The water washed over me as I stood in the shower and flashbacked to my childhood. I remember being bathed, greased down and shined up like a new penny before making any public appearances. Like many Black mothers, my mother was obsessed with cleanliness. Everything had to be in order—hair, face, clothes. We learned young that the holiness of hygiene reflected our humanity.
The prickle from the hot water reminded me of why the Dove debacle enraged so many. It was not so much anger as it was pain from being burned--again. This age-old wound that has never fully healed has been sliced wide open with a salted knife, and we are wincing from the pulsing pain of our wounded self.
As Black women we carry this pain and pass it off to our children as pride. We admonish them for being less than clean in any way. We warn our daughters that they’ll never get a man if they keep a nasty house. We warn our sons against having a dirty car. We shower at night before going to bed and in the morning before going to work. We do everything we can to keep the dirt at bay. After sex, we wash the sin away. We clean the house before the house keeper arrives. We believe those who say we can never be clean enough, but can we ever really be clean enough?
This is not about Dove; it’s about what Dove represents; it’s about racism and the history of an industry that uses stereotypes of African-Americans to sell an array of products. The idea of cleanliness and Black people speaks to who we are in this country especially as Black women because we are never expected to measure up to white women.
We’re not simply trying to meet the purity of whiteness we’re trying to exceed it. We turn our noses up at white women in the restroom who simply run their hands under the running water or don’t wash their hands at all. We like having the upper hand in something as benign as hygiene. Our dignity hangs on it. Our lives depend on it.
The situation with Dove is two-fold for me: it’s about America’s continued fetish of blackness and the consequences for us which can sometime be deadly. The Parent company for Dove is Unilever. Unilver makes Pear soap which has a history of some of the most racist soap ads ever made. Ads that equate whiteness with goodness. Ads that say their soap can wash away blackness.
“I’ll knock the black off you,” was uttered by people who looked like me. As I think back now, that reference alluded to dirt. I never heard anyone say they’d knock the brown or the white off anyone. Our obsession with cleanliness goes beyond simply soap. We want to make sure that we smell “fresh” at all times. The idea of being a smelly Black woman brings a sense of shame and embarrassment.
We spend billions of dollars spend on products that make us look good, smell good and feel good, but some of these products are also harmful to our health. Even when doctors advised women to stop douching, I know women who felt that there weren’t clean if they didn’t. We have sprayed, squirted, and sprinkled our way into harm’s way. Products like baby powder have cost some of us our lives.
In an article, Profiting From the Myths About Black Women’s Bodies, on time.com Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin writes, about Black women’s hygiene. She explains our need to douche and deodorize and the deadly consequences associated with cultural norms around cleanliness.
It was discovered through internal documents at the trial of a woman who died from ovarian cancer, that Johnson & Johnson continued to market its product to women of color after white women stopped using their baby powder because of its possible connection to ovarian cancer. Though a direct correlation between talc and cancer is mixed some reports say there’s a direction connection between talc and cancer, some say there is not, there are juries ruling in favor of women who claim to have contracted cancer from using these products.
The family of Jacqueline Fox won a $72 million dollar lawsuit against Johnson & Johnson after Fox died from advanced ovarian cancer after being diagnosed in 2013. Fox, like countless other Black women sprinkled baby power containing talcum in her panties to stay “fresh.” Fox used baby powder and Shower to Shower as part of her feminine hygiene routine for 35 years according to an article in the Washington Post.
In August of this year, a
Los Angeles jury awarded 63
year-old Eva Echeverria, of East Los Angeles
417 million dollars in damages according to an article by Roni Caryn Robin in The
New York, These women are only two of 1,200 women suing Johnson &
Johnson for failing to warn them of the cancer risk associated with talcum-based
Black women are dying to be seen as clean in a society that sees us as nasty, dirty and worthless. Dove reminded of us how hard it is to wash away those feelings of inferiority. I reached for my towel, stepped out of the shower and wondered what it takes to be clean enough to be worthy.