The V Word
*** A break in Santorini programming, because I have been meaning to talk about this …
So a couple of weeks ago, Femfresh found themselves in a little bit of hot water. You must have heard about it. The company that produces all sorts of things to keep your vagina fresh and scented had the social media equivalent of one of their billboards being publicly pulled down and defaced by hordes of fed-up women. A picture posted on their UK Facebook page with a cheery ‘what shall we wear to the Isle of Wright festival, flip flops or wellies’ type comment opened the floodgates and the pissed off witticisms came gushing forth. Almost every commenter had two problems; being flogged products that are designed to keep their perfectly clean and functioning vaginas ‘fresh’ and ‘deodorised’ and being flogged such products by a company that seems to have a psychological aversion to using the word, ‘vagina’. Femfresh, the purveyor of all products vaginal, apparently cannot use the word vagina. They just can’t. It is like they try really, really hard to say it and then just as you think you hear a ‘v’ sound, they yell ‘vajajay!’ Their patent awkwardness – which obviously stems from a greater societal discomfort – with the actual word for the body part they want you to clean and deodorise using their various washes, wipes and sprays, means their latest advertising campaign features a startling array of words like la la, noo noo, hoo ha, froo froo, nooni, yoni, kitty, mini, twinkle, flower and the classic, always cryptic ‘down there’. Reading their ads is like trying to solve a riddle written by a three year old. The current campaign featuring really happy looking, presumably vaginally fresh women, includes the catch phrase, ‘whatever you call it, love it’ and according to Femfresh, no grown woman calls it a vagina. A twinkle, but not a vagina.
The hundreds of comments from fed up women ultimately brought down Femfresh’s Facebook page (I believe they have since set up another one, but can’t see it myself). Completely adrift in a sea of continued public denouncement, they began by issuing vague, artificially appreciative responses for ‘feedback’ and when this did nothing to improve things, restricted visitors, making the page visible only to those in the UK. When this did nothing to stem the flow of very funny, very irritated comments, the page came down altogether.
Using code names and euphemisms for one’s vagina isn’t anything new. Just like we are spared the shocking sight of seeing red liquid in pad advertisements, and just like we use all manner of words for period, we are have long been spared the need to read or hear the word ‘vagina’ in the public sphere. Who knows what would happen if vagina started popping up in advertisements for products concerning … the vagina … or in TV shows when people are talking about … vaginas. People may actually stop being so wildly embarrassed by something so distinctly female and we can’t have that. And so we use cute little girly names or allusions to the southern end of things, so as to save ourselves from directly admitting we have vaginas. Vaginas, like the word itself, are bad, naughty, dirty, sometimes all three simultaneously. Kitties, flowers and froo froos are far more pleasant. And the all important feminine mystique must be retained at all times – one is far more alluring if one is in possession of a la la or a mini, not an actual vagina.
But the comments on the Femfresh page also revealed something else, quite apart from a great deal of British wit; an undercurrent of frustration. Along with a general irritation at being brightly encouraged to call your vagina all manner of completely irrelevant, infantile names, there was the sense that women seem to have reached boiling point with being told what to do with their vaginas. Whiten them, tighten them, wax them, scent them, bejewel them, conceal them, nickname them – do everything you can to make them as inoffensive and less-vaginary as possible. Put as much distance between yourself and that thing downstairs, as possible. Be as embarrassed about it or ashamed of it as possible. Basically, the world wants vaginas to be anything but vaginas. They want to scrub them from the public sphere and replace them with white, scented, hairless flowers that delicately excrete blue liquid a few days a month but are otherwise totally inoffensive, so don’t worry! Just like we airbrush out wrinkles and fat rolls and cellulite and hips and thighs and spots, we want to airbrush vaginas into something unrecognisable, something non-threatening, something nice. Because they’re not nice by themselves. That’s the take home message. Just like everything else about you, your vagina needs improvement.
Femfresh’s misguided campaign springs from the ongoing confusion that surrounds giving femaleness to women and letting them own it, as opposed to the powers that be providing the outlines and everyone winching themselves within them – and parting with truckloads of cash and self understanding while they’re at it. Taglines like ‘whatever you call it, love it’ want to posit themselves as positive and empowering but in fact are the precise opposite. One of the most effective ways to empower a disempowered group is to give them a voice and use that voice to make normal what those pesky societal rules and regulations say is wrong or abnormal or embarrassing. To call a vagina a vagina and get on with it, not perpetuate the idea female genitalia is only a-okay as long as it looks and smells as sweet as the cute and irrelevant name it answers to.
And if the misguided campaign is a product of where it’s all going wrong, the reaction to it is a sign of where we’re going right. Moving steadily towards women reclaiming their bodies and away from being told what to do with them and how to make them look. Towards calling a vagina a vagina and being perfectly fine with that.