Racism, misogyny and capitalism in the beauty industry
Emilie and Bridget of Stuff Mom Never Told You from How Stuff Works recently aired an impassioned episode of their podcast about talcum powder and ovarian cancer and how Johnson and Johnson profited off women’s insecurities about their bodies, specifically targeting minority women even though they were aware of their products’ cancer risk.
“Why are we all sprinkling powders in our underpants in an attempt to make our body parts smell less like body parts?” asked Bridget.
The ladies asked where and when did we begin to feel disgusted and repulsed by our own bodies, feeling the need to cover up our natural smells with products. They trace these feelings through years of marketing messages selling women all sorts of perfumes and deodorizers all the way back to our country’s roots in slavery, with prescribed twice a day douching of female slaves. They shock their listeners with a quote from Thomas Jefferson, giving a perspective of the message that women have been hearing for generations.
“Black women have a strong and very disagreeable odor,” the founding father said.
Olfactory discrimination has led to a cultural norm of vaginal deodorization among the African-American community, in particular, who are four times more likely to douche than their white counterparts. Douching has also been connected to health risks and is not recommended.
“We have a perception of what is normal that is not always grounded in truth. We have a message that is marketed to women about what a normal perfect body should look and smell like that we know is not always close to what reality would actually have to say about that or what a medical professional would say about it. So if you’re ever feeling insecure about your body odor talk to a medical professional and know that that insecurity might be you wrestling with these internalized messages that are put in place by our media to actually drive a profit home for someone else,” said Emilie.
Many women, such as Jacqueline Fox, who died of ovarian cancer at age 62 just months before her February 2016 trial against Johnson and Johnson, began using talc products such as Johnson’s Baby Powder and Shower to Shower for feminine hygiene when they were teenagers. Ms. Fox used the products for 40 years. In a deposition before her death, Fox said, “I was raised up on it. They was to help you stay fresh and clean. … We ladies have to take care of ourselves.” It was “as normal as using toothpaste or deodorant,” Bloomberg reported.
Emilie and Bridget said that over the decades enough people in the medical and scientific community have raised the alarm about talc and ovarian cancer, and they asked why anyone would want to take the risk. They quote many studies, from one from 45 years ago that found talc particles in ovarian cancer tumors, to one study published last year that studied talc and ovarian cancer in African-American women. The study conducted by University of Virginia researchers included 1,329 African-American women and found that nearly 63 percent of the women with ovarian cancer reported genital talc use. Fifty-three percent of the women without cancer said they used talc powder.
“African-American women have been targeted for use of body powder, and they use it more commonly,” epidemiologist and Principal Investigator Joellen Schildkraut told Reuters Health. “I was a cynic until these recent studies came out. As you look across all these studies, I would say, why use it? It’s an avoidable risk for ovarian cancer,” she said.
In the podcast, Emilie and Bridget also quoted other experts such as Dr. Steven Narod of the University of Toronto as saying, “In the interest of public health, I believe we should caution women against using genital talcum powder… It’s disingenuous to state there is no evidence that talc is associated with ovarian cancer.”
“I think what’s so enraging about this lawsuit is the evidence points to criminal negligence on the part of Johnson and Johnson because they were aware of these linkages…” Emilie said. They tell their listeners about a Bloomberg article that showed how the company was already aware of studies that were linking talc to ovarian cancer, reading excerpts from one particular memo from the early 1990s outlining a plan for a race-specific advertising campaign while also acknowledging the “negative publicity” of cancer linkage.
The jury in February of last year found the talc responsible for Ms. Fox’s ovarian cancer death and Johnson and Johnson guilty of failing to warn and awarded Fox’s family $72 million. Of that amount, $62 million was punitive damages. Emilie and Bridget said that Fox’s son Marvin Salter bowed his head and cried in the courtroom following the verdict.
Since then four more juries have found in favor of ovarian cancer victims who blamed Johnson and Johnson’s talc products for their disease and the verdicts have totaled $724 million. The juries have agreed with the members of the medical community who are demanding that Johnson and Johnson warn consumers of this risk.
Emilie and Bridget warn women to stop their friends and family from using talc products in this way and to find out what’s medically safe before using it on their reproductive organs (they inform their listeners that corn-starch powders are not carcinogenic).
However, in addition to this, they worry also for women in general who have been brainwashed into believing that their normal functioning body is unacceptable or a source of shame, and that women will be unable to recognize when there is really something wrong and they need to see a doctor. They raise the concern that these beliefs that reproductive organs are repulsive can inhibit a woman’s ability to have a healthy pleasurable sex life. They encourage women to ask themselves what they believe about their vaginas and where they developed these beliefs and to rethink.
Stuff Mom Never Told You