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“Hairless, odourless, bleached, and clean”: Exploring Women’s Experiences of the Vagina in Connection with Vaginal Cleansing Products

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Title: “Hairless, odourless, bleached, and clean”: Exploring Women’s Experiences of the Vagina in Connection with Vaginal Cleansing Products
Author: Jenkins, Amanda L.
Department: Department of Psychology
Program: Psychology
Advisor: O'Doherty, Kieran
Abstract: Vaginal cleansing products such as douches, sprays, wipes, powders, washes, and deodorants are part of a 2 billion industry in North America. Within Canada, use of vaginal washes and wipes in particular is on the rise among younger generations of women. According to a Nielson Consumer Data Report, Canadian women spent almost 6.8 million dollars on vaginal wipes in 2015. However, medical literature increasingly suggests there are adverse health risks associated with some of these products, including higher risks of women being susceptible to bacterial vaginosis and cervical cancer. Given the popularity of vaginal cleansing products despite potential health concerns it is important to explore the role these products play in women’s experiences of the vagina and how these experiences are constructed in relation to broader cultural meanings of women’s bodies. Therefore, this dissertation critically examines how women who use vaginal cleansing products construct, manage, and feel about their vaginas in relation to the messages they receive around vaginal health and hygiene. Drawing on interviews with 31 women who were currently using or had previously used vaginal cleansing products, this dissertation employs a critical discourse analysis to examine the multiple and overlapping constructions of the vagina within participants’ accounts that framed their use of vaginal cleansing products in different ways. This includes an examination of three distinct constructions, the clean vagina, the dirty vagina, and the healthy vagina, and how these were connected to vaginal cleansing products being viewed as necessary or unnecessary. Of these three constructions, my analysis focuses, in particular, on how the clean vagina is idealized by many participants in such a way that vaginal cleansing product use becomes a necessary beauty practice in removing vaginal odour, discharge, and menstrual blood. I show how the clean vagina is a powerful beauty ideal to the extent that some women rationalized and justified their use of vaginal cleansing products despite being aware of or experiencing negative health consequences associated with these products. Thus, I demonstrate how use of vaginal cleansing products is a beauty practice that some women feel pressured to perform within a society where vaginas are predominantly constructed as dirty, shameful, and inadequate.  
Date: 2019-04
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