Why Are Talcum Powder & Sexual Violence In The Same Sentence

Let’s chat about talcum powder. Baby powder. 

The truth is that the harmfulness of talcum powder has been known since 1971. That’s when a study found traces of talc in ovarian tumors. 

With that being true, I have to then ask why have people still been using it over the past 48 years? 

Are we just not asking questions? 

Or is it simply lack of knowledge. I run into this lack of knowledge all the time myself & when educating my community about the harmful ingredients used in most of our personal care products to date. 

We truly don’t know what we don’t know. 

So, are we just not asking questions? Because as a culture who is so hesitant to trust medical doctors, I struggle with the idea that we don’t even blink an eye when we are putting our trust in corporations by blindly buy their products.

However, the even bigger question is...

Why have companies still been marketing products that include talcum powder? 

Why are they still selling products with talcum powder as an ingredient? 

Further, and possibly more pressing, WHY and HOW is it even legal for them to still put this dangerous ingredient on shelves? 

Did you know that African American women who used talcum powder (namely Baby Powder & Shower to Shower) for feminine hygiene had more than a 40 percent increased risk of cancer?

I’m willing to bet the companies using talcum powder (ie Johnson & Johnson) sure know that statistic. 

Which makes this even harder to wrap my head around. 

That’s also why this is so important to Clean Beauty for Black Girls.

You probably know this, but using talcum powder is much more common in black communities, leaving us a large target for marketers.

Johnson & Johnson knew that and  jumped on it. There was an internal memo back in 1992, I believe, that exposed the links between talcum powder and cancer. 

Do you know how J&J responded? 

By recommending and implementing more aggressive marketing of their Baby Powder and Shower-to-Shower products to the Black and Hispanic communities of women. 

Yes. Read that again & sit with it. 

This is violence. Period. 

What I hadn’t fully internalized until I went to an educational conference led by Black Women’s BluePrint is the idea that this is also sexual violence against women of color. 

This type of sexual violence goes back years to slavery and the perception of black women’s bodies. It goes back to   our own government sterilizing women of color. 

Something so ingrained into the seams of who we are as a country does not just skip over the board rooms and walls of large corporations. It simply doesn’t. They have internalized these same societal beliefs. 

So we must talk about this. We have to accept the linkages that are presenting themselves here.

When I was at the conference I mentioned just above, the topic was the pipeline of sexual abuse to maternal mortality in the lives of black women. There was a point where we came to a story of trauma that exposed a young girl’s first menstruation experience. She told of how she was met with rejection and tales of how to avoid being dirty and smelly. The message of undesirability came from multiple places, including home and the doctor’s office. This is not a singular message young black women are receiving. Black women are being taught, from a young age, to be hypervigilant about not being caught “dirty”. 

Hearing this story hit me like a ton of bricks. I had started this write up about talcum powder and J&J prior to the event and had no wordly idea I would find such a strong link between what I would categorize as a “beauty” topic to this heavy and serious subject matter. 

The branch of relativity was enough to take the breath out of me. 

This brings me to the  reasoning behind the more prevalent usage of baby powder by women of color.

And that is the focus on black women being raised to be fresh and clean. To reach for that idea of being acceptable.

Part of me can say that black women may have used baby powder more in their underwear because of the fact that there are (historically) larger concentrated populations of people of color living in hot and humid climates that the South is known for. 

But I’d be naive if I didn’t address the negative & racial connotation that comes with the idea that a harmful product is better than the idea of being “not fresh” and “not clean”. 

We truly cannot ignore the historical context of the hypersexualization and devaluation of black women’s bodies. We are constantly in a state of being criticized, yet never quite meeting that mark of being pretty and “clean”. 

This is traceable back throughout history. We don’t have to go any further than “White Only” signs to understand the very seriousness of the idea that black = dirty. When that extends to a woman’s vagina, it is only exacerbated. 

The messaging about our bodies has a heavy patriarchal influence, as well. When you add that to the years of oppression and racism, it’s not ridiculous to draw the lines of how that messaging seeps into our own homes and the influences what we pass on to our children. Those kinds of verbiage and lived experiences become ingrained in our own heads and culture. 

It’s survival. Our elders and ancestors are only trying to teach us to be able to survive. 

But we are more than the survival that means meeting patriarchal and racist ideals.

Listen to this. On an annual average basis, 20,000 women are diagnosed with ovarian cancer in America. 

You know how many lose that battle? Nearly 14,500.

We also have to consider that Johnson & Johnson  is a company that is making nearly 82 billion dollars in sales & is known for their personal care hygiene products - largely for babies and women.

Considering how easy it was for me to find those figures surrounding ovarian cancer, I have to assume that J&J also knows those numbers. So why, with all that capital have they not found a less harmful alternative. 

We can’t ignore the truth here. 

It’s not a new practice to profit off of the harmful myths and stereotypes of black bodies. 

You literally cannot tell the story of America without it. 

I’m not sure that makes such a sharp slap in the face (delivered by J&J’s deliberate act of violence against us) any less shocking or traumatizing. 

This brings me back to beauty and personal care products. 

We use these things to elevate ourselves. 

We use them as self-expression. 

A beat face. A shower. Not being ashy.
These are some of our more simple forms of “self care”. 

Self care in the black community has always been a big thing. 

From our hair. To the shea butter we put on our skin. 

Vaginal freshness and care is just another step of that self care.

And it has been taught, as such, to us along the way. 

No matter how poorly influenced it may have been. 

Racism told us we were dirty and smelled.

Misogyny indicated our smell was foul and not to be noticed. 

It was both a forced and natural result for black women to assume a role of “if I can keep my vagina from smelling I have grown and transenced to an acceptable and desirable level of status as a woman/human”. 

Nevermind that a natural vagina is going to smell from time to time. 

It’s completely misogynistic to assume otherwise.  

The truth is that it’s all interlinked. 

Cancer causing ingredients being used in the first place.

The targeted marketing to women of color. 

Racialized sexual violence. 

The pipeline of assault and violence on the bodies of women of color is rampant. 

I’ll say what I said in the room that day… 

“The health and wellness of black women is multi-faceted and urgent”