogle her and crash...AND THIS IS SUPPOSED TO BE HER FAULT!? *She's* the mayhem?

This is victim blaming in its purest sense. The victim here is not the man who crashed his car. It is the woman who was on the receiving end of an unwelcome stare as she went about a very basic task that anyone should have the right to: jogging.

It is this same type of rhetoric that places the blame of rape back on women. In this case, a woman is going about a routine task (exercising) but her simply existing in her body and going about her life is the cause of "mayhem." In the case of rape victim blaming, the claim is that if a woman is too sexy, dressed too "provocatively," or has had sex with other men, SHE IS ASKING FOR IT and the rape is her fault. In other words, by simply existing in her body and going about her life, she is the cause of her own rape.

This type of advertisement reinforces the idea that women's bodies are public domain. It's the culture that normalized street harassment. Simply put, it's nasty, ugly sexism at it's worst.

I will never...ever buy Allstate Insurance. Besides, they're ridiculously over priced.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Motherhood and Privilege: A True Case of Intersections

One thing I have learned about the feminist blogosphere with absolute certainty is that when you bring up the issue of whether or not there should be child free spaces, it's sparks a shit storm. Maia, a guest blogger, recently rehashed this discussion over at Feministe (the last place I witnessed this particular shit storm). Her basic thesis was "you do not have a right to child free spaces," which, I'm sure, you can imagine set a lot of people off. Last I checked, the comments were up to almost 700. A shit storm, for sure.

I don't really care to go deep into the discussion about the feminism of child free spaces. I will state that I, like many, was rubbed the wrong way by Maia's post, but I tried to understand where she was coming from. And for those of you unfamiliar with the debate, I'll summarize the conflicting sides:

1) Children are people too. They deserve to be in public. That is where they can learn appropriate behavior. However, kids are kids, and so they're going to behave inappropriately time to time. Because our society still places the responsibility of child rearing disproportionately on women, to restrict children from public spaces is to essentially restrict women from those same spaces. It is not always reasonable that single parents can afford childcare or a babysitter, but they should not be restricted to their homes because of this.


2) Adults have the right to adult-only spaces that are free from the behavior challenges of other people's children. Of course, some public places are kid friendly and any person entering them should reasonably expect to interact with children, but that is why adult-only public spaces should be respected. Childfree people* have the right to enjoy childfree environments, where it is logical (like bars, upscale restaurants, and their own homes when inviting guests.)

So with this as the background, what I really want to discuss is how privilege and motherhood interact. What I have seen emerge in the comments (which I fizzled out on reading inevitably...) is both sides accusing the other of privilege.

Motherhood as privilege: Childfree people assert that there is an inherent privilege in having children. The default position of our society is to "settle down and have kids." When you get to a certain age and meet new people, one of the inevitable questions is, "Do you have kids?" From this perspective, the privilege comes from being a mother because society promotes motherhood as what "good" women do. Because motherhood is seen as a the ultimate role a woman can take, there is inherent privilege. Childfree people are positioned as the other; outliers in the social structure that caters to families which include children.


Childfree as privilege: The other side asserts that the privilege is in not having children. The idea is that our society doesn't support women in parenting, especially single mothers. Instead of affordable childcare, living wages, and accommodations in the workplace, women with children face a number of financial and societal barriers, making those who are childfree the privileged in their workplaces and social circles.

Both sides are pretty compelling, right? The way I see it, neither is actually right or wrong. Instead, there are so many more factors to consider, because as every feminist situation, there are numerous intersections. I'm going to just address a few.

First, there is the issue of money. High income mothers obviously experience privilege. They are able to fit the expectation of being the "ultimate woman" by having children. And yet, they don't face any of the aforementioned challenges (like affordable childcare.) Additionally, for many low income mothers, there was never an option to be childfree, be it because of lack of access to contraceptive methods or information about sexual reproduction, or even because of coerced or forced pregnancies. Also, being childfree interacts with income. As mentioned above, it is much easier to be childfree if you have access to money and education.

Other factors also interact with motherhood to compound various privileges. For example, women of color are much less likely to be privileged by being mothers. There are so many racist stereotypes surrounding the black "welfare queen" that I can safely say African American mothers are not regarded as favorably as white mothers by American culture. Imagine what people would say, for example, if Michelle Duggar was black. And don't get me started on this new terms of "anchor babies." If that term doesn't highlight the racism, fear mongering, and scorn associated with Latina mothers, I don't know what would.

My point is that in the case of motherhood, as with so many things, you can't sit back and blanketedly say "being a mother gives you privilege." There is so much more at play, and no two person's experiences are identical. I, as a married, middle-class, hetero/cis white woman might feel a societal pressure to conform to having a traditional family which includes children. But that doesn't mean that all mothers are privileged.

It'd go a long way for us all to remember that our own frame of reference isn't the rule for everyone.

*I use the term childfree in this blog to connote a certain lifestyle choice, not people who just do not have kids currently. I do not identify as childfree although I currently don't have kids because I see them in my future, and I respect that this is not what the childfree lifestyle is about.