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How White My Valley: India's Skin-Whitening Obsession Reaches the Final Frontier

Posted: 04/12/2012 12:11 pm

In New Delhi, it's not enough for Indian boys and girls to fear that they won't get a playmate or a spouse or a job because of their unsightly dusky skin. It's not enough that ads should tell women they need their underarm deodorant to include skin-lightening cream if they want to go sleeveless.

Now comes Clean and Dry "intimate wash," which promises women "protection, fairness and freshness" in their privates. In a new ad that I have been assured is not a parody, an attractive young bride lacks confidence around her husband because her vagina is too dark and vagina-like. After one splash of Clean and Dry, however, love blooms anew.

The media's reception has been harsh. "This is a wonder product," Manjula Narayan writes in India's Sunday Guardian, "it's an Itch Guard that promises to bleach my oyster. This is what I had been working towards all my life -- achieving a light, bright vulva, a lit clit, a perfect pudendum, a cleft to beat all clefts, an utterly lovable labia."

But the scorn of the educated and liberated may not be enough to stop Clean and Dry. Skin lightening products are probably as prevalent in Africa and Asia as pornography is in America. They're everywhere. I have encountered Fair and Lovely, the Coca-Cola of skin lighteners, in Darfur and South Sudan.

I spoke recently with a dermatologist and plastic surgeon who practices in a mid-size Indian city. He told me that no matter what the client comes in for, he sends them out with a free tube of prescription-only skin-lightener. "They always come back" for more, he said.

The dermatologist had nothing good to say about the over-the-counter lighteners: "They make the skin darker over time," he said, before launching into a short lecture on the chemistry of artificial fairness. The doctor's real problem wasn't getting patients interested in skin-lightening techniques -- it was in getting them to stop.

One can only have so many dermabrasions and chemical peels, he explained with a sigh. "You have to let your face rest. They don't want to listen."

What's next? Iris lightening? Eyeball bleaching? Maybe something to do with the tongue?

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Dan Morrison's reporting has taken him from BBQs with the Latin Kings street gang to ride-alongs with the police assassins of Bombay. He is author of The Black Nile, an account of his 3,600-mile journey down the Nile River through Uganda, Sudan, and Egypt, published by Viking Penguin.