Monday, April 16, 2012

You want me to put WHAT ... WHERE? (Pt 1)


That (quickly followed by "UGH") was my reaction to coming across a recent Jezebel article titled "Your Vagina Isn't Just Too Big, Too Floppy, and Too Hairy - It's also Too Brown".

After witnessing the disgusting attacks that provoked Ashley Judd into a well-articulated shutdown of the American media and surviving weeks of bigoted Hunger Games Tweets, I had possibly reached my threshold on world-wide ignorance and discrimination. Even when it's being presented by way of the kind of hilarious satirical attack that can only be found on Jezebel.

Still, when the link popped up again a day later in my Facebook newsfeed, I realized that a self-proclaimed news junkie like myself wouldn't be able to avoid it forever.

I was not at all disappointed by what I found.

The long and short of it, for those who have been lucky enough to miss the hubbub thus far, is that a brand new "feminine hygiene product" is on the scene in India. Why is this news all the way over here in the Western world? See for yourself:

In case you missed the subtext there, Jezebel gives the best rundown that I've seen thus far:
In this commercial for an Indian product called Clean and Dry Intimate Wash, a (very light-skinned) couple sits down for what would have been a peaceful cup of morning coffee—if the woman's disgusting brown vagina hadn't ruined everything! The dude can't even bring himself look at her. He can't look at his coffee either, because it only reminds him of his wife's dripping, coffee-brown hole! Fortunately, the quick-thinking woman takes a shower, scrubbing her swarthy snatch with Clean and Dry Intimate Wash ("Freshness + Fairness"). And poof! Her vadge comes out blinding white like a downy baby lamb (and NOT THE GROSS BLACK KIND) and her husband—whose penis, I can only assume, is literally a light saber—is all, "Hey, lady! Cancel them divorce papers and LET'S BONE."
Full of hyperbole? Sure, but the appreciation for the true absurdity of the product is spot-on.

This, like many products currently on sale in India and elsewhere, is a product designed to exploit the insecurities of women. Nothing new about that, the entire beauty industry was built on a firm foundation of making women feel like we are never quite good enough. Everyone knows that all you need to be really beautiful is this gorgeous new pair of shoes, or a lipstick in just the right shade or this cream with Retinol-A to get rid of those damned crows feet.

The difference with this product lies in its deft blending of anxieties about feminine hygiene (it keeps you Clean and Dry) with the most insidious and long-standing concerns about complexion.

India is a country with a storied history of preoccupation with skin tone.  Skin lightening is big business over there, with estimates as high 60-65% of women using the widely available bleaching products on a daily basis. Emami's Fair and Lovely, the self-described number one fairness cream in India, has been pushing a very similar campaign for ages and is cashing in big-time with $325 million in sales in 2009 alone.

So the demand, depressing as it is, is out there. And not just in India.

Skin lightening is common practice across Asia and in parts of Africa. America's complicated relationship with skin color is no secret. Nor is its extremely influential multi-billion dollar beauty industry, which cashes its cheques on the insecurities of women. Even the Caribbean isn't immune from complexion concerns. In Jamaica - another country with a long history of racial tensions - the prevalence of skin bleaching has become cause for concern. With lighter skin perceived as the key to love and success, women are slathering on the possibly carcinogenic chemicals (often imported from Africa and sold on the black market) with zero regard for the consequences.

Few, if any, are taking a long hard look at what this all says about the standards of beauty, the expectations placed upon women to conform and the racial issues underscoring it all. Of course, this all pales in comparison to the fact that what Clean and Dry Intimate Wash is really latching onto is the long-standing insecurity about female genitalia.

Once upon a time, women were sacred creatures. No, really. And don't talk for our vaginas, which were reputed to have any number of magical powers:
... it was life-affirming, iconic, divine even, and invested with symbolism that we can barely begin to imagine. Skirt-lifting was significant for centuries: in India, the gesture was meant to disperse evil influences, while in ancient Egypt, women did it to multiply crop yield. On 17th-century drinking mugs, depictions can be found of a confrontation between an exposed vagina and a reeling Satan. Even Pliny noted that a woman could banish pests by strolling around with her fanny on display before sunrise.
I won't even tell you what used to be commonly believed about (and done with) menstrual blood. Though I will link to it.

How we got from there to here - where girls are so confused by their own vaginas and obsessed with what's normal that sex ed experts spend much of their time fielding questions like these and "feminine hygiene" ads involve ethnic talking hand-puppet vaginas begging for a bath - is a matter of some debate, although it's generally agreed that it happened about 5000 years ago and may have had something to do with the invasion of Indo-European/Aryan tribes who had very different beliefs about women.

Personally, I think the "how" is less important than the "what the hell are we going to do about it now?" Between the pressures of being "normal" and the desire to compare to the representations of beauty in the media, we women are doomed if we don't have the commonsense to reject the nonsense. General skin bleaching is one (crazy) thing, but if the company selling a crotch-bleaching wash can actually convince women that all they need to satisfy a man is a sparkly va-jay-jay ... well, we've got some serious problems.

But what about Trinidad and Tobago? Though part of and similar to its archipelagan neighbors in many ways, this little twin-island nation is quite unique, culturally speaking. The pressures and concerns of beauty and race that exist worldwide also live here, although they don't always seem to manifest in quite the same ways. In my six years here, I've noticed that - while beauty is obviously an issue for women - on the whole, Trinidad and Tobago manages to show a unique appreciation for a wide range of looks, ranging from short to tall, slim to thick and, of course, light to dark. Of course, as with most subjects, serious local research is scarce. And so, armed with the link to Jezebel's article and a list of pertinent (if hilarious) questions, I quizzed some of my local friends to find out whether there was any chance that such an insecurity could take root here.

See the results here.


  1. one small correction. the beauty industry is not exploiting female insecurities, its creating them. a systematic de/valuing of female beauty as marketing strategy. i have always said that here in trinidad the ancestors are with us and our african population has not seemed interested in this type of degradation but i am not sure that the same can be said for the indian population. just a few weeks ago at the indian fair in macoya bleaching cream was on sale normel normel and the indian vendors coming here long enuf to know their market.

  2. Hi barefoot!

    I agree. The beauty industry is constantly coming up with new things for us to feel insecure about so that they can sell us a brand-new change-your-life product.

    I do think female insecurities predate the beauty industry in its modern form, though. When I look at the misogyny that's built in to modern religion, I can't help but think that there's only so much we can blame L'Oreal for.

    ~ JustMeThinks

  3. religion ... l'oreal different names for the same type of oppression.

  4. Actually, I'd say that religious oppression is worse, given the span of influence and duration of the oppression itself.

    It's one thing to market and sell a product that creates and then preys on a physical insecurity. It's a whole other kettle of fish to indoctrinate people from birth with a way of life that plainly states that they are inferior solely on the basis of their gender. Because God says so.