July 09, 2012

On being fair, healthy and a feminist

Remember this ad for Clean and Dry? A couple of months ago you must have seen this shared on Facebook, Twitter and blogs and journals, with reactions ranging from hilarity and disbelief to incredulity and outrage. Hell, you might have shared it yourself with a comment or two. While I thought the ad was incredibly badly made and insulting, what got my goat was this blog post that responded to the reactions to the ad by using the freedom of choice argument to simultaneously argue for the right to air the ad (and use the product), and to shame “faux feminists” who use sunscreen and then dare criticize this ad for its sexism and racism. If you are confused, then well, join the club. As someone who has thought of herself as a feminist and used both sunscreen and a hygiene wash for several years now, reading that blogpost has made me deal with the biggest existential conundrum of all time — Can I use a sunscreen and call myself a feminist? Was Baz Luhrmann lying all this while? Have we lived and used sunscreen in vain?

Facetiousness aside, how many of us have seen this ad, aired at least a year earlier? Midas Care attempts at category creation by introducing a vaginal hygiene cream using the wise, caring figure of a doctor who very patiently, soothingly explains the benefits of Clean and Dry cream to a mute stick figure.

At this point, I have serious doubts about Midas Care’s taste in advertising agencies, but there are a couple of things I’d like to note about the older advertisement for Clean and Dry Intimate Cream:

Fairness, vaginal or otherwise, is not part of the problem here. Vaginal discharge, discomfort, soreness and chafing are, as well as the kindly lady doctor who will help the hesitant, voiceless salwar-clad stick-woman find a solution for this, while assuring her that she is not alone in dealing with it.

Midas Care is not the first company to enter the category, but it is a category creator in terms of distribution and advertising in mainstream media.

If one googles  ‘feminine hygiene washes’, there are a good couple of dozen links that spring up, including Indian beauty bloggers discussing different products like Oriflame’s PH balanced hygiene wash (full disclosure— this is the product I use) to prescription medicine like Lactacyd.

The other interesting thing about these blogs, particularly, is that none of the writers or commenters seem particularly hesitant or mortified by the idea of discussing the need for a female hygiene wash. I guess one could concede that the average reader of beauty blogs is hardly sufficiently representative of all Indian womankind. Presumably Midas Care used a more representative sample in its focus studies, through which it arrived at the conclusion that Indian women needed to be educated about the need for feminine hygiene washes because it is too embarrassing and personal a matter to be discussed out loud, even in front of qualified medical professionals.

Of groins, gender and representation

However, when one compares this ad to the ads for Itch Guard, a far older category creator in hygiene products for men, one can see the clear difference in the approach and story-telling. Itch Guard recreates the all-too familiar sight of Indian men scratching their private parts in public.

Is it just one man we see in these ads? No, there are a lot of people in each ad who go through this.

Are the people in discomfort? Yes.

Is it embarrassing? Sure, but is it more embarrassing for the scratcher or those who catch him in the act?

Does the ad use human beings instead of stick figures? Yes.

Are those human beings capable of voicing their concerns as well as their happiness after using the product? Yes, indeed.

Is it humorous? Enough to indicate that while the situation is embarrassing, it isn’t a matter of life-and-death or unspeakable shame? Yes, Itch Guard has always used humour in its advertising.

Funny, then, that Indian companies and advertisers have acknowledged for years that men might suffer from chafing and itchiness in their genitals, and even discussed it with humour- without needing to ask them to brighten and whiten their private parts while they are at it.

Midas Care must have seen such rapid progress in its target audience that from being unable to voice one’s concerns about personal hygiene in front of a lady gynaec, they are now apparently voicing their need for an enhanced product that adds fairness to the mix, and saying so in focus groups. Brava! However, Midas Care has also played it safe when asked about this change in their product proposition, claiming that regardless of the ad, fairness was not the core benefit of their product.

One wonders why the company needs to play coy if the need for fairness was, in fact, established through consumer insights, especially when the text for both products reads very differently. The copy for Clean and Dry Intimate cream reads, “This unique product has transformed private care for women. It takes care of feminine wetness, itching, burning sensations and white discharge. This simple solution is effective from the very first use and is already trusted by lakhs of women all across the country.” The copy for Clean and Dry Intimate Wash, on the other hand, is this — “Designed to address the problems women face in their private parts, Clean and Dry Intimate Wash offers protection, fairness and freshness. To be used while showering, its special pH-balanced formula cleans and protects the affected area. Life for women will now be fresher,cleaner, fairer!”

Despite the many problems with the first ad, the reactions to the ad for Clean and Dry Intimate Wash have been much more vehement precisely because of this added value proposition. To imply that women are mute caricatures, cringing in shame and shyness at the thought of discussing their own body in terms of hygiene issues is bad enough. To imply that the solution to all their woes – physical, sexual, emotional – lies in a whitened vagina is so much more cringe-worthy.

Let me put it this way: if I need to use a vaginal wash/cream/powder because of chafing, soreness or leakage – I would know because I would be the one experiencing discomfort. My purchase decision would probably be based primarily on the physical experience of my own body, perhaps influenced by a medical professional’s opinion, perhaps from the recommendations of previous users who could include peers or mother figures or other influencers (like beauty blogs or health websites or even advertising). But I, for one, cannot tell for sure what the colour of my vagina is- not without a mirror and some serious contortionist yoga, or a second person – maybe a gynaec or a waxer or a lover telling me about it.

The one thing that this ad reminded me of, frankly, was a story from this excellent documentary on shadeism, when one girl was in the showers after gym and heard another girl going, “ewwwwwwww! Why does your butt cheek get so black?” Startled and confused, all she could manage was a mumbled, embarrassed, “I don’t know.”  (Raise your hand if you have always known what colour your butt cheeks are. Apart from a running joke in college about oily buttocks, I have never felt any urge to check and make sure it was the “right” colour).  Her friend, on the other hand, was in gym when another person said, “oh my gosh, why are your breasts so light-skinned?” (Simple answer- they aren’t exposed to the sun). Clearly it isn’t enough to be fair (or at least not-dark) in just the usually visible parts of our body; we also police ourselves and others into demanding evenly toned, radiant bodies right down to our private parts.

So then…

Our bodies and our self-images never operate within a vacuum, and for me, a very important part of my understanding of feminism is in learning to understand and accept my body and negotiate my multiple body image issues.  Like a lot of people, I might have begun by subscribing to the construction of a feminist as a superwoman, impervious to self-doubt and capable of doing battle with whatever the world flung one’s way. (If you think I’m exaggerating, do go online and check out the responses to Meena Kandasamy’s account of her abusive marriage). Perhaps like a lot of other people who have struggled with conformism and self-doubt and body image issues, I recognized a certain appeal in this construction of a feminist; but the best thing that feminism has done for me is to help me understand that to be a feminist is never to be so easily or rigidly defined and thus helped me to use this as a stepping stone to understand the many ways in which we participate in and critique (often oppressive) social structures.

Yes, a lot of us use sunscreens. Some of us also use fairness creams. Some of us wax every limb, others don’t.  There is a long, complicated history of the things that women do to their own bodies in order to appear more attractive. There is also a parallel narrative of health and hygiene that most of us understand and, perhaps, find more self-affirming- but it is worth remembering that this narrative is also constantly evolving and quite often feeds into narratives of beauty and sexuality.

For example, I use sunscreen for medical reasons, as I have a history of hyper-pigmentation. I understand that the product proposition of a non-prescription sunscreen is different from the product proposition for a fairness cream, as the identified need is different in each case- protection from harmful UV rays in one and fairer skin colour in the other one. However, what happens when, say, a Fair and Lovely also adopts the language of healthy, undamaged skin (no dark spots, dark circles, blah blah) and promises sun-protection in addition to fairness; or even more insidiously, a sunscreen starts offering the added, hitherto unstated benefit of a fairer skin? Should one stop using sunscreen altogether and risk hyper-pigmentation? Hardly the most ideal solution, is it?

The argument for freedom of choice, the right to knowledge and the language of self-empowerment are the terms that are most often appropriated by commodity feminism. I am willing to give the freedom of choice argument its weight insofar as the decision to participate in or abstain from the rituals of beauty and personal care differ from woman to woman, as does the extent of participation in each case. But let us not pretend that there aren’t any beauty ideals that are shaping these decisions to participate in rituals of beauty, or that these beauty ideals are not constantly shifting and changing due to various pressures- and that media images and constructions of beauty/personal care wisdom are two important contributing factors.

Thus if the argument for knowledge and informed choice is to be made, then I will be the first to admit that I rarely know the ingredients of each product I use, and their respective health and safety hazards. I rely on personal experience; the experiences of other users whose judgment I trust; influencers like a medical professional or a personal care professional; Google for recommendations; and also respond to received wisdom about personal care. So, for instance, about a decade ago most magazines would tell you that your shampoo needed to be changed once in every three/six months to prevent deposits in your scalp, while today this idea is dismissed as a beauty myth- one that probably helped people switch from long-used shampoo brands to newer brands. When I was in college, we were discussing pubic hair trimming/removal and a couple of friends argued that it was much more hygienic to have it trimmed/removed, while recently I read a couple of articles that said that vaginal hair protected us from infections and oughtn’t be shaved off entirely. The point is, precisely that these ideas of both health and beauty keep shifting and changing and influence the ways in which we understand our bodies and what we do to them- and that it is important that we at least try and engage with these shifts, even when we are participating in them.

Part of what irked me about this post was the construction of two types of feminists- ‘faux feminists’ who use sunscreen and carry umbrellas and then, presumably, oppress other women into giving up their right to please their partners because they are bland echoes of western feminists; and ‘real’ feminists who, presumably, like their vaginas nice and bright and clean, but never use sunscreen. I wish such clear cut categorizations were possible, really. But even while the writer begins by constructing herself as someone who wants her vagina nice and fresh and bright and therefore is in favour of the Clean and Dry Intimate Wash, as we continue reading the post and her responses to the comments it is clear that she does not count herself among the target audience for this product.

Why am I nitpicking? Because for me this is as dangerous a sleight of hand as people arguing that criticizing Fair and Lovely is anti-feminist because some women, somewhere, ( not us, you see, but someone out there, not quite like us) find both the product and its narratives of fairness- as-empowerment useful. Representation is always a tricky issue: it would be just as simplistic if I were to argue that the blogger in question can make a certain argument only if she occupies a specific subject position and speaks from the lived experience of her body. But perhaps I would argue that for me, being part of a fair and healthy discussion implies exploring my relative subject position before I speak for another.


2 comments to On being fair, healthy and a feminist

  • somya

    this is really bold topic you have written on.bravo indeed

  • Novita

    It is really liberating to read this something like this especially in a time when feminism as a term is thoroughly misrepresented and misunderstood. More than that it is a good piece of writing in a while.

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