With the exception of one or two, Bollywood stars rely on the fair and lovely brigade to fatten their bank balance, endorsing products that routinely advertise skin-lightening qualities. Only names like Kangana Ranaut, Ranbir Kapoor, Abhay Deol and Nandita Das stick out, either for their principled refusal to endorse fairness products, or for highlighting the racist project of multinational and domestic cosmetic giants with the "Dark is Beautiful" and other such campaigns.
Even though this commercial racism has been incessantly asking Indians to get fairer in order to get ahead in jobs, bag that promotion, beat that opponent in any sport, reach work in time, stop traffic for good reasons and many more insane reasons, sometimes the absurdity breaches its own disgusting limit. If lightening the face, hands and legs were not enough, we are now expected to also "lighten" our pubes. A bizarre advert featuring "India's first men's intimate wash" by the niche skincare company Skin Elements is targeting women to tell "their men" that a pubic hygiene routine must include a dose of skin-lightening.
The ad showcases a suitably coy and fair-skinned woman, who looks pretty taken in by the idea that an "intimate hygiene routine" in men must also involve a regimen of "lighten(ing) skin tone". The ad asks women to "put your man on a [sic] intimate hygiene routine", which is still okay, egging her on to encourage "good genital hygiene … as the first weapon to keep [themselves] sexually healthy and fit". The ad then goes on to say that in addition to removing "unwanted odour and itching", it also makes the pubes fairer by acting on the skin tone. While the quasi-medical sounding cosmetic properties were acceptable - soothing soreness, inflamed and itchy skin, or having anti-bacterial, anti-fungal effects, what's absolutely disgusting and purely racist is to harp on the skin-lightening issue.
Racism and sexism combined
The ad from Skin Elements successfully fuses inordinate amount racism and sexism to pack a solid sickening punch. Not only does it assume and in fact spread the assumption that pubic hygiene is something men would scoff at because of their rugged and masculine upbringing, it's something that women would naturally understand, and therefore would compel their men to also get used to it, albeit in the privacy of their luxurious bathrooms.
There's an enormous weight of dull misogyny around this ridiculous presumption, which not only conforms tired and jaded sexual and gender binaries, as well as the public and private roles to which men and women must slip into, it goes the extra mile to ensure that the product is "Mantastic" enough for their men to use privately, without compromising their public masculinity.
The very fact that women are being targeted by this ad, and not men themselves, also points to the assumption that intimacy and commercial targeting of intimate hygiene isn't something men would be comfortable with, but women would be. Why? Is it because we have grown up watching sanitary napkins advertised with women looking suitably anxious and worried, while condoms have always needed a woman's sexually available body to connote what's essentially a man's external contraception?
We haven't seen that many men while women's contraceptive pills were being advertised: mostly it was women and their women friends and gynecologists discussing in hushed tones the need for contraception and genital hygiene to maintain a healthy family (and sexual) life. Why would a men's genital hygiene product slyly target women, and reiterate that "women understand and take care of intimate hygiene but one doesn't give much importance to the intimate hygiene for men"? Who's this "one"? Is it a man or a woman? What's the data behind this embarrassingly ignorant claim? Was a survey done? Were doctors consulted? Or, was it just social conservatism in one more sleek-looking ad regurgitating centuries of sexism?
The casual adding of the words - "lightens the skin tone" - might seem like an afterthought, but it's not. In fact, it's carefully placed and is expected to be noticed, and acted upon. Even women's "intimate hygiene" products routinely claim that pubic fairness is a goal that Indian women must aspire for, racism be damned. Most of the time, the emphasis on "clean" is expected to be read as one on "fairness", by implication.
Given there's a horde of men's fairness facewash products being advertised by top Bollywood stars - including Shah Rukh Khan, Hrithik Roshan, John Abraham, Shahid Kapoor, among others - the distance travelled from the face to the nether parts is perhaps not even that unexpected. But that's doesn't make it any less infuriating. Oh, but can the Bollywood male brigade be expected to advertise genital hygiene and genital fairness themselves? No, because their sexuality must be pristinely masculine for future commercial projection and extraction. They will be endorsing facial hair-trimming products or the latest SUVs or sedans to keep their male bankability intact. However, genital hygiene and its racist commercial use must be offshored to nubile women, who are used to doing it anyway. What a bunch of bullshit!