The truth about black and white

Anisha Rachel Oommen

Two ads that put India in the line of fire internationally surround the issue of hierarchy of skin tone in our society. The WHO warning against skin lightening products, confirming that the common ingredient in lightening products, mercury, can damage the kidneys, reduce the skin's resistance to bacterial and fungal infections, cause anxiety, depression, psychosis and even peripheral neuropathy appears not to have dented the billion-dollar industry and the national obsession with whiter skin touched a new low.

Earlier this year, Bollywood actress Anushka Sharma appeared in an ad endorsing Nivea’s product for fairer underarms, encouraging women to “Go sleeveless on him.” Nivea also teamed up with MTV to launch a Facebook campaign asking women to submit photos of themselves in sleeveless dresses, terming it “The Biggest Freedom Movement for Women.”

And if there wasn’t already enough misogyny out there attacking the self-confidence of Indian women, the ad for vaginal whitening hit the spot.  The ad received scathing criticism on the grounds of gender exploitation, inappropriateness and bad taste, but the demand for whitening products in the Indian market remained impervious.

The ad shows a women ignored by her husband, who appears unable to bring himself to look at her, until she uses this magic product in the shower. Now fixed up with a whiter vagina, she is showered with love and attention, desirable again because of her shiny girl-parts. A third ad, for a product labelled 18 Again, promises women a tighter and “rejuventated” vagina to make them feel like a virgin again.

The cosmetic and advertising industry’s blatant exploitation of a country’s misguided desire for fairer skin causes irreparable damage to the self-esteem and perception, as they propagate racism and discrimination. Although feminist groups have tried to sue the makers of these products, the grounds on which they can do so are unclear since it is merely servicing our society’s ridiculous fixation.