WE ALL HAVE our priorities, and heaven knows what unstable brew of nature and nurture keeps them bubbling. Mine, I realised this week, are a bit at odds with the times. I was peering closely at an ad that’s been causing a lot of fuss over here in the last few days, in which it is suggested to women that they might cleanse their vaginas with a product designed specifically for the purpose. But Femfresh, the makers of a range of items that includes a “daily intimate wash”, are not wild about the word vagina, and have therefore sought to grab our attention with a whole raft of “cute” euphemisms, many of which I have never, ever encountered. For example: twinkle, lady garden, va jay jay – yes, although I’m kind of extrapolating va jay jay from context; but mini, yoni, lala, nooni, hoo haa, froo froo – no. Not a clue. “Froo froo,” in fact, is a term I’ve always used to mean something like “pretentiously and redundantly ornate,” which is not how I’ve ever thought of vaginas, mine or anyone else’s. “Yoni” I think I would guess was a Bantu language; “nooni” might be a kind of root vegetable.
Anyhow, of course everyone got very, very angry. Call a vagina a vagina, they said. Don’t perpetuate outmoded psychological attitudes and suggest that we should cloak our genitalia in silly, childish words that make it seem as though we have something to be ashamed of. And, while you’re at it, who needs an “intimate wash” in any case? What overpriced and unnecessary item are you trying to sell us? What suppressed anxiety about pubic hygiene are you exploiting? And what havoc will we wreak with what you coyly call “expert care for down there?”
All of which I agree with, by and large. Except that – here comes the bit about priorities – I was slightly more irritated by this sentence in the ad campaign: “Did you know that some regular shower gels and soaps, if used on your privates, could strip it of its natural defences causing dryness and irritation?”
Yep. I know. “Your privates… its natural defences.” Make your mind up, Femfresh. That word “privates”: singular or plural?
I also know that I’m irritating, and that I frequently miss the point. That one day someone will be asking me to make a really important decision and I’ll waste valuable time quibbling over the correct use of that or which. One of the most painful realizations that I have had to contend with in recent months is that the battle over “whose” might be lost; it is, in effect, no longer a personal pronoun and people will quite happily refer to “the table on whose surface a cup stood” and then sleep easily at nights. (Sample internal dialogue: “Give it up. Nobody gives a shit. And they think you’re a fool. And a snob.” Response: “No! No! Giving up is how it starts.”)
In other words, if I’d been proofreading the ad at Femfresh HQ, I might have scrawled “if used on your privates, could strip them of their natural defences” and then said to someone “make that change and then I think we’re good to go.”
However, there’s another possibility. Perhaps I was irked more by stray grammar than anything else because I actually don’t care very much. Perhaps it goes like this: people shouldn’t use silly words for vaginas, especially if they want to make women feel badly about having them. They shouldn’t really sell you products that you don’t need, either, although nobody could argue with much conviction that that byway of capitalism is limited to women or their yonis.
But I also think that Femfresh were a bit dim about their market research (they subsequently said they had merely been responding to advice that suggested ladies might prefer more discreet vocabulary) rather than truly wicked or profoundly misogynist. And – just to confirm that little ever happens in the world without any of us quickly slotting it into our gallery of personal prejudices – I also found a way to let them off the hook altogether. All they were doing, I think, was ineptly attempting to adopt the argot of jokey female camaraderie pioneered and popularised by Sex and the City, the television programme at the door of which (yes: it would be easier to write “at whose door”) I find myself laying an awful lot of things I think have Gone Wrong. (The fetishization of shoes, for example, I blame almost entirely on SATC, which I think has encouraged a generation of woman to believe they should spend a month’s rent on making themselves unable to run away from a potential attacker. And that they will be happier if they do so.)
I use Sex and the City as shorthand, of course. It is not alone in promoting this bullshit brand of female empowerment, which can apparently be achieved by having lunch with your friends and telling a man to fuck off and buying a skirt. It just does it more successfully.
Somehow, in the Femfresh fiasco, SATC’s self-help/consumerist fantasy has collided with an older version of feminism in which one is called on to venerate one’s vagina. Indifference is not an option. Nor, in this case, is suggesting that maybe one might occasionally want to use a daily intimate wash; that one might choose to apply a preparation to one’s vagina to clean and/or deodorise it and that saying so does not imply shame anymore than applying under-arm roll-on implies shame about one’s armpits. Nooni on the one hand; proud vaginas on the other. Weirdly, they seem flipsides of the same argument.
The advertising industry was not designed to be a compassionate, thoughtful part of our society; it was designed to sell us products. It doesn’t really help anybody, although it might well hinder women disproportionately, since their bodies are so often its target. But the damage it does is more nebulous than a hoo haa about what Femfresh, bewilderingly, call a hoo haa. It forces us into thinking about our lives in terms of slogans: hence, again this week, the reappearance of the familiar and fraught issue of whether a woman can “have it all.” What somehow never seems to get discussed in the retread of work v. family, career v. womb, is the problematic nature of all three of those words: “have”; “it”; “all.” What is this “all” that you want to “have”? And why?
The obvious point is that the “it” changes depending on who you are. A tiny “what if.” You are a woman – or a man – who has struggled with mental health issues throughout your life; maybe you are severely agoraphobic and find it hard to leave your apartment, or maybe you hear voices, or maybe you are simply assailed from time to time by depression so engulfing that you don’t know how to get out of bed. In which case, a day free from anxiety, a walk down the road, a sense of the possibility of a future – that might very well constitute “having it all.” A more upbeat scenario: you are an artist and for years you have focused on creating a work of art that will feel authentic and important; suddenly, you write the right line, or add the right brushstroke, or find the melody. You have it all.
But probably, in both scenarios, you don’t have it all for ever; you feel anxious and depressed again, or your medication doesn’t work out, or you write a bad line, or nobody wants to buy your painting so you have to get a job you hate. At the same time, somebody leaves you, or somebody dies, or the world goes a little wonky in some or other way, and you’re faced with trying to wrestle it all back into place and start again. At which point, the very notion of “having it all” seems utterly ludicrous and entirely irrelevant to your life and to the lives of everyone you’ve ever known. Because it is.