Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?
The Indian fixation on fair skin stooped to a new low recently when Clean and Dry Intimate Wash launched a fairness product for women’s private parts.
While fairness creams have a long history in India, the emergence of vaginal creams have sparked a huge debate in India in the media and among netizens.
Outrage and insult over whitening cream
“Interestingly, 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," said Mari Marcel Thekaekara, commenting in Time Healthland.
"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?’,”
The Wall Street Journal published an opinionated piece by Rupa Subramanya, who described the whole concept as "the ultimate insult."
Deepanjana Pal in Mumbai Boss wrote: "My vagina isn't happy about what's been happening recently in Indian media."
Blogger Sharell added: "No doubt this latest product will heighten women's insecurities about their color."
The beleaguered Clean and Dry ad director, Alyque Padamsee, thinks the press has blown the issue out of proportion. After all, what was so different about vaginal whitening than any other cosmetic procedure?
“It is hard to deny that fairness creams often get social commentators and activists all worked up. What they should do is take a deep breath and think again," he said.
"Lipstick is used to make your lips redder, fairness cream is used to make you fairer — so what’s the problem? … The only reason I can offer for why people like fairness, is this: if you have two beautiful girls, one of them fair and the other dark, you see the fair girl’s features more clearly.
Vaginal whitening: a solution for tepid love life?
Revathy Iyer, 32, was a home-maker from India when she made what she described as "that shameful trip to the supermarket," to buy the product. Afterward, Iyer said, she couldn't look at herself in the mirror.
But her married life was facing its low point, she said, when a friend suggested she try India's newest craze -- the vaginal cream.
Iyer remembered feeling repulsed, but was ready to try anything to save her marriage. In a desperate measure she fell prey to the advertising gimmick. Within less than a year, she was divorced.
She lived with remorse from compromising her self-respect for almost six months after this.
Screenshot from vaginal whitening cream ad
Caste and fairness
Indian television is dominated by fairness cream advertisements for women as well as men. The sales of such products are indirectly related to the country's social caste system: darker skinned people are historically assumed to be from the lower strata of society.
"I was so worried when my first child was born," said Pooja Shastri, a 35-year-old engineer from India.
"My entire family wanted me to deliver a fair baby. For nine months, I was fed natural food items that will help the baby to become fair when in mother's womb. Since the colour of a person still decides what social strata of the society one belongs, it was necessary for me to have a fair baby."
To Shastri's relief, two years ago she gave birth to a light-skinned baby boy.
TV ads for skin-lightening creams have always tried to put forward the notion that having fairer skin helps a person to be more successful and makes them more attractive to the opposite sex.
“I have grown-up with this notion. Fair-skinned people are given more importance in our country. The darker-skinned people are looked down upon," she said.
Even today, when caste should not determine a person's personal or professional success, skin tone remains a national obsession.
Bollywood endorsing fairness creams:
The trouble is that skin whitening creams are so widely accepted and legitimized by mainstream Indian society. Shah Rukh Khan, Shaid Kapur, Genelia D’souza, Sonam Kapoor and John Abhram are all hugely successful Bollywood actors, and all have supported cosmetic giants by appearing in fairness cream ads.
A recent study showed that two products that were high priority for sales were hair oil and fairness creams in India.
The fairness creams have a proven track record on the market: women have long been using creams to lighten their complexions. With the metro-sexual man rising in competition, shelves have become filled with skin lightening creams for men, too, of all ages.
To endorse and sell the products, cosmetic giants have roped in Bollywood superstars.
In one commercial, Shah Rukh Khan -- the "King of Bollywood" -- runs behind a group of young guys, explaining their inability to date women stems from their darker complexion.
"Bollywood celebrities endorse tons of different stuff," said Aneesh Sharma, an advertising executive. "What's the harm if they are seen in fairness ads?"
Health hazards of fairness cream containing mercury
The trouble is, fairness creams actually do cause physical harm.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a health warning last year for the users of fairness creams.
According to the warning, skin lightening products often contain mercury, which can have adverse effects such as kidney damage, reduction in the skin's resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, anxiety, depression or psychosis and also peripheral neuropathy.
With growing debate over the issue of skin lightening creams, some have started questioning whether Bollywood stars should use their star power to endorse such dangerous -- if profitable-- products. Especially in the case of vaginal whitening creams, they may not only be ineffective in healing broken marriages, but may do damage when it comes to skin health.