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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.

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  1. #1 Prabir 06 Jul 12

    Emami who make a whitener ’for men’ are part owners of AMRI- the hospital in Kolkata where over 90 patients and 2 nurses died in a fire recently. Seems ’whitening’ can cause a tragedy much worse than the ’black hole’ of Calcutta

  2. #2 Premila Ashok 06 Jul 12

    That was the first time I heard of vaginal whitening. Is the next step going blonde/brunette.? Talk of beauty being skin deep, in the West, it is just the opposite- having a tan is beauty(with tanning saloons doing roaring business). Darker skinned women here kind of carry off the black is beautiful adage.

  3. #3 Chris 06 Jul 12

    Thank you Mari. I enjoyed reading your article - alas this is a way of life in our culture. When describing a person, the first words of description is the colour of his/her skin. As if this is not enough - we'd say 'she is about 2 shades lighter than me'. As if anyone cares.. We don't realise it, but skin colour is very important in our culture.

    What I am upset is with the advertisements these days. Doesn't the ad go through a an Advertisement Panel - who gives the official nod whether this ad is ethical and worthy of being aired. Will it educate and uplift the people - or drag them down a negative path. Who are these people who sit on this Directorate - this panel???

  4. #4 tt 11 Jul 12

    great article!

  5. #5 TT 11 Jul 12

    I had to re- captcha about 15 times before I could get a decipherable image. NI Please consider changing your comment verification software.

  6. #6 Dev 21 Jul 12

    The first thing that came to my mind was the title of Fanon's book ’Black Skin White Masks’ where he says ’The white man is sealed in his whiteness. The black man in his blackness.’

    Thought Indians had overcome the slave mentality, that given the present day economic status, nationalism would have obliterated the past from the psyche. If yes, advertising would fail.

    There has always been this underlying inferiority complex based on complexion. Modernism has endowed the westernised affluent mind with a superiority complex that the unfamiliar is at best tolerated and at worst showcased for its exotic value. Positions of superiority and inferiority can be traced back to the history of exploitation, slavery, racism, colonization and post colonial cultural imperialism. Terminology – west-east, north-south, right-left; and, various colours – white-black, red, blue, purple, yellow, brown, ‘coloured’ – upholds the division of people, fragments the collective consciousness and makes unity an impossibility. People from underdeveloped or developing economies should not perceive themselves or their socities as underdeveloped. All of these are societies that have descended from ancient civilizations from which they have inherited their traditional strengths. Elements of these societies have been embraced with some degree of satisfaction by many westerners seeking to assuage the trauma of their accelerated existence. Material prosperity acts as a social pacifier and, ironically, the growth model of the west is being upheld in underdeveloped and developing societies across the globe as the path to ‘progress’ to the detriment of their individual and collective intrinsic natures that underpin their traditional social cohesion. In India the burgeoning upwardly mobile middleclass population that has endured an intense sense of deprivation for most of the “modern” era would be delighted today with its acquisitive capacity.

    You could have expressed more regret in your response.

  7. #7 conscience of the society 31 Jul 12

    Hi Mary !

    You have come out with a very bold theme this time !Congrats !
    The adv.on 'whitening down under'is only one of the extremes of a larger calamity. The industry, with their undisputed mastery over the contemporary world ( now including governments that run under their collaboration)first set standards for our attire, our food, our home appliances, hair,finally beauty accessories. Media's existence entirely depend on conveying these gospels to our helpless hearts and minds. Then we, the ordinary people toil day and night to conform with the standards set by them. Individuality, and the freedom of minds of men in the world is lost. The contemporary world wants us, the people, only as shameless CONSUMERS and VOTERS !It is an ORPHANED world ! Just fall in line, or take to crimes, or commit suicide - -there is no middle-way alternative ! The scratching here and there done by men and woman like you and me do not ever reach the mainstream.

  8. #8 mel u 27 Dec 12

    Sadly TV ads for just this product have recently begun to appear in the Philippines. The models in the ads are already much lighter skinned than the typical citizen of the country. The ads are aimed at women in their late teens and early twenties

  9. #9 Buggy 09 Jan 13

    ’The second question asked in maternity wards after ‘boy or girl?’ is ‘fair or dark’

    So true. I almost lost it when I heard my mother-in-law talking to some relatives on the phone after she saw my new born daughter.

  10. #10 Sanjay Bhowmick 15 Mar 14

    Dare I say, this is why market forces DO NOT WORK for humanity.

  11. #11 whitening cream for face 01 Apr 16

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    http://www.yabibo.com/whitening-cream-for-face-and-body/

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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