Honey Pot Meltdown, Explained

The products were marketed as plant derived, with no artificial fragrances or added parabens; backed by a team of female gynecologists; and, most important, owned by a Black woman. Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Retailers

Honey Pot, a line of “feminine care” and sexual wellness products founded by Bea Dixon, arrived on shelves in 2014 with the glint of something godsent. The products were marketed as plant derived, with no artificial fragrances or added parabens; backed by a team of female gynecologists; and, most important, owned by a Black woman. The design for each product was inviting and direct, and included a note that manages to speak almost exclusively to Black, Black queer, and Black trans women: “An ancestor gave me the ingredients and gifted me with a vision to heal myself.” Dixon and her team made it clear that the ambition of her brand was to make sure that Black women and girls could see themselves in her story.

I did. I have always had an active relationship with ancestry, and I bond with the Black people — especially Black women and Black trans women — in my life over this consciousness. From altars to bone throwing, I know the kind of healing that can come from picking up your ancestral telephone. I went straight to Target (and I’m not even a Target girl), where I bought three of the washes, tampons, and wipes. While I am unendingly distrustful of direct marketing and all the good tactics of consumerism, I enjoyed being spoken to in such an intimate manner from a brand selling me a product from a product that I’m supposed to put on my vagina. I then went home to put them on my vagina. I loved them. And for the last year and a half, I’ve been a dedicated Honey Pot customer — from the products to the educational Instagram posts to the mailing list — and vocal fan.

On Sunday morning, I saw a TikTok from @intellectwithb, a health-conscious user, breaking down their understanding of why the new ingredients were harmful. As people shared the video and other users started to get word of the change, rumors quickly began to spread that Honey Pot was no longer “Black owned” but “Black founded,” indicating a supposed shift in ownership.

At first, I didn’t think much of it; Honey Pot has long been a target for online harassment. It was white women’s anxiety about Honey Pot that brought it to my timeline in the first place. In February 2020, a Target ad featuring Dixon was called “racist” for stating that her company is for Black women and girls: “The reason why it’s so important for the Honey Pot to do well is so the next Black girl who comes up with a great idea could have a better opportunity. That means a lot to me.” People left angry comments on the product reviews. Nevertheless, sales increased by 50 percent.

But this feedback was different. It was coming from Black women on my feed who had loved the products and thought they knew what they were purchasing: Many users thought it was completely organic (it never was), and that adding any preservatives to the formula made it unsafe for sensitive skin (according to Honey Pot and chemists on Twitter, it doesn’t).

As a person who is only recently conscious of wellness products and organic care, I had no clue how to understand what was going on: Had Dixon sold Honey Pot to white people who wanted to poison my vagina? I Googled: “Honey Pot sold,” and found a 2020 interview with Dixon talking about the unfair shame that Black entrepreneurs absorb when they want to sell their companies, and how it was her ultimate goal for Honey Pot. I thought about Carol’s Daughter and the speculation it brought, before it was confirmed that it was sold to Unilever. I went back to Twitter, where I found Black chemists writing threads explaining what the product changes actually meant for the products and the business. It made sense! I still had no way of knowing if the product was still safe for me, but I didn’t know it wasn’t. According to FCC standards, it is deemed safe for skin, but some Black chemists on Twitter said that while it meets the FCC standard for safety, they themselves wouldn’t use a product with as high as 1 percent phenoxyethanol on their vaginas and that consumers should evaluate on a case-by-case basis. The old “try it and see how you feel.” Fair enough.

Then I thought, if Twitter users could explain it this well, why couldn’t Dixon? (Dixon, who we did reach out to, declined to speak for this article.) Esther Olu, a Black woman (@estherolu) beauty chemist, helped debunk some of the Twitter rumors and told me that no brand offers that kind of transparency, and it was an unfair standard. Then I realized that I was actually mad at the fact that brands, by and large, naturally escape transparency with consumers. I thought, is no one required to be accountable to Black women just because no one has ever had to be? Is there really no rule about brand transparency in the ethics handbook? Whose fault was it that this standard of engagement had never been established? What kind of communication should we be owed? And why was I so frustrated by it?

That Sunday evening, Dixon recorded a video confirming that a change had happened to the formula and that it was better for the brand and the consumer because it would allow a longer shelf life without disruption to the quality of the product and that it is now hypoallergenic. It wasn’t incredibly clarifying for me, but certainly showed they understood that their base had questions.

By the time I’d watched the video later that day, read three more threads from chemists, and figured out my confusion, Dixon and the Honey Pot page were getting death threats. Death threats over a change in formula and a rumor (unsubstantiated) that it had been sold. It felt like the temperature had changed, and whatever conversation Black women were having with each other about brand fidelity had devolved into misogynoir violence.

The real question I was consumed with: What are the ethics of communication within a brand that Dixon herself has called “radical”? What are Black women supposed to expect from brands in general, but especially Black-owned brands? And what is fair for us to accept? The internet wasn’t a safe place to have this conversation anymore because it had been split into two wings: abject misogynoir and “you don’t know what’s in your Dove soap, why are you questioning Honey Pot,” which felt too easy and reductionist to satisfy me.

I turned to Dr. Aria Halliday, University of Kentucky associate professor and author of the new book Buy Black: How Black Women Transformed U.S. Pop Culture, who is an expert on how Black women and their dollars have shaped popular culture, to explain what happened with Dixon and Honey Pot.

CF: This particular kind of outrage and anxiety from Black women consumers doesn’t seem new. I remember this with Carol’s Daughter. I remember this was Sheamoisture. Can you talk a little bit about where some of that outrage and anxiety comes from? 

AH: When Black women start making anything, who do they first talk to about their products? They talk to their friends. They talk to their families. They go to their homegirls, their sorority sisters, and in a lot of ways, that immediate connection to consumers comes through this relationship.

But there’s definitely a flip. Once you go from selling it out of the back of your car, you know, out of your house, now there’s a personal website. Once it goes from a personal website to Target to Macy’s to whatever, you don’t really have control necessarily over who you’re selling to or who is seeing your image as something they’re trying to connect to. And I think there is a rupture that happens in that relationship between producer and consumer, that happens between Black women. I talk a little bit in the book about a concept I’ve termed: embodied objectification. I talk about how embodied objectification really is based on this relationship that Black women have to each other: from the producer side to the consumer side.

We have this idea that you’re selling out if you’re no longer the person making the products that are specifically tied to a Black community, because like, again, that relationship is supposed to be there.

CF: It’s now antagonistic, right?

AH: There’s definitely an antagonism in some ways, but a lot of it is just complete invisibility. There isn’t directed marketing toward Black women if it’s not a product that’s created by Black people. Dove is not making products for Black women. It creates a special line and the bottle is brown. It is supposed to be directed toward Black women, but that in itself feels kind of antagonistic. And now they make these decisions, through consultation with Black women, who are the ones sitting in boardrooms and using the information that they know from living their lives as Black women, from their Black mamas, from their Black sisters, from their Black cousins.

CF: Bey Dixon has said: “No, we are not for sale. This is still a Black-owned brand.” I’m wondering if you can speak to, one, how that rumor took up space, and two, if that is not the right question, then how does the assumption that they sold or even that they are ready to sell erode trust between a Black-owned brand and Black women in particular?

AH: Shea Moisture, for example, does the commercial where there’s literally no Black women in the commercial, right? It’s like we — I — helped build you [and] create this brand, and I don’t get anything. You get to have your millions and billions of dollars, but I don’t get anything from it when it goes to a corporation that is not even making the products the same way. I’ve been using them for a decade.

When it comes to something like this, which we feel we’ve actively built through this relationship with the producer, it feels like major betrayal. You get to go off with your millions and so-call help the community. And I’m left with trying to figure out, again, what is going to work for my hair or my skin.

CF: And so in some ways, Honey Pot has inherited the unfinished conflict that Shea Moisture and Carol’s Daughter left behind.

AH: And there are many other brands, too. Those are just high-profile ones in the past decade. There were all these tweets going around about companies that were not Black-owned last year, like African Pride, where you’re thinking, they’re selling it at Walmart; I thought this was us; I thought that’s why this was in our aisle.

Here’s something else about Kwanzaa and Kujichagulia, and Juneteenth — the things that we believe as Black people we should be doing right to show fidelity to Black people and Black culture — it means to buy stuff from Black people, especially stuff that’s supposed to be “for us.”

But we have bought into stereotypes about what we do too. That trust feels particularly eroded because we thought we were all on the same page doing the things that we agreed upon. And we’re seeing that that’s not true. Because it’s not true.

CF: Right. Because capitalism doesn’t work that way.

AH: No. It doesn’t ever happen.

CF: Is the standard that Dixon is being held to an unfair standard?

AH: Absolutely. People of color, and Black people in particular, have to let go of whatever idea of representation that we have. Capitalism does not allow fidelity in the ways that we believe there should be fidelity. Just because the brand is owned by a Black woman or owned by a Black person or person of color, that doesn’t mean it is going to be for our communities. Especially when we don’t have expectations for white folks.

CF: Dixon said in her most recent Instagram video that she built a “radical brand.” And I’m wondering if you could speak a little bit to how the mission to build a radical brand can come into conflict with the unique pressures that Black women entrepreneurs face in a capitalist, racist, sexist industry?

AH: We always use systems in ways that they’re not necessarily designed, but capitalism, in the way that, you know, Black women in particular were the original capital. It’s hard to think that we’re going to use capitalism to do radical things.

Honey Pot Meltdown Explained