Skin-Lightener for Women’s Private Parts Sparks Controversy

A new ad catering to Indian women and their "lady parts" invites backlash over the growing popularity of skin-lightening products.

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A TV commercial for the skin-lightening product, Clean and Dry “Intimate Wash,” promises Indian women protection, “fairness” and freshness down there.

The ad depicts an unsatisfied young wife concerned that her husband is more interested in his daily paper than in her, presumably — as the ad would have you believe — because her vagina is too dark. But after a quick wash with the pH-balanced skin-lightening cleanser, the couple is frolicking on the furniture with renewed lust.

Not surprisingly, the ad and the product have started a media storm both in India and in the U.S. Jezebel deemed the product “insane” and Mumbai Boss writer Deepanjana Pal noted:

It’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. The woman in a sari, on the other hand, appears in the advertisement for a moisturiser that promises softer skin. It’s almost as though we’re so uncomfortable with the idea of a liberated, independent woman that we feel the need to slip a few insecurities into her psyche. Preferably something that reminds a woman that no matter how short her shorts are or how good she is at her job, she is ultimately an object, something that men and other women see and judge.

(MORE: Why France Pays for Postpartum Women to “Re-Educate” their Vagina)

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the vagina-whitening phenomenon is alive and well in the U.S. too. “The desire to lighten these areas is not limited to Indian women. There’s quite a bit of demand for products like this in the U.S.,” says Dr. Jessica Wu, a Los Angeles dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at USC School of Medicine. “Many of my female patients ask me about lightening their private parts.”

Wall Street Journal writer Rupa Subramanya reasoned that the intimate skin-lightening phenomenon in the U.S is simply a corollary of the larger fairer-is-better ethos. Indeed, data show that darker-skinned people do worse in the job market:

To round out this picture, Joni Hersch, a professor at Vanderbilt Law School, documents that the fairest skinned immigrants earn an average of 16-23% more than comparable immigrants with the darkest skin tone. This is over and above any difference due to education, ethnicity, race, or anything else which influences labor market outcomes. Her conclusion is that there’s “persistent skin color discrimination” affecting immigrants in the U.S. labor market.

(MORE: Woman’s Quest to Avoid Mirrors for a Year Raises Questions of Body Image)

The Clean and Dry ad director, Alyque Padamsee, thinks the media response is overreaction. He wrote: “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? … 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.”

Beyond exacerbating women’s potential body image insecurities, skin-lightening products can be harmful to health if used in excess in the delicate genital area. For her patients, Dr. Wu recommends over-the-counter skin-brightening products containing botanical ingredients, and on occasion, prescription-strength hydroquinone — but not without caution.

“I warn patients that if they decide to use these products, they have not been tested on mucous membranes, which are more sensitive than the face and rest of the body, so they must use them sparingly, no more than a few times a week, and they must stop if there’s any itching or irritation,” says Wu. “Generally, brightening treatments made in the U.S. for over-the-counter use are safe to use as directed and in moderation. The problem is, some imported skin-lightening creams have been found to contain mercury, steroids and other potentially toxic ingredients.” These products should be avoided, and Wu recommends that patients be wary of buying any such products online.

MORE: Vogue’s 10-Year-Old Model and the Pressure to Be Hot From Cradle to Grave

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