India’s whitening obsession goes vaginal

I read something rather odd in a Bangalore paper recently. Advertising circles were arguing whether the cosmetics industry had gone too far as a major company is advertising a whitening cream for women’s genitals.

Pallavi Chakravarti, an award winning Mumbai advertising executive, described her reaction to the ad:

‘We were sitting around the TV at work and this ad appeared,’ she says. ‘We laughed at first, but then we got angry. Here’s this pathetic woman with a husband who won’t look at her because she’s dark down under. Can you imagine? She puts on the new whitening cream – a stupid diagramatic scene shows where she’s transformed into Snow White – and suddenly the husband can’t get enough of her. It’s such poor taste.

‘There are loads of us who think it’s demeaning to women but that doesn’t stop anything,’ she continues. ‘There’s one lightening cream called White Radiance. It shows an almost-white Indian woman saying, “If only I were fair, he would love me.” Every single woman should long to be whiter.’

For the uninitiated, beauty in India has always been synonymous with lighter skin colour, locally referred to as ‘a fair complexion’. The Sunday papers devote entire pages to match-making with most ads demanding  a ‘fair-skinned’ bride. In the era before whitening creams, pampered middle-class girls were always shielded from the sun with enormous black umbrellas.

There were myriad home remedies to lighten up. Mostly herbal packs using turmeric, sandal paste, cucumber and secret ingredients, especially for brides. The first whitening cream to hit the commercial market was ‘Fair and Lovely’ which became instantly popular all over South Asia. Soon they were being sold in cheap little sachets for poor women. Tapping the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid.

The last decade has seen an explosion of brands like L'Oreal, Ponds and Garnier jumping on the bandwagon. Next came fairness creams for men. And now practically everyone’s in the fray to get our 250 million middle-class population to buy their whiteners.

But the ‘down under’ ad was too much for most people.. Twitter, cell phones and emails sent out frenetic messages of outrage. Yet feminist groups have protested for decades against fairness creams in vain.

The phenomena is played out globally with the Indian diaspora and others. I remember being shocked in the sixties when I first saw Nairobi newspapers advertising whitening creams. I read that ‘Fair and Lovely’ is available all over Africa too.

Interestingly, though while ‘whiten your vagina’ got the ad world divided about appropriateness, gender exploitation or that biggest sin of all, dreadfully bad taste, the ordinary whiten-up message is so not news. It’s just how life is. From cradle to death. The second question asked in maternity wards after ‘boy or girl?’ is ‘fair or dark?’

There are words to describe shades of skin tone exactly, from ‘shyam’ or really black, to ‘wheatish’ to golden brown. It’s hard to get the true flavour unless you know Indian languages.

I Googled ‘whiten your vagina’ and found 164,00 results, mostly advising on how to do just that.

Feminists have tried to sue the makers of whitening creams. But I’m not sure on what grounds they can. True, it has millions of people conned by the cosmetics industry and has a terrible effect on the self-confidence and self-esteem of the average Indian woman.

But it’s a billion dollar industry. And unless we opt to change our ridiculous obsession with whiter skin, I don’t see any solution. Hindustan Lever, L'Oreal, Ponds and the others will continue laughing all the way to the bank.