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How ‘Manufactured Beauty’ Consciousness Is Threatening Women’s Health

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Damned if you do, damned if you don’t: how manufactured beauty consciousness is threatening the health of women.

People took to the streets and organised socially and politically in many states of America against the Police Brutality on the Afro-American community. By ‘Black Lives Matter’, they are trying to end this systemic racism that allowed the Police to go unchecked, and this movement was supported by many communities worldwide.

Far away in India, finally, after 45 years awaken by this current movement FMCG brand Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) has announced that it will remove words such as “fair/fairness “white/whitening”, and “light/lightning” from all its products and communications and its age-old product “Fair and Lovely” will no longer include the word”‘fair”.   

The word “Fair” is problematic as it establishes that anyone Fair(white) is superior to Brown/Black. The use of lightening creams and soaps is pervasive across large parts of the globe. Skin lightening has special significance in Asian countries which have a colonial past, like India. Asians are not genetically white like Caucasians; we have a broad range of complexion like white-pink, pale, golden, wheatish (Light brown), dusky, brown, chocolate brown, and black.

Representational image.

Fairness: A Class Issue?

But, this cultural bias towards fairer skin could also be related to status in earlier times as peasants, and the working class would have to toil in the hot sun while the elite could afford to stay in the shade by doing white-collar jobs. So, this was a class issue, and the narrow beauty parameters like fairness and certain facial features are traditionally believed to relate with higher class/caste.   

To cash into this popular sentiment for fairness, cosmetic companies launched several products rich in Vitamin E and tea tree oils that claim to lighten one’s skin. Skin lightening products occupy 61% of the dermatological market in India, and most cannot afford Loreal or Bobby Brown, and they turn to alternatives. So, to cater to the need/ desire of this big consumer base manufacturers use mercury compounds to prepare cheap fairness cream because it can inhibit the formation of melanin.

Mercury is used in both inorganic and organic forms in cosmetics. Organic mercury compounds such as thiomersal and phenylmercuric salts are the only two mercuric compounds that are allowed to be used as a preservative in eye area cosmetics. This is due to the lack of a safer alternative. Inorganic ammoniated mercuric chloride and iodide are found mostly to be used in skin lightening creams.

Hydroquinone can be used at a certain level of 2-4 ppm (parts per million), not beyond that as the skin can get damaged if any skincare product contains more than that. Still, there is no scope to use mercury for manufacture skincare care products as it is a heavy metal and its use is a violation of the Drug and Cosmetic Act. The mercury-containing products, while being less expensive, are illegal in many countries as even one particle per million (PPM) of the elements can be dangerous to humans.

Though the skin initially appears to lighten without an immediate reaction. In the longer term, mercury often produces unhealthy skin of uneven colour. The regulatory body also warned that mercury, which gets accumulated in the body, can damage the kidneys, brain, and nervous system.    

In the EU, the permissible limit is equal to or less than 0.007% by weight. India also applies the same limitation. Norway banned two products of the skin whitening cream in January, Fair and Lovely, saying they contain toxic ingredients that pose serious health hazards. The ban by an EU country raises severe concerns about the regulatory systems in place in India that has the fastest-growing cosmetic industry.    

We need to realise that Melanin is giving our skin its shade. The brown to the black pigment found in our skin, hair, and iris of the eye is because of the pigmentation, and the skin pigmentation is the most important photoprotective factor, since melanin, besides functioning as a broadband UV absorbent, has antioxidant and radical scavenging properties.

A paper by UC San Francisco authors, suggests that heavily pigmented skin evolved because it forms a stronger barrier against a host of harsh environmental challenges, they propose, our ancestors shed some of these pigments through natural selection as they moved north and needed less protection against these threats. Besides, many epidemiological studies have shown a lower incidence of skin cancer in individuals with darker skin compared to those with fair skin. Mercury is known to inhibit the production of Melanin in one’s skin, which is the pigment that causes it to appear darker and protect our skin.   

I believe just dropping “Fair” from the title is not enough. Instead, we need to change the narrative of beauty in our society. Manufactured beauty and fair skin should not be favoured in any case, and no one should be judged based on complexion. Strict rules and regulations are required to prohibit the use of mercury in skin care products and other products in the large public interest and safe environment.    

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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