An Intimate Wash That Exposes Our Dirty Psyche

April 9, 2012 7:56 am by

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.

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Comments (72)

  1. Ali |

    You saying your vagina disapproves of Clean and Dry because men like clean and fair vaginas is like a man saying he disapproves of mature behavior because women like it.

    Its ultimately upto you what you want to do with yourself but remember that your choice will affect what you earn. If I shrugged off the importance of money and mature stability I will have to accept that I will end up with a unstable, low quality woman. I am ready to work to be with a high quality woman and that woman would be taking care of her parts.

  2. Nav |

    I’d like to support Subhendu’s comment. The author seems to herself be highly prejudiced in the way she is singling out India and referring to it as a “pan-Indian” phenomena and refer to the west as the “progressive” one. She needs to open up her eyes a little and then she’ll be able to see that the western society is also equally guilty of sexism.

    Coming to the point, I have myself noticed that the obsession with the whiter skin has been increasing in the recent times, thanks to the moral less multinational and national companies built on the same ground. So many products related to skin whitening, crotch whitening, underarms whitening. Ads show that if a woman wants to be successful, she must have whiter body parts. I remember a Vaseline skin whitening lotion ad which I particularly hate for it’s shallowness, according to which, a tennis star needs t0 focus on her body parts’ color and see if they match the fairness of her face rather than practicing her game and being good at it. It is very demeaning and demoralizing to see and imagine that someone should pay attention to these insignificant things; as insignificant as the skin color.

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  4. @Rucha and @Counterpoint. The question you should be asking yourself then IS – Why is darker skin associated with ‘dirtyness’ and lighter skin with ‘cleanliness’??!!
    It’s completely absurd but unfortunately an attitude that exists and is rooted in colonialist attitudes with attached racism. In this case, as the advertising is directed at women, it also extends into misogyny and the violent public manipulation and display of women’s bodies for the entertainment of men.

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  7. Subhendu |

    Creame, try to read about the issue and understand. It is lot more complex than what the bbc or daily mail writes. It may have very little to do with racism. Very few of our girls even understand racism, but they crave pale skin. Try to understand why. By the way, our mythological heros like Krishna and draupadi were dark. But they were considered beautiful. And still are.

    Here is post which is by no means conclusive, but may motivate you to think deeper.

    http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2010/07/20/skin-whitening-tanning-and-vaselines-controversial-facebook-ad-campaign.html

  8. Subhendu |

    Deepanjana Debi,

    The contempt for woman and tendency to objectify woman is not pan-Indian problem but a global problem. It is more severe in you beloved progressive west than in India. Try talking to police man in Ottawa and you will be suprised that he probably holds more sexiest view than his counterpart in miraroad. Remember slutwalk.
    Instead of parroting western media on the issue of whitening creme

  9. Counterpoint |

    Fact is – in HK, Singapore and other “developed” markets the proliferation of fairness products is far more than in India. So, a bit unfair to single out India. And to add to Rucha’s comment it could very well be that focus group research before the product launch associated lightness with cleanliness. And it is a legitimate expectation that if a man is to deep dive into “dark” places there should be some guarantee of cleanliness. Maybe that is why the Blow Job died an untimely death – the lack of similar hygiene product for men. I would definitely support the launch of such a product and not crib about objectifying men or playing to insecurities.

  10. Coffee |

    It is truly disgusting the amount of attention paid to being light in the Indian culture.

    But based on simply the comments to this well-thought out and excellent article, it’s clear why the product will do well. Not by women but by the men who marry these women and will most likely force their partners to purchase idiotic products like these and others.

    As a man of Indian origin now living in India after a long time spent in the U.S. it’s horrifying how far behind our Indian culture and people are. From complaining about how we’re portrayed in the U.S. media (read: Ashton Kutcher article) to making backwards misogynistic and racist products.

    The trend, however, seems to be in favor of the senseless and base creatures and that is what truly frightens me.

  11. I am more curious about what’s the research that led to the development of this product. Could it be just the Geoff Dyer article?

  12. Rucha |

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article, it’s hilarious and everything’s so true! I do have an alternative perspective for the fair vagination, though, just to play devil’s advocate. It could be that the lightness of the vaggie is considered to be related to its cleanliness. Perhaps that’s what they were trying to convey through the ad. Although I doubt it.

  13. Satya |

    Unfortunately, until we accept who we are and stop buying into the insecurities these companies strategize to sell us, products like this will continue to emerge. If there was no demand for it, they would not prevail. Now the question is, why is there? There is some truth to our own prejudices in skin color; a problem across countries and cultures.

  14. man again |

    mr. jay, wht the hell with boys. the article is not abt the product itself. :-/

  15. jay patel |

    clean n dry intimate wash is only applicable for girls? can this product is used boys? what benifit 4 boys reply me as soon as possible

  16. Satya Narayan Vyas |

    My suggestion is please literate those women are in all type media keep away try with some loss in getting money.

  17. Man |

    men are also oppressed,pros is still illegal.Why nobody mentions this ??????????????

  18. does_it_matter? |

    Thanks for an intelligent read … when I read about the product a while ago I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
    By the way – that policeman in Mira Road might actually be from Ghazipur :)

  19. aparna |

    It is truly sad, how the women in india are treated, by the media, by the police, by the so called open minded ad makers too. The objectifying is the biggest step back for the women who want to stand up on their own. i work in the development sector and sadly I know a lot of women who refuse to start looking for jobs because they are not fair or not thin enough, saying whats the use, the more beautiful chicks will get it. And it even stands true. sometimes people do hire the more “beautiful girls”. i wish this mentality changed soon or we would be pulling our entire system back all through this century too

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