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Female genital bleaching – a growing worldwide phenomenon

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Denise Turner
WVoN co-editor 

A recent TV advertisement for a shower gel that lightens the skin is creating a stir in India.

The rather unimaginative ad manages to combine body image insecurity with the myth that women have to fulfil certain criteria to win the love of a man. And one of them is by being paler.

There are three reasons why this is wrong. The first is obvious to feminists.

The second is unacceptable in the west, but not exactly news in India where for centuries pale skin has been equated with beauty.

Lately this has bled into other areas of life, where pale means success, a view backed up by research by Joni Hersch, professor at Vanderbilt Law School. She has shown that the fairest skinned immigrants earn an average of 16 to 23% more than comparable immigrants with the darkest skin tone.

But perhaps the third and most worrying thing about this ad (and the product itself of course) is that it encourages women to bleach their genitalia.

While the trend for vajazzling (sticking ‘jewels’ on the shaven pubic area) may be unfathomable, genital bleaching can cause serious long term health issues.

It’s a problem that is unlikely to go away any time soon. According to research firm ACNeilson, India’s skin bleaching market was worth $432m in 2010 and is growing at a rate of 18% per annum.

The situation is not helped by Bollywood stars promoting the products, which are also available in deodorant and talcum powder form.

But India isn’t alone. The phenomenon is growing in the US and is not limited to Asian women.

Los Angeles dermatologist and assistant clinical professor of dermatology at USC School of Medicine, Dr Jessica Wu said: “Many of my female patients ask me about lightening their private parts.”

Wu advises patients to buy over the counter products that have been tested in the US. She says there are potential problems with imported skin-lightening creams which have been found to contain mercury, steroids and other potentially toxic ingredients and recommends caution when buying such products online.

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