The fairness cream industry is gigantic.
A new vagina lightening cream is helping peddle self-hatred to women.
THE Indian obsession with fair skin has always been a distasteful phenomenon. The fairness cream industry is gigantic, with men as well as women lathering these silly potions on their faces to make their skin a few shades lighter.
Pregnant women in rural areas believe they will give birth to light-skinned babies if they consume lots of ''white'' dairy products such as milk, cream, yoghurt, and butter. Dark models and actresses struggle for work as their skin isn't regarded as desirable.
Now an Indian company has taken this bizarre self-hating obsession to a new level with a ''feminine'' hygiene product that not only promises to keep a woman's genitalia ''fresh'' but also lighten the skin around the vagina.
The television ad for Clean & Dry Intimate Wash shows an attractive, modern woman sitting at home looking wistful. Her partner (presumably her husband) is in the same room and seems to be ignoring her.
The next scene shows her in the shower, where a piece of animation shows the unsightly brown hue around her crotch (blurred mercifully) giving way to a lighter flesh colour.
In the next scene, the partner is far more interested in her and the newly confident woman, now in shorts and looking flirtatious, grabs his car keys, puts them in her pocket and invites him to give chase.
He responds by lifting her into his arms lovingly. Clearly all is well between them now that her vagina is lighter skinned. Online, the advert reads: ''Life for women will now be fresher, cleaner and more importantly fairer and more intimate.''
This fairness mania maddens me. If some Jews used to suffer self-hatred, at least you knew it was because previous generations had undergone persecution for centuries. If some African Americans used to have low esteem and tried to lighten their skin and straighten their hair, at least you knew that a history of slavery must have cast a shadow on their confidence.
But what can explain this Indian hatred of the colour of their own skin? Yes, I know that the British Raj was white, but Mughal rule in India lasted much longer and the Mughals were not white, so the ''colonial complex'' theory doesn't quite do the job.
If the theory were correct, Indians would hanker after slanted eyes as the Mughals were Mongols from Central Asia, but Indians refer to their own people from the north-east disparagingly as ''chinky-eyed''.
What is so repugnant about this product is that it is guilty of a double self-hatred - of race and gender. Indian women should be ashamed of their dark skin and, as women, should be ashamed of genitalia that is dark and, presumably, unappealing.
In the West a couple of decades ago, companies tried to peddle a nefarious vaginal spray to keep a woman's private parts fresh. Doctors and feminists pointed out that a daily shower or bath was all a woman needed to be fresh.
In any case, why did the man not need sprays to keep his organ fragrant? And why has no one manufactured a ''skin-tightening'' product to improve the turkey giblets look of male genitalia?
Mercifully, the Indian product has become controversial and Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni (a woman), has asked the Advertising and Standards Council of India to ban it.
Women's groups have been outraged and vocal about the product. As one woman wrote online: ''This is the ultimate insult - skin whitening for your vagina.''
But I wonder how it got this far? You wonder why the advertising team had no doubts about it.
Why no one at the company wondered if such a product was insulting to women. Why the actor and the actress in the ad failed to realise that the idea they were peddling was noxious.
It's bad enough that fairness cream ads make it seem as though a dark-skinned woman will never have a career or get a husband until she is fairer.
But to sell something which is so utterly misogynistic - that hoary stuff that feminism had to fight, about female genitalia somehow being dirty and repulsive, which is why European art for centuries showed women with no pubic hair - shows an astounding degree of ignorance about how the world has moved on from such backward notions.
It is really time for Indians to change their attitude towards their own skin. Just as African Americans launched a Black is Beautiful campaign in the US, so India needs a similar self-affirming movement. Fast.
Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.