First came the fairness face creams. Then the skin lightening body lotions. Enter the whitening underarm deodorant, and finally – drum roll, please – the fairness feminine douche! Clean and Dry intimate wash "offers protection, fairness and freshness" for colour-challenged vaginas everywhere.
Needless to say, a lot of people are kinda outraged. "Ok this is the ultimate insult. Skin whitening for your vagina," tweets writer Rupa Subramanya, who sparked a mini Twitter storm on the topic. And she's right. Our fairness obsession – at least in ad campaigns – now borders the ridiculous.
The fairer sex is now required to be literally so: fairer all over, all the time, from our pretty white brow to our bleached little toe, be it in the boardroom or the bedroom. The campaign to eliminate the scourge of darkness has extended to every nook and cranny of a woman's body. A tiny little tan line? Perish the thought, says Anushka Sharma, as she flaunts her pristinely white finger. Tanned legs from playing tennis? Oh, the horror! As for the female underarm – long tortured and bruised by repeated waxing – the required hue is now a dazzling white once reserved for toilets and sports uniforms.
So it was only a matter of time before we breached the final frontier: our long-neglected yonis. Begone nasty purples, reds, and dark (Eeks, there is that word again!) pinks, cried the douche fairy. Let there be white, instead!
Do I think it's dumb? Sure. For starters, none of the usual rationale of fairness product ads work here. While white is indeed right in the marriage market, this is one virtue that is difficult to list in that matrimonial ad: Khatri girl, 5'3", convent education, working in MNC, slim, fair everywhere! And flashing your prospective employers is certainly not going to help you land that fancy, corporate job.
As for the bedroom, if a guy (or girl, if that's the way you swing) is actually looking at your vagina, I can safely promise you, he's not concerned with its exact hue. And if he is — brace yourself! — the boy's most likely gay. The Indian male criteria for nookie is pretty straight-forward. He's virtuously colour-blind if a) you're pretty; or b) have big tits; or c) if you're willing put out — in which case, he absolutely, incontrovertibly doesn't give a damn!
So why bother with a fair and lovely douche?
Ask an advertising honcho like Alyque Padamsee, and you'll likely get some version of this bit of received wisdom:
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. Lipstick is used to make your lips redder, fairness cream is used to make you fairer—so what’s the problem? I don’t think any Youngistani today thinks the British Raj/White man is superior to us Brown folk. That’s all 1947 thinking!
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. This is because her complexion reflects more light. I found this amazing difference when I directed Kabir Bedi, who is very fair and had to wear dark makeup for Othello, the Black hero of the play. I found I had to have a special spotlight following Kabir around the stage because otherwise the audience could not see his expressions.
Umm, right! Even our vaginas look prettier when they "reflect more light" – and more expressive. It gives whole new meaning to the phrase, "Read my lips!"
In any case, the Padamsee theory of light falls apart when you factor in super models like Naomi Campbell and Lakshmi Menon. The irony in India is that there are more dark-skinned women on the runway than in advertisements. The truth is this: Fashion has moved on to the 21st century, middle class India has not. And they are the target audience for campaigns like Clean and Dry.
Deepanjana Pal is likely closer to the truth when she observes:
[I]t’s interesting that according to the ads we see on TV, whitening is a problem that is increasingly faced by women who are modern and independent. Nowadays, the person who needs fair skin is the woman who wants a job, the athlete who wins a tournament, the consummate professional that stands on her own two feet... They show working women who are successful and tell the viewer that the critical component of their success is that their appearance is acceptable to men. How the woman sees herself is entirely irrelevant. What matters is how she’s viewed by others.
Fair enough, I say, pun unintended. But we can make that argument about almost any beauty product ad anywhere. Marketers either sell to your hopes or your insecurities. With women – socialised to fret over their appearance – the Fear Factor always works better. We women can never be too fair, too pretty, too thin blah blah. All we have to do to attain perfection is a slimmer waist, softer skin, fewer wrinkles and of course, a whiter vagina -- and spend pots and pots of money.
Coy protestations of ad gurus aside, the true mantra of marketing is simple: There's a sucker born every minute. Really think that a fair and lovely pudenda will make you beautiful/sexy/confident? Well, let me not be the one to get in the way of your idiocy. Consumer capitalism is all about selling you what you don't need, and what most often doesn't even work. And that may be the only good news about Clean and Dry. If that douche does indeed bleach your genitalia, you won't be able to use them for the purpose God intended.
Freshness jo bhigaade! For your sake, I dearly hope not.