Lysol is known for magically wiping away anything. In the twenties through the fifties it was known to clean women’s bodies—specifically their vaginas. Lysol was a douche and a birth control method. The old ads show women done up with curled hair and tiny faces with a round mouth in a panic. Above or below these women are lines like “She was a jewel of a wife with just one flaw. She was guilty of the one neglect that mars many marriages,” and “Often a wife fails to realize that doubts due to one intimate neglect shut her out of a happy marriage.” In case that wasn’t enough, words like “doubt, inhibitions, ignorance, and misgivings” surround these women as men turn their backs to them. Of course, nothing is mentioned of unwanted pregnancy, only cleanliness. The pre-1953 formula contained chemicals that caused inflammation, burning, and death for decades. In 1961, a Lysol douche caused one woman’s vagina to blister and bleed. In response to all these numbers they started selling it as a household cleaner. Yet Lysol continued to advertise itself as a good birth control option. Women couldn’t afford an unwanted pregnancy and they had no options so they used something we scrub our toilets with to clean the most intimate part of themselves. To keep them from being “dirty” in society’s eyes.
I remember being in elementary school when my mom first threatened me with a bar of soap in my mouth. I said a bad word. When I asked why, I was told because they are dirty. It also wasn’t ladylike to speak that way. She made this threat a lot but never followed through. My fellow grade schoolers and I discussed getting our tongues scrubbed. We wondered why adults said this and if it would really erase the words from our gums. Then we imagined what it would taste like. Would it taste like flowers, since they always smelled like them? I went home that day and when no one was looking, I shoved a bar of soap into my mouth. It stung and tasted like chemicals. It was salty and bitter. I spat it out and coughed, choking. My mom appeared and I didn’t dare look at her. She handed me water and I spat out bubbles. I guess that wasn’t ladylike either.
A young Pakistani social media star was killed this year. By her own brother. For saying bad words. Her brother called it an “honor killing.” Her name was Fauzia Azeem. His was Muhammad Weseem. She was known as Qandeel Baloch. She became famous after a video in which she asks a man “How am I looking?” She went against tradition, she was openly feminist and sexual, she was dishonorable and disgusting to conservatives like her brother. So he drugged and strangled her while their parents slept in a drug induced haze. She was shaming the family he claimed, dirtying their name. She will always be dirty to some, but his slate can be wiped clean with forgiveness. A loophole in Pakistani law when it comes to “honor killings.” If the family forgives then there is no punishment. The family has been forbidden to forgive, so his hands are still stained red.
I know I was baptized, but I wasn’t really part of it. My mom is a strong believer; maybe she thought faith would be passed through our genes. I don’t remember the last time I went to church. I hated that I was never enough. I was always considered wrong. I didn’t dress right, talk right, and asked too many questions. I remember finding a dress when I was a teenager, so small and lacey that I thought it was a table doily. I must have been weeks old. I never understood why it happened when I was a baby–my mom had always been about wanting people to make their own choices. Wouldn’t it be better to choose to be purified, to choose to be part of this ideology? Babies don’t have a choice. Babies don’t even know what’s going on. Also what do babies have to be cleansed of? They haven’t lived long enough to commit sin. As a kid, I remember thinking it was disgusting to eat His body and drink His blood. I never told anyone that. I learned quickly when to speak.
I think my current age makes me sensitive to certain issues. My gender certainly does. The spree of rapes and assaults happening in the last year has been one of those issues. Colleges are notorious. Athletes are infamous. Owen Labrie. Nate Parker. Cory Batey. David Becker. Daniel Drill-Mellum. John R.K. Howard, who assaulted a mentally disabled football teammate with a coat hanger. Maybe most notorious, Brock Turner—a privileged athlete caught in the act. He attacked her behind a dirty dumpster. She was covered in pine needles, garbage, scratches, bruises, and remnants of him for hours. In her powerful, tear-inducing letter she admits to feeling contaminated. In court, she was asked what she was wearing, was she drinking, as if any of that could wipe away his guilt. On the stand her reputation was soiled for the sake of a rapist. The judge was worried about how jail would affect him. What about his swimming career? It would damage him. The word rapist would follow him for the rest of his life. What about the damage to her? The one covered in bruises? The one he left behind the dumpster as he ran away from the two men that caught him? The victim who will now always be a survivor, that word will follow her for the rest of her life. Why didn’t he think about how it will damage her before he laid his hands on her?
I remember how I was supposed to act around boys changed very drastically in middle school. I was told not to speak my mind as much and to tone myself down. I was “too aggressive” and had to stop “outsmarting the boys.” One incident is burned in my mind, while shopping at the mall with my girlfriends, one girl found plaid skirts. She had us all try them on. I didn’t like skirts. I stood there awkwardly, trying to tug it lower. Everyone else was giggling. The girl who picked them was bouncing and mentioned something about “naughty schoolgirls” and “boys will totally love this.” She pressured me to buy it and wear it the next day. While sitting in class, tugging my skirt down, a boy sidled up to me. This boy had written a list of girls he’d have sex with by hotness and I was number three. “Because I was cute if it wasn’t for my mouth, but that was half the fun.” I told him to go to hell. That same girl told me I should be thankful and feel lucky. Anyway, he slid into the seat next to mine, stared at my skirt and grinned. He told me he liked my skirt. He kept staring at it and my legs. Not knowing what to do, I said thank you, and felt dirty for the rest of the day. I never wore that skirt again.
2016 was the year of dress code violations. Women wearing too little are asking for it. But women wearing too much are prohibited. Like in France, police forcing a woman wearing a “burkini” to undress at the beach while people watch. A seventeen-year-old girl was forced to her knees in front of a male teacher so he could measure her skirt’s length from the ground, this was after he asked her to walk back and forth and raise her arms to see if the dress would ride up. A young black girl got in trouble because her natural hair was a “distraction.” Another girl was kicked out of a prom because her dress revealed too much cleavage–the dress had sleeves attached and it was purely because she was curvy. She was told she had “more boobs than other girls.” Another girl was kicked out for wearing a suit, even threatened by the school that the police would be called. Many schools tried to ban leggings and yoga pants, saying they were too tight. Collarbones and shoulders and knees were forbidden. Girls were poked and prodded, pulled out of classes, and kicked out of school for standing up for themselves. They became body parts instead of people. Those parts were measured to shame them and prove a point that they weren’t allowed to exist without being sexualized and that boys’ education was more important than theirs. Boys were taught they were bound by hormones and can’t control themselves. Almost like they are teaching these kids, that for boys, there are no consequences, and for girls, there are always consequences.
I remember not being allowed to show shoulders. That a small curved part of myself ruined twelve boys’ educations. I remember nothing was ever said of the fact their pants sagged to the curve of their ass, exposing boxers. I remember the fingertip rule, that your skirt, shorts, or dress had to be as long as your fingertips. The straps of any top had to be three fingers wide. I remember middle-aged teachers standing in the doorway of their classrooms with sharp eyes. I remember girls standing against a wall with their arms against their legs. Fingers fluttering over their legs and shoulders and wagging in their faces. I remember clenching my fingers into a fist when I felt their burning stare on me.
I started this essay in the summer of 2016. Since, I’ve struggled with how to end this essay. I wanted something to illustrate how everything women do is questioned and condemned. How the idea of dirtiness is something that remains with someone, a residue they can’t wash off. Then November came. Donald Trump became president. A man who said that he can grab women by “the pussy” and get away with it, a man who has walked into the dressing rooms of beauty pageant contests, and has double digit sexual assault accusers was chosen to become the leader of the free world. A man whose voters wanted to repeal the 19th amendment, you know the one that women fought for? The right to vote? Those same voters started attacking women in the streets. Heaven forbid, if you wear a hijab, then those voters will try to choke you with it. Not to mention that Donald Trump wants to take our reproductive rights away, leaving women to scramble to figure out their next game plan. Maybe the days of Lysol are not so far behind us. Maybe we’ll have to go back to good old Lysol to be deemed clean enough.
Erynn Porter has a BFA in Creative Writing from the New Hampshire Institute of Art and is currently Assistant Editor and Staff Writer for Quail Bell Magazine and Associate Editor for Ravishly. She has been published in Brooklyn Magazine, Ravishly, Extract(s), The Mighty, and Quail Bell Magazine. She often jumps between her interests of writing fiction and nonfiction, short stories, and children’s books, and to anything else that grabs her attention. You can often find her eating candy while editing her own work; she claims that candy is the perfect editing food. When Erynn isn’t editing, she’s reading with a cat curled up beside her.