An Intimate Wash That Exposes Our Dirty Psyche

April 9, 2012 7:56 am

My vagina isn’t happy about what’s been happening recently in Indian media.

In the age of Internet—if you value the freedom to roam around on the worldwide web, you really should sign this petition to protect Internet freedom—it’s easy to forget where we are. With almost every international publication at your fingertips, and a profusion of ironic T-shirts and curiosities like CrossFit programs, you could easily be lulled into believing we live in a country not unlike the progressive West (in spirit, if not in infrastructure). Consequently, when I come across the news that there is now a foosball table that has all-female teams, I say a little “Yay!” In the most recent issue of Esquire, novelist and columnist Geoff Dyer reported that the blow job was dead. Not just that, going down on women was the new trend. This is the sort of cultural data of which my vagina approves.

Then, a few days later, thanks to a tweet by the Wall Street Journal‘s Rupa Subramanya, many of us were introduced to Clean and Dry, a product that promises the user a fairer vagina. The ad shows (see video, above) a woman wearing trousers, looking mournful because her vagina is dark, like the cup of coffee she’s holding in her hands. The suggestion is that her depression is intensified by the fact that she has a disinterested partner who would rather drink coffee than, well, her. Cut to the depressed woman looking much happier as she goes for a shower. At this point we see an animation. It shows us a hairless, feminine crotch (with gravity-defying rose petals in the background, if you please). Those who have read or seen John Berger’s Ways of Seeing will remember in classical European painting, nudes usually had no pubic hair because hair is associated with maturity, sexual power and passion. “The woman’s sexual passion needs to be minimised so that the spectator feels like he has the monopoly over such passion,” said Berger.

Coming back to the advertisement, once the animated crotch is whitened courtesy Clean and Dry, the woman emerges in a pair of shorts and proceeds to jump on a sofa and stuff her partner’s car keys into her shorts. This is, apparently, how women communicate they are available and have suitably tinted vaginas. Mine, incidentally, is thoroughly disapproving of such products and actions. (The only place that a car key should be stuffed is in the ignition.) There are a couple of curious aspects to this ad. First of all, when even Indian advertising is making oblique references to cunnilingus, Dyer may be on to something with his theory that the primacy of fellatio is finished. Secondly, 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. While Fair and Lovely tapped in on our inherent racism with its early ad campaigns, the intent of products like whitening deodorants, moisturisers and “hygiene products” seems more insidious now. They show working women who are successful and tell the viewer that the critical component of their success is that their appearance is acceptable to men. How the woman sees herself is entirely irrelevant. What matters is how she’s viewed by others. After all, you’ve got to do some significant contortion to see for yourself if Clean and Dry is having the promised effect. It takes a lot more than just standing in front of a mirror.

Of course, if you’ve read Tehelka‘s story on how the Delhi-NCR police understand the word “rape”, you know that a vagina could be purple with turquoise polka dots and it wouldn’t matter. Where your vagina belongs on an Asian Paints shade card wouldn’t change how people like Sunil Kumar, SHO Ghazipur, Delhi NCR, view urbane women: “They’ll drink and also have sex with you. But the day someone uses force, it’s rape.” Well, yes, Mr. Kumar, that’s how these things work in a society where women actually have a say in the matter of whom they have sex with; using force is indeed a problem. Tehelka’s report confirms all our worst fears about North Indian men but it’s worth keeping in mind that many women across the country and demographics judge one another by criteria similar to those spouted by the policemen interviewed for the exposé. The contempt for women who chafe against convention or demand a little more than what our misogynist and patriarchal society is willing to concede, is a pan-Indian phenomenon. If you sat and chatted with a policeman in Mira Road, you may hear similar opinions from him as his Ghazipur counterpart. Worse still, the aunty who goes for an evening walk on Marine Drive, wearing sneakers and a salwar kameez, may well express the same sentiments. My vagina, like my other body parts, doesn’t think this is fair.

Deepanjana Pal is a journalist and the author of The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma. She is currently a consulting copy editor at Elle magazine.