Vaginal fairness creams: Taking things too far?
We explore the insecurities behind and the furore created by this new angle to the Indian fairness obsession.
'Is every girl's vagina dark in colour or is it just mine? I'm really worried. And I'm not sure if my husband will like my vagina being so dark. What can I do?'
For women that share this lady's concerns, there's a new vaginal fairness product on the market. And critics have branded it "the ultimate insult to a woman".
For many Indian women, buying skin-lightening products is something that goes without much thought. There is a reason why the market for these products is growing by more than 10 percent a year. Ridding your skin of what the adverts portray as 'hated' dark spots has become a natural part of taking care of your body.
As the disposable income of middle class women increases, they're willing to spend more on their appearance. Apart from creams and scrubs, pricier laser therapy is also gaining popularity.
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Beauty or power?
Most of these women see little harm in associating success and happiness with a lighter skin. As most of the companies suggest in their advertisements, to them it's only about beauty.
But that's nonsense according to Anjali Monteiro of the Tata Institute for Social Science. "It is pure classism," she says. "It's not a beauty issue at all. In every society what is considered beautiful is related to what would be the most powerful look," she says.
The first company to bring a fairness cream into the Indian market in 1976 was the Dutch-owned Hindustan Unilever. But long before that, women were treating their skins with homemade concoctions of turmeric powder, lemon juice and other natural products.
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Skin colour obsessions
India, with its caste system, has an obsession with fairness that dates back long before fair vaginas became an issue, and even before the British colonial rule. Having a lighter skin suggested you weren't part of the working class, so you didn't have to labour outside in the blazing sun.
Until very recently, the same preference for fair skin was also the norm in Europe. But this slowly evolved into an obsession with getting a sun tan. A tan became a way to show off that you had time to lounge around relaxing in the sun on exotic holidays.
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Although dusky models are gradually making a way for themselves in the industry in India, the trend for the indigenous look hasn't really caught on. Consciously or unconsciously, skin tone is still a factor that many Indians use to judge social class, Dr Monteiro points out.
Because of the caste system, inequality is embedded in society, she says, and skin colour is still the clue to inferiority or superiority. That's why many Indian women feel insecure about their complexion.
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Natural and healthy
The quest for fairness has now reached a point where women have started worrying about the fairness of their vaginas. Online sexual health forums are full of questions like, 'My vagina is darker than the rest of my body. Is this some kind of disease?'
But it's natural and healthy for the skin around your vagina to look a bit darker, says dermatologist Hendry de Vries of the Amsterdam Medical Centre.
"The skin is very thin and elastic, that's why it can look unnaturally dark. If you stretch it a bit you will see it becomes lighter. But in places where it's folded the skin is not stretched out and therefore looks darker," he explains.
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The producers of fairness product Clean and Dry claim in their advertisement that their product is an antifungal cream with an added brightening effect. Dr de Vries says the product is dubious.
"As dermatologists, we are extra careful when we prescribe creams used on genitals," he says. "Because the skin is so thin, it gets easily irritated."
And ladies, it's not only the skin around the vagina that looks dark. Penis skin is also thin and stretchy, so the penis can become erect. The colour effect is just the same. So if you're worried about what your guy might think of you, maybe you should take a closer look at his privates.
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