by Charukesi Ramadurai
First they promised to lighten and then they promised to tighten. Corporate India has suddenly discovered the vagina and cannot seem to stop talking about it. It all started about ten months ago with a cleanser that promised whitening of the vagina. This should not have been surprising in a land with a fascination for fair skin that borders on the absurd. In India there are whitening products available for the face, the body, and even specific body parts, like the elbow.
However, this product raised an unexpected uproar in the media, following which the marketing company MidasCare backtracked and began to use the catch-all word “freshness” in place of “fairness.” Yet, the advertisement for “Clean and Dry Intimate Wash” left no one in doubt about its use, with its classic before-and-after scenario: Indifferent man, miserable woman; a dab of the soap, a spritz of water; excited man, happy woman! And the line went, “Life for women will now be fresher, cleaner, and more importantly, fairer and more intimate.”
Advertising guru Alyque Padamsee wrote in Open magazine about the Indian consumer, and in the context of fairness products said, “It is hard to deny that fairness creams often get social commentators and activists all worked up. What they should do is take a deep breath and think again. Lipstick is used to make your lips redder, fairness cream is used to make you fairer – so what’s the problem? The only reason I can offer for why people like fairness is this: if you have two beautiful girls, one of them fair and the other dark, you see the fair girl’s features more clearly. This is because her complexion reflects more light.”
Yes, Mr. Padamsee, but do we really need light-reflecting vaginas?
The controversy over “Clean and Dry” had hardly abated when “18 Again” was launched. As if insecurity about skin tone was not enough, this product went a step further, promising the woman the feeling of “being a virgin again.” In the commercial for this “vaginal tightening and rejuvenation gel,” an obviously married woman dances around her husband crooning, “I feel like a virgin” while the extended family looks on indulgently. “Now every time feels like the first time.”
Juxtaposed with this are findings from a sex survey conducted by a leading Indian weekly, India Today. “Women are no more shy and submissive,” read the synopsis of the survey, which completed its 10th year in 2012. The survey was conducted not just in the large cities like Mumbai and Delhi, but also in small towns such as Kota, Kolhapur, Ratlam, Kottayam, and Aizawl.
So does all this mean that Indian women have finally found sexual freedom and Indian society has relaxed its puritanical views on issues like premarital sex, or even open conversations about sex? Certainly not.
Kamala Ganesh, leading sociologist from Mumbai, says, “Sexual freedom does not mean only women having sex outside and before marriage – it means having control over their sex life, being able to say yes or no. However, in India, the tone and tenor of sexual relationships are still patriarchal, and women, married or not, end up getting a raw deal.”
Let us take a closer look at “18 Again.” Why 18? Why not 16? Or even 14? Is it because some marketing manager somewhere has decided that 18 is the right age for a woman not to be a virgin any longer? And who is to say if the woman wants to feel like a virgin again, whose first sexual experience was possibly painful and not so pleasant?
As in the case of “Clean and Dry,” there are safer terms being thrown around. Sumit Chawla, Director of Pro-Life Products, the company that makes “18 Again,” says the product “is for women of all ages – it helps in fighting infection, removing dead cells, improving blood circulation.”
Mr. Chawla also talks about empowering women with such products. “When we researched the market, we found a lot of products for men to enhance their sexuality but there was nothing women-centric. Our idea is that the woman would be able to take control of herself, her vagina; right now, a hymenoplasty surgery is the only option for women who want to tighten their vagina,” he says.
Dr. Ganesh counters this, saying, “I am very skeptical when they talk about empowerment of women – real empowerment is when the terms of engagement are equal between the man and the woman, and does not come with using a product. You can actually have pressure from your male partner to keep using these products because it gives him pleasure.”
In a way, this scenario can be seen as yet another clash of traditional values against modern ones – but in reality, there is nothing modern about this product or the advertising. Critics have also seen it as an expression of the belief that premarital sex is wrong and something to be ashamed about. As with fairness, there is an unshakable emphasis on virginity in India. The aforementioned sex survey also found that “most men in small towns keep away from finding multiple partners and also remain virgins until they get married. At the same time, 70 percent of them want their partners to be virgins at the time of marriage. 40 percent of them feel that increasing access to sex contributes to infidelity as compared to 58 percent from the metros.”
This magic gel, steeply priced at 2,430 rupees – roughly 45 USD – for a 40 ml tub, is unlikely to come to the rescue of women who want to “feel like virgins” for their new husbands. And apart from the social impact, including increased body image concerns, there is also the danger of chemicals present in such creams causing damage with prolonged use.
The truth is, despite talk about the changing Indian woman, her financial independence, sexual awareness and freedom, despite letters to Cosmopolitan and stories in Vogue about one-night-stands and boyfriend problems, the Indian woman is still not in control of her sexual life or reproductive rights. This is still a country where self-appointed guardians of morality are likely to beat up a woman for saying the word “vagina” aloud. The availability of all kinds of products for the vagina is by no means an indication of a nation of empowered women.
About the Author: Charukesi Ramadurai is a freelance writer from Bangalore, India. She has a degree in Social Research Methods and Economics. She writes for the New York Times, Economist, South China Morning Post, Asian Wall Street Journal, National Geographic Traveller and The National, among others. More about her on her website www.charukesi.com.