As if women didn’t already have enough body parts to worry about shaving, waxing, and — YES — bleaching, a new commercial for a product called Clean and Dry Intimate Wash wants women to lighten up their apparently too-dark lady parts as well.
In the commercial, a notably light-skinned Indian couple sits down for a morning cup of coffee. But something about the dynamic between them is undoubtedly off. The husband can’t even bring himself look at his wife, much less drink his coffee. The woman appears uncomfortable and self-conscious. Fortunately, Clean and Dry Intimate Wash swoops in to the rescue. The woman takes a shower and POOF! comes out with a new, improved, and (of course) much fairer vagina. Her husband now gazes at her lustily. Because, you know, no one wants a woman with a dark vagina.
What the heck were the makers of this product thinking? Here’s what one ad executive had to say:
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.
Seriously?! Women should make themselves whiter so their girlish features can be seen more clearly? That’s one of the most ridiculous rationalizations of racism and sexism I have ever heard in my life.
Unfortunately, this commercial is not an isolated case. In fact, the ad is just one particularly disturbing example of a larger trend in India that encourages women to use skin-lightening creams (which have been found to contain mercury and other toxic chemicals) to meet Western standards of beauty. Ironically enough, while young American teenagers are burning themselves to a crisp in tanning beds, Indian women are lathering themselves in cancer-causing lotions to get a fairer complexion. And who should be surprised when the messages we all (man, woman, Indian, and American) get inundated with everyday are:
You’re not good enough.
Your body is nasty as it is.
You need _____ product to be beautiful.
The Western consumerist culture (which is increasingly being imported into “developing” countries like India and China) not only encourages women to adopt unhealthy body ideals… it demands them. Women who meet these standards are more apt to get jobs, be respected in the workplace, and rise out of poverty. Beauty practices like tanning and bleaching are often dismissed as harmless, a normal part of being a woman. But let’s consider the facts: Skin cancer, breast cancer, and cervical cancer are on the rise, and there’s no doubt that toxins in our environment are a significant cause. Eating disorders are becoming prevalent in countries and cultures where they used to be unheard of. As Western countries export their technologies and socioeconomic structures to help “civilize” other peoples, we send out these pathological cultural values as well.
So what’s to be done about it? How do you fight a machine that’s so widespread and amorphous, so subtly highjacking the minds of millions? I think it starts with speaking out against ads like this, with women AND men taking a stand against toxic sentiments put out by corporations and members of the media. Refuse to buy products that demean and demoralize women and people of color. Make your voice heard online.
Take for example, Ashley Judd, who famously took a stand this week against several tabloids’ speculation about her face looking “puffy.” #TheCoversation she’s started is taking the Twitterverse by storm, with people all over the world expressing a similar sentiment:
“We’re not going to take this anymore.”
I’d love to hear your thoughts, both related to this advertisement and larger trends of sexism and racism around the world. Do you think ads like this are harmless? What can everyday people do to take a stand?