Vaniqa and African Sleeping Sickness

3 Nov

The other morning in the car, I was somewhat startled to hear the name of the pharmaceutical Vaniqa (Eflornithine), the prescription hair removal cream whose name equally evokes “vanish” and “vanity.” It was mentioned in a Democracy Now interview with medical ethicist Harriet Washington, which primarily dealt with issues of patient consent and biocolonialism. Vaniqa has been recommended to me (without my asking) multiple times by multiple doctors, and was also a site of inquiry for my ongoing Femme a Barbe academic and zine project. Although I have largely set this project aside for the time being, I want to capture this ironic relationship first of all because I had an intense affective reaction, as well as for the purposes of future scholarship.

From the Democracy Now rush transcript:
HARRIET WASHINGTON: Right, right. I think that came to light—the story of eflornithine, for sleeping sickness, is a really good illustration of that. Eflornithine was found to be effective against sleeping sickness. It was one report in Science magazine. And a man who was a doctor caring for Belgian sleeping sickness patients wanted to try it. So he got Paul Schechter of Belgium to give him a sample. He went to Belgium. He went to Sudan. He—sorry, he went to Sudan, and he tested it. And he found it was the best medication ever devised against sleeping sickness. Typically, once you have African sleeping sickness and you slip over into coma, no drug will bring you back. But eflornithine brought people back. And they began calling it the resurrection drug.

So, cheered by this, the person who—the company who held the patent on eflornithine—they were testing it against cancer for Europeans—they decided, “OK, well, let’s try marketing it to the developing world. It works so well.” But they couldn’t make any money, so they quickly stopped. Doctors Without Borders partnered with them, and so, for five years, they provided it free to people in the developing world. But at the end—which is wonderful. I mean, when companies do that, I think that’s very laudable. The problem is, it’s not done enough, and when it is done, it’s usually done for a short period of time. After five years, they withdrew, because they found a new use for eflornithine. Eflornithine is now marketed as Vaniqa. Vaniqa—you might have seen the ads—is a drug for Western women to remove facial hair. So, Western women can afford to pay $50 a month to get rid of their facial hair, but African sufferers of sleeping sickness can’t afford the drug to save their lives. And the company has marketed—chosen to market it only for the hair problem. It doesn’t market it for sleeping sickness. [Emphasis mine]

From a conference paper I presented in 2010:

Vaniqa, like other hair removal methods, profits off of the prevailing cultural myth that woman do not grow hair, and therefore that female facial hair is necessarily pathological. Unlike other hair removal methods, Vaniqa, which works by blocking an enzyme in the hair follicle, is a cosmetic product prescribed by a doctor. This medical intervention reifies the culture of shame around the presence of facial hair in women. The Vaniqa website cites causes of UFH, focusing particularly on the “natural aging process” and “underlying medical conditions,” including obesity and pregnancy. The focus on outsider bodies —the fat body and the old body, compounded by femaleness and of course hairiness—as undesirable represents a project of policing and control over the female body as site of movement or change . The fat, old, or hairy female body pathologized by the culture of products like Vaniqa evokes Bakhtin’s pregnant hag , further theorized to represent the “fear and loathing” of biological processes associated specifically with the female body. In a Vaniqa television spot, the actress speaks directly to the viewing audience regarding her supposed “problem” with Unwanted Facial Hair. She says, “we all try so hard to keep it a secret. But now it’s easy with Vaniqa.” Another woman featured in the advertisement articulates that, “Vaniqa has given me the freedom to be close to people again.” The language of secrecy and freedom evokes the idea not only that facial hair must be hidden, but that women with facial hair themselves must hide or be hidden, as undesirable social outcasts (particularly in the economy of heteronormative sexual desire), with facial hair as a form of bondage that women must be freed from in order to live whole lives. In addition, Vaniqa is only effective as long as it is consistently used; it must be used indefinitely or the user will experience hair regrowth, binding lifelong and constant consumption to both the psychological possibility of self-esteem as well as the freedom from perceived and actual policing of the hairy female body.

I would love to at some point expand this project to better encompass a transnational lens on bicolonialist consumption and gender normativity.

Now back to our regular program…


5 Responses to “Vaniqa and African Sleeping Sickness”

  1. alagarconniere November 4, 2011 at 9:42 am #

    part of me is feeling like, “WOAH HOLY SHIT.” but another huge part of me is not the least bit surprised.

    this reminds me – there was a great report on dispatches a few months back about patents and how patent holders care more about making a big buck than they actually do about improving quality of life or straight up saving the lives of impoverished dying people in the global south.

    if you scroll down to the bottom, it’s the last piece, by anjali nayer and andrew rice:—washington-dc—beijing—new-york—kenyasouth-su/#igImgId_15223

  2. alagarconniere November 4, 2011 at 9:43 am #

    also: HOW WAS NOT ALREADY FOLLOWING YOUR BLOG. obviously i still read it all the time but i just clicked the “follow” button. ❤

  3. E. November 12, 2011 at 5:57 pm #

    Wow, the irony kills me. Almost unbelievable.

    Unrelated (sort of) I’ve been following your femme a barbe zine and blog posts infrequently over the past couple of years… they give me comfort as a woman with hair that other people can’t get over. What are your thoughts on Movember? Cause I can’t get over the irony really… the celebration of men’s ability to grow it, and the simultaneous shaming of women who do. I work in a male-dominated environment and you wouldn’t believe the crap I’ve heard them say about other women’s hair during this month more than any other… Yet I feel I cannot say anything. I’m constantly fearing I’m going to be the next target of judgement (I think I need to submit something to your zine….) Does Movember drive you nuts too?

    • sassyfrasscircus November 17, 2011 at 3:55 pm #

      Hey! Sorry I didn’t reply to this earlier. Movember itself doesn’t drive me nuts, I know several women who have used Movember as an excuse to “come out” about their facial hair. Assholes, however, always piss me off. ❤ JB

      Also, I think I will be doing another issue this summer, feel free to send me submissions anytime!


  1. Friday Randomness – Nov. 4 « Fit and Feminist - November 4, 2011

    […] of Sassyfrass Circus shared this eye-opening post about the connections between an anti-facial hair cream for women and African sleeping sickness.  […]

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