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I AM NOT a liberated woman. I wear a bra. I shave my legs, I wear mascara. I set my hair twice a week and have been known to use hairspray. I read Cosmopolitan magazine avidly and join World of Beauty clubs without giving much thought to their sociological significance. I use DippityDo hair-setting gel, Cover Girl medicated makeup, Deep Magic dry skin conditioner, and generally should be a source of great satisfaction to the American manufacturer.
But I have recently learned that to be an "attractive, nice-to-be-with girl" I must cope with a problem newly-publicized in the women's magazines: vaginal odor. According to Warner-Lambert Pharmaceutical Products Co., Youngs Drug Products, Alberto Culyer, Roycemore, Personal Products Co. and several other drug companies, my vagina is very smelly indeed, and I had better do something about it. Each of these companies now manufactures its own variety of a deodorant formulated, in the words of one advertisement, "specifically to help eliminate odor from the external vaginal area. "By the time I finished reading the ads for all the different brands I had begun to seethe, and that is how I came to spend several days deeply involved in feminine hygiene deodorants.
Mr. Melyin Clark is Sales Manager for "Bidette" products made by Youngs Drugs Co., the company that also manufactures such items as Trojan prophylactics and Young Peoples' products for acne. When I asked if I could interview him he replied "Absolutely!" told me the best way to get to his office in Piscataway. New Jersey, and arranged for a company employee to pick me up at the train station.
The modern flat building was filled with typing secretaries. The receptionist led me into Mr. Clark's office "What can we do for you?" asked Mr. Clark, and while I fumbled with the tape recorder began to tell me about "Bidette" Soon he invited Mr. Milton Bryson, marketing director, to join us. Both men, in their late forties, were gentle, friendly and open. Mr. Clark spoke quickly and motioned about the room with his arms; Mr. Bryson sat calmly and punctuated his colleague's remarks with careful, precisely-worded observations. Obviously they didn't think of themselves as manipulators of American women. They considered vaginal odor a real problem and felt their products were essential to good hygiene.
Although "Bidette Deodorant Mist" has been on the market only since February, Youngs Drugs has been making "Bidette Towelettes," washups for the vaginal area, since 1962. They were the first company to make a cloth Towelette, and Mr. Clark is loyal to the original product.
"The towelette both cleans and deodorizes. The other is just a deodorizing agent."
"Which is selling better, the mist or the towelette?" I asked Mr. Clark hesitated.
"I think the spray has taken off-it's unbelievable ... it's fantastic." Mr. Bryson agreed.
There seems to be a receptivity for the spray that wasn't there for the towelette. The towelettes required a lot of education work before women accepted them, because at that time there was nothing of that sort on the market.... It's taken a lot of educational time to have women find out that it really is a much-needed product.... The woman seems to accept the idea of masking much quicker than the towelette which both cleanses and deodorizes.... Women who are on the towelette recognize that they want the complete cleansing, therefore won't settle just for the spray. They might settle for the spray in addition.
"Do you have any theories about why women would rather cover up something than clean?"
"I think it's the convenience and the case of the spray," said Mr. Bryson. But I was looking for deeper motivations.
"Do you think this desire to cover up the odor could be interpreted as some kind of desire to cover up, um," I stumbled, "any sexual feelings or desires?"
Mr. Bryson rephrased my question with more understanding than I presented it with. "What she's saying is that this takes a different form: they're really not trying to mask the odor, they're trying to mask their sexual feelings."
"I think a psychiatrist would have to answer that," and he laughed.
"Do you think the average American housewife is aware of vaginal odor?" I asked.
"No, I really don't. You say average-I don't think so," Mr. Clark said firmly, a little sadly.
"There are still a lot of them who know about it." added Mr. Bryson.
Mr. Clark continued. "The average American female I think feels she's quite clean. She takes lots of showers and baths and uses bath oil and all that. It isn't until this is brought to her attention that she might have vaginal odor or does have vaginal odor that [she realizes] there's one area she hasn't taken care of."
"Then the advertising campaigns of these various companies are sort of introducing them to this, or making women more aware of their body odor," I said with some hostility.
"It's made a dent, but there's a long way to go." (Later, Mr. Clark said, all innocence, "In my opinion the surface of this market has not even been scratched.")
"How's about men? Do you think men are conscious of women's body odor?"
"I think generally they're leading the public, whether it's a woman or a man, to want to be sure that their mate doesn't find them faulty in that department."
"Do you think it's possible that a man could be attracted to vaginal odor?"
"You mean that he'd like it?"
"Yeah, actually enjoy it."
"If you're asking my personal opinion I'd say no, I think it can be obnoxious. Have you ever ridden on the subway in the summer? That'll answer your own question."
"Is it an aphrodisiac?" I asked coyly.
"No, it's not an aphrodisiac," Mr. Clark responded promptly.
"Which, the towelette or the spray?" Mr. Bryson wanted to know.
"Neither one is an aphrodisiac," reaffirmed Mr. Clark, laughing. Mr. Bryson was still puzzled.
"I thought an aphrodisiac had to be taken-uh-orally."
"It does." said Mr. Clark. "I've been in this business a long time-why are you embarrassed young lady?"
"Never mind," I said, and the conversation turned to Bidette's advertising campaign.
Bidette's quarter-page black and white ad shows a naked young woman hugging her knees and says, "Deal with a woman's body like a woman. For a woman," it continues, "underarm protection is not enough. There's the problem of vaginal odor. A very personal problem."
"Are you aiming at a particular age group?" I asked.
"We're aiming at two age groups because we have a woman and a daughter." said Mr. Clark. "We're aiming at I'd say from fifteen, fourteen, up."
"As young as a young lady could be knowledgeable," added Mr. Bryson.
Bidette "pioneered" this kind of forthright advertisement, and never had any resistance to it.
We did debate to some degree how far to go to actually spell it out. You could say that same copy without the word "vaginal" for instance, but we felt it was time. This era today is one of being able to express oneself and we felt the women would much more ap-
preciate a direct expression of exactly what it was for than to dance around with it.
Mr. Clark showed me a drawerful of feminine deodorant sprays made by competitive companies, including "My Own," "Ambiance," "P. S.," "Busy Body" and "Concern." He pointed out that anxiety over vaginal odor is not peculiar to America. Bidets are common through Europe and a towelette called "Bidex," name and packaging copied from the American product, is now sold it Switzerland and Germany. Also, Youngs Drugs exports Bidette products to Europe.
Before I left (with gift packages of Bidette towelettes and deodorant mist) Mr. Clark and I talked briefly about the Harvard strike and he assured me that at least some of the establishment has a conscience, but that we were alienating people like him by taking over campus buildings.
THE ORIGINAL two-page full color advertisement for Warner-Lambert's "Pristeen" shows a girl sitting on a dune, her knees at her chest and her air fluttering slightly in the wind. She looks very sad ( contemplative I later learned) and the headline reads, "Unfortunately the trickiest deodorant problem a girl has isn't under her pretty little arms. The real problem, " continues the ad in smaller letters, "is how to keep the most girl part of you-the vaginal area-fresh and free from any worry-making odors."
Warner-Lambert also makes Listerine, Rolaids, Bromo-Seltzer and Oh Henry candy bars. The Pristeen executives I tried to get in touch with had all just returned from a conference in Puerto Rico, and were not enthusiastic about talking to me. I did speak to Miss Peggy Prag of Papert, Koenig, Lois advertising agency who devised the original advertising campaign for the product.
Miss Prag works in a glass office on the 36th floor of a modern office building in the cast forties in New York City. In her thirties, chic in white slacks and a brown sweater, she offered me coffee and in a slow but alert voice told me the kind of image she had attempted to present of the kind of girl who uses Pristeen.
"The girls who appear in the ads are there for a functional purpose," she said.
They're attractive ... intelligent ... desirable ... interesting ... American ... girls. And essentially they are saying "If I have a vaginal odor problem, it's O. K. for you to have a vaginal odor problem, acknowledge it, and do something about it ... " The nearest comparison I could make is the Clairol advertising. Up until that time (Clairol started advertising) the idea of dying your hair was associated with whores and, you know, not-so-nice people. And nice people were afraid to dye their hair and didn't want to be identified with it. They put a woman with a child in the advertisement to indicate that perfectly decent people ...
"Then you think that girls had this problem but didn't like to talk about it or were ashamed of it?"
"Well, when Warner-Lambert decided to go into this product they had researched the market very carefully. A company of that scope doesn't embark on a major advertising expenditure without having gone out into the field and found out that women were concerned about this and wanted something for it. I mean the concern, the market projections were so strong."
"Have you any idea how that's done?"
"Well, it's done through research," said Miss Prag vaguely. "I really don't know. I only get the results of it. But they don't decide, Oh, here's a spot we haven't tackled yet. Let's make something and then go and scare everyone into it. They had researched the market and they had found out there were many, many women with this .... I tell you frankly I don't identify with the concern." Miss Prag began to laugh. "I don't mean as far as I'm concerned ... But then I don't have hairy arms either.
"There is a certain reluctance for people to acknowledge problems that trouble them," Miss Prag continued. "You get this in interviews in research all the time. They're very frank to say, for instance, that they wear perfume for reasons of sexual attraction, but the truth is what they really are concerned with is being loved and cared for and not lonely and they don't talk about that. It's easier to talk about being sexy than being lonely."
The Pristeen ads emphasize youth and girlishness. "It has sort of pink chiffon smell"; it is essential "to your peace of mind about being a girl. An attractive, nice-to-be-with girl." FDS (for "Feminine Deodorant Spray") and Bidette use the word "woman."
"Was this a conscious choice of words?" I asked.
Miss Prag nodded. "I think the whole world is younger today. I think women think of themselves as girls very late. The word 'girl' has a somehow more universal ring to it. And not only that-young people are really the pace-setters today. They put on mini-skirts and then the mothers started raising their hemlines. I think it's a softer, more feminine image-the girl-than the woman."
Warner-Lambert thinks so too. Unlike Roycemore, which urges with great subtlety that you use its product, Demure, before having sexual intercourse- "You don't sleep with Teddy Bears anymore." Warner Lambert would like you to use its product every morning. "Pristine" means pure, untouched, unspoiled. Those women who are impure, touched and spoiled may spray on virginity and girlishness.
I tried my covering-up-sensuality-and-sexual-desires theory on Miss Prag.
"I really don't know," she said after a long pause. "Certainly odor is a part of the way of giving off sexuality and maybe this is of some concern; maybe this is a motivating factor in women-that they don't accept their own sexuality sufficiently and that's why they want to mask the odors identified with it. I mean that's possible. " But Miss Prag pointed out that this is an odor-conscious society and that everyone, not just anxiety-ridden women, wears underarm deodorant.
Another section of the ad reads, "Pristeen is also very nice to use. It feels light and dry. (Your hands never touch it, or you.)"
"Do you think this is a concern women have?"
"We knew it was," Miss Prag nodded. "We knew one of the things they liked about the product was that they didn't have to touch themselves in applying it."
"Do you have any theories about that? Is it that if you wash or use a towelette you have to wash your hands afterward and its inconvenient?"
"I think it's something deeper," she answered.
"Are you trying to make a distinction in your ad between 'pretty little arms' and 'ugly little vagina'?" Parting shot.
"No, I really wasn't," Miss Prag laughed. "The thing was to try to say in the headline what we were talking about without being totally explicit-without using the word 'vagina' in the headline. The copy could have said, 'the trickiest deodorant problem a girl has isn't under her arms.' It's just that I think that's harsh and unfeminine and I'm hung up on the word 'little.' "
After promising to send Miss Prag a copy of the article, I said goodbye.
I just saw the new issue of Cosmopolitan. For those of us who still don't feel clean enough, there is a new product on the market-a mod douche. Called "Cupid's Quiver," these "pre-measured sachets of liquid concentrate" come in four flavors: Orange Blossom, Raspherry, Jasmine and Champagne. "Relax," the ad commands. "And enjoy the revolution."
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