A few years ago, I was talking with a relative and the talk turned to douches. I don’t remember how we got on this subject, but there we were, biding our time at the grownup table of a kid’s laser tag birthday party, talking about vaginal cleanliness. I was saying that while I had previously douched every month at the end of my period, I had stopped because it gave me a fire crotch of yeast infections. I had even given up the long, super-hot baths that I loved.
“Wait…you don’t douche?” my relative asked, her voice full of judgment. She side-eyed me. She might have even sniffed the air in my vicinity; I couldn’t be sure. She’s only about seven years older, but suddenly I felt like I was talking to my mother or my grandmother, the women who raised me.
Growing up, a hot water bottle with a hose and applicator attached always hung inside the shower in our bathroom. At some point, I must’ve asked what it was for and was told “douching, washing in there,” with no further explanation. I looked at the thing, but had no idea how that process was supposed to work. I also noticed boxes of something called Summer’s Eve, or sometimes Massengill, on the back of the toilet. I read the instructions and was promptly horrified.
But years later when my mother explained to teenaged me that douching at the end of your period helped keep things fresh down there, I was game. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I learned that douching got rid of the good bacteria in a healthy vagina and could cause an overgrowth of harmful bacteria. Douching messes up the acidity that helps keep the vagina free from infection and irritation. Basically, the vagina is a self-cleaning oven. When I stopped douching (and taking those super-hot baths), I stopped getting raging yeast infections.
A few years ago, I also learned that Black women are twice as likely to douche and deodorize as white women. And researchers trace the roots of this to Emancipation: Newly freed African Americans focused on personal and household cleanliness to signify progress and assimilation.
I also noticed boxes of something called Summer’s Eve on the back of the toilet. I read the instructions and was promptly horrified.
Sadly, this holdover from our past could have dire consequences for us today. After sprinkling baby powder in her panties every day for almost 40 years, a Black woman named Jacqueline Fox became the first plaintiff to be awarded damages — $72 million — in a class action lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson. The award was made posthumously; Fox died of ovarian cancer in October 2015. It wasn’t until her diagnosis in 2013 that she found out that talcum powder could be a carcinogen. In a deposition, Fox said, “I was raised up on [talcum powder]…to help you stay fresh and clean.…We ladies have to take care of ourselves.”
As early as 1979, Johnson & Johnson knew about the potential cancer risks. Not only did the company fail to put warnings on its talcum-based products, they acknowledged the cancer risk and recommended more aggressive marketing to African American women in an internal memo.
I explained all of this to my relative.
This time, she definitely sniffed in my direction.
I guess old habits die hard.
I was reminded of this conversation recently when I read about the now-trendy ancient art of vaginal steaming (“v-steam”). This health practice originated with traditional healers around the world, including those in Korean, Mayan and various African cultures. At a spa or holistic health center, you can pay someone to steam your vagina with 11 herbs and spices (okay, it’s mugwort, basic calendula, oregano, marshmallow root, wormwood and rosemary) or you can DIY at home.
And, generally speaking, I don’t care what you do with your vagina. It’s yours. Steam it with Old Bay and call it a crab boil, for all I care. But can we stop with the lie that vaginas require more than soap and water for basic hygiene? Or that steaming removes “bad energy” or “trauma” that a penis can leave inside of a vagina? Or that a “v-steam” is necessary to “cleanse” your uterus and balance your hormone levels? Or that you need to douche ever?
Sprays and scented wipes? Also enemies of your vagina.
Again, if you use these products without problems, more power to your pussy. But don’t go around turning your nose up at people who don’t. And if you’re turning your nose up because you can actually smell someone’s nether regions, Summer’s Eve still isn’t the answer. Soap and water, or maybe a trip to the gynecologist, is.
This has been your Pussy PSA.