Earlier this year, a Missouri court ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $72 million in damages to the family Jacqueline Fox. Fox’s death from ovarian cancer was linked to her use of the company’s talc-based Baby Powder and Shower to Shower products, over a period of several decades. Before her death, Fox joined a group of over 1,000 women in suing Johnson & Johnson.
Fox’s death, and the allegations surrounding her passing, are quite shocking. But as feminist scholars like Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley note, there’s a major cultural component to how certain hygiene products target marketed to black women, despite the health risks.
Like pressing our hair and lotioning our legs, douching and deodorizing vaginas is something black women teach our daughters and sister-friends teach our friends. It’s part of black women’s culture of self-care, one of many ways we love and nurture bodies nobody else seems ready to pamper. When we decide to do something with our bodies, well, we do it. Black women spend about four times as much as white women on hair, and twice as many black women douche and deodorize compared with our white counterparts, according to research by Francesca Branch, Tracey J. Woodruff, Susanna D. Mitro and Ami R. Zota. The researchers found that like baby powder, over-the-counter douches and vaginal deodorizers contain ingredients—namely, phthalates—linked to cancer, among other health risks not listed on labels.
Tinsley also points to centuries-old myths, dating back to the era of slavery, about black people’s hygiene, specifically black women’s vaginal odors. These myths manifest themselves in modern times in a myriad of ways. For starters, black women, on average, spend more time and money on their beauty products than women of other races. Companies like Johnson & Johnson take advantage by marketing products like vaginal washes and other personal care items directly to black women.
The takeaway from this situation and the untimely death of Jacqueline Fox and so many women like her, is that it may be time to reevaluate exactly what proper hygiene actually looks like.