Popping into the Boots in Angel, Islington recently, I was unable to ignore a large advertising stand extolling the virtues of something called “SASS Intimate Skincare”. It had been propped up between the Meal Deals and the tills, presumably so that us smelly vagina-having Londoners couldn’t miss it as we made our desperate lunchtime purchases. I was confused at first, as both the stand and products used language so vague and unrelated to vaginas that I initially thought they were a new range of sexy and oddly spiritual yoghurts.
The SASS range is pH Balanced and designed to maintain your inner harmony, so you’re always ready for whats [sic] next.
Inner harmony? In my vagina?
After popping into the Boots in St Pancras, Kings Cross, and Stratford (I do a lot of popping into Boots, okay?), I noticed they all had prominent SASS stands. The more I thought about SASS, however, the more I realised that this was unequivocally not-a-good-thing, and that I wasn’t happy about the brand rearing its ugly head next to my sandwiches. But why not? Here’s four reasons why I’m not happy with what SASS is trying to say about women’s bodies.
SASS’s products are very expensive and all do the same thing (hide odour, increase lubrication and maintain ‘inner harmony’, which I assume is like your vagina’s work-life balance)
In her amazing essay ‘Dealing with the, uh, Problem’, which appeared in Crazy Salad in 1975, Nora Ephron looks at both the history and future of feminine hygiene sprays (feminine hygiene products were almost all sprays before the more well-known washes appeared, and before SASS got their hands on them, rebranded them as “Intimate Skincare Products” and rolled out not only sprays and washes but gels, serums and ‘mists’). The feminine hygiene spray was:
…attacked continuously since its introduction in 1966 – by women’s liberationists, who think it is demeaning to women; by consumerists, who think it is unnecessary; and by medical doctors, who think it is dangerous
How fun that we’re still trying to get rid of them, almost 50 years on.
Ephron describes the executives’ hopes for the sprays to become an essential product for every woman. “It will be as common as toothpaste,” one predicts. In a particularly astounding quote, when asked to explain why his cosmetics line included a feminine hygiene spray, executive Bill Blass says; “Honey, if there’s a part of the human body to exploit you might as well get onto it.”
Corporations love coming up with new products that they can persuade consumers are essential, and women are singled out for these products time and time again. Society places a premium on women’s looks and it’s constantly drummed into us that this is where our value lies, so it’s unsurprising that the beauty industry capitalises on it. Vox news site recently published a history of how the beauty industry got us all to shave our legs – a great example of how successful their campaigns can be. SASS’s products are very expensive (each one costs between £7-£16) and all do the same thing (hide odour, increase lubrication and maintain ‘inner harmony’, which I assume is like your vagina’s work-life balance).
Men are not encouraged to feel shame around their penises in the same way women are encouraged to feel shame around their vaginas
The vagina is self-cleaning. It should cost you absolutely nothing to keep one ‘fresh’, because it’s perfectly capable of doing so without your help. Washing daily with water or, at most, an un-perfumed mild soap is all you need to stay clean. On its handy page, “Keeping your vagina clean and healthy“, the NHS states:
The vagina is designed to keep itself clean with the help of natural secretions (discharge). Find out how to help your vagina keep clean and healthy – and why you don’t need douches or vaginal wipes.
Dr Austin Ugwumadu, a consultant and senior lecturer in obstetrics and gynaecology, also says on the topic of ‘intimate hygiene’ washes, gels and sprays:
I’m afraid these products are completely unnecessary and, in my opinion, are exploiting women’s anxieties about their bodies. The advertising and packaging of feminine hygiene products play on the impression that women need to be squeaky-clean – otherwise they’ll be more at risk of infection. In fact, the opposite is true. The vagina is a perfectly-balanced ecosystem and the bacteria there play a crucial role in gynaecological health.
So the best case scenario is that these products do nothing at all (and for only £16!). The worst case scenario is that they could negatively affect your health, causing issues such as bacterial vaginosis, thrush, allergic reactions, infection and irritation.
The NHS page also states that:
It’s a good idea to avoid perfumed soaps, gels and antiseptics as these can affect the healthy balance of bacteria and pH levels in the vagina, and cause irritation.
Every single SASS product is, of course, perfumed.
I’m not going to pretend I know what even 10% of the other ingredients in SASS products are, as it’s generally just a long list of chemicals, but at a glance, ‘glycerin’ also stood out, with some of the products listing it as their biggest ingredient after water. In her article A Question for Women’s Health: Chemicals in Feminine Hygiene Products and Personal Lubricants, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, Wendee Nicole says:
Vaginal research got a desperately needed boost at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1992. That’s when Penny Hitchcock took over the Sexually Transmitted Diseases Branch at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Nancy Alexander became chief of the Contraceptive Development Branch in the NIH Center for Population Research—posts previously held by men. […] Hitchcock and Alexander soon initiated research programs on vaginal physiology, immunology, and microbicides, eventually funding Cone’s work. These new programs led to groundbreaking discoveries in animals and humans that certain chemicals—including glycerin (glycerol), a common base for personal lubricants—can damage or irritate vaginal and rectal epithelial cells, potentially increasing the transmission of STIs such as herpes and human immunodeficiency virus.
SASS does claim their products are “pH balanced and completely safe for intimate and internal use”, but why risk using them? If you do even the most basic research into vaginal health, their ingredients are listed as possibly harmful; they’re expensive, unnecessary and most importantly of all, your vagina is very, very sensitive. As Nicole says in her article, “As a mucous membrane, the vagina is capable of secreting and absorbing fluids at a higher rate than skin.” That high absorption rate means that we should be particularly careful with what we smear it in. I’m just not sure that unnecessary cosmetic products for the vagina are the way to go.
Of course, this also disregards the obvious fact that, if you do have vaginal odour (and remember, we all have a natural scent), covering it up with a spray or ‘mist’ is not going to make it go away. Any smell that is stronger than usual or simply different to what you’re used to should be reported to your gynaecologist or doctor, in case there’s a medical problem.
There are two problems here. Firstly, SASS is telling women they need beauty products for their vaginas. Secondly, the language they use is euphemistic and vague, as if “vagina” is a dirty word.
Where are the hygiene products to combat penis odour? The sprays, the gels? Men are not encouraged to feel shame around their penises in the same way women are encouraged to feel shame around their vaginas. As a result, companies consider them to be less vulnerable to exploitation when it comes to genital odour, so they’re left alone.
If SASS can’t even say the word vagina, they’re not coming anywhere near mine
The shame around vaginas is evident in many ways, from the issuing of ‘discreet’ tampon holders in schools and the blue liquid used in tampon adverts, to FGM and ‘vaginal rejuvenation’ surgery. The claim that vaginas are ‘dirty’ or ‘smelly’ begins in childhood, where boys in the playground describe ‘fishy fannies’ (unknowingly demonstrating that they haven’t been in contact with a vagina since emerging from one), while the appearance of a particularly pungent wood glue in a Design and Technology class can cause yells of “close your legs!” to be aimed at the girls. Vaginas aren’t scribbled confidently and obsessively on benches, chairs and walls by teenage girls, the way penises are by bored teenage boys; they don’t appear at the mouth of everyone pictured in a textbook. There are countless religious rules concerning menstruating women, with the encouragement of cleansing rituals or segregation in order to keep women’s ‘unclean vaginas’ away from everyone else. The issue is ingrained in our society.
Take a look at the products offered by SASS – most of these are encouraged for use even if your vagina is perfectly clean and healthy. There are brand new things for you to be paranoid about! Do you have a ‘thirsty’ vagina? There’s no way of knowing, but better give it a nice, thirst-quenching spritz of SASS Intimate Refreshing Mist, just to be sure. I guarantee it does absolutely nothing.
In terms of the language used on SASS products, you would think ‘vagina’ was a banned word. If you read the SASS website in full, as I sadly did for this article, you will also notice a complete obsession with the term ‘intimate area’.
Here is a list of intimate areas:
Those little booths you get at seaside piers where someone will read your fortune. There’s a lot of eye contact because there’s nowhere else to look. It’s very intimate.
The basement of Simmons bar in Kings Cross. It’s incredibly small, dark and warm, like a womb.
My bedroom. This is where the intimate magic happens.
Church confession boxes. If it’s not intimate to sit inside a badly lit cupboard and tell an old man about your sexual fantasies, I don’t know what is.
Once, during a Sex Education class at school, a teacher told us that “If you’re not mature enough to talk about sex and say the word sex, then you’re certainly not mature enough to have sex.” That’s how I feel about these products. If SASS can’t even say the word vagina, they’re not coming anywhere near mine.
Aaah, that feeling “after too much of a lot of things”. So familiar. I can only assume they’re talking about Christmas, when I have too much of everything
Funnily enough, SASS does seem oddly aware of the dangers when it comes to avoiding talking about vaginas. From their “Our Story” page:
It is strange how many people feel that talking about intimacy is just ‘not ok’. We then started to dig into data that all showed, that not only do many of us not use water, but that many women have intimate issues and they suffer in silence. Thinking about what we, and our friends do, it all seemed limiting.
How can you say that and not realise that all this talk of “inner harmony” and “intimate freshness” is not only incredibly limiting, but also encourages the shame and silencing of women? JUST SAY VAGINA, SASS. I CAN TELL THAT YOU WANT TO.
Further evidence that language is not SASS’s strong suit is found in wishy-washy statements across their website, with lines like:
We have taken calls from women telling us they cannot believe how this has changed how they feel. That they can now do things they couldn’t before. Our Intimate pH Balanced Serum means that feeling (after too much of a lot of things) doesn’t hold us back.
Aaah, that feeling “after too much of a lot of things”. So familiar. I can only assume they’re talking about Christmas, when I have too much of everything.
The website also includes the infuriating paragraph:
True SASS comes from being who you want to be. It is not about judging anyone. We know some people are happier with just water, but we weren’t. We are all for choice, and choice shouldn’t mean compromise.
Please don’t co-opt the language of choice for capitalistic purposes, SASS. Please. Just don’t.
The last thing we need is a new, premium range of feminine hygiene products. It’s 2015 – the fact someone has decided these will make money is a sign of how much work feminism still has to do. We can’t keep letting companies prey on our insecurities and we can’t let them keep raising the standard our bodies are supposed to adhere to; it’s not good for our health, mental and physical, and it’s not good for our wallets. They’re taking a kicking as it is.
SASS encourages the use of #GOTSASS to discuss their products on Twitter, so please oblige them if you’d like to share what you think. I’m sure they’ll be pleased to hear it.