On the face of it, it was just another hair removal ad aimed at women in both Pakistan and India But this ad, like the others, would have slipped by unnoticed were it not for a social media uproar led by none other than Sana Mir, the former captain of the Pakistan women's cricket team.
First uploaded on the product's YouTube channel on April 5, the ad for Veet Perfect Silk hair removal cream shows Pakistani actress Mahira Khan slinking onto a basketball court on a college campus. Even though she's wearing a tight pink dress and high heels, she handles the ball with ease and sinks it into the basket. As she accomplishes this feat, her arm brushes up against one of the other players, in athletic garb, who declares "wow" and then exclaims breathlessly, "So smooth!"
"Not smooth," replies Khan. "Perfect!"
Skin lightening and hair removal creams are some of the subcontinent's best-selling products, playing on the familiar insecurities South Asian women share on both sides of the border about body hair and the color of their skin. But when Sana Mir commented on the ad in a Facebook post on April 22, her post went viral — shared over 700 times from her official page and liked 28,000 times at last count.
Mir opened her statement with a strong salvo: "To all young girls out there who aspire to take up sports. Make no mistake: you need strong arms, not smooth arms, on a sports field." She related how she'd refused to endorse similar beauty products because they objectify women "in different professional settings." Because this one involved sports and was clearly aimed at a younger crowd, Mir decided to speak up.
"The worst thing is that instead of sending a message to young girls that the colour or texture of their skin does not matter, we are promoting body shaming and objectification," Mir wrote. She ended her post by requesting companies and the celebrities who endorse products to try and give girls the confidence to fulfill their dreams rather than making them feel self-conscious about their bodies.
Both Indian and Pakistani women reacted enthusiastically to Mir's post, which she paired with jubilant images of the Pakistani women cricket's team performing on the field. Women called her a strong role model and bemoaned the pressure that women feel to look "perfect", thanks to advertisements for beauty products like these. Others lauded her for refusing sponsorship deals in the name of resisting body-shaming. "You're a real hero for refusing to compromise on values for sponsorship money," said Shahbano Aliani, from Karachi.
Mir's protest comes at a time when Pakistani women are becoming increasingly aware of the sexism that keeps them in a position of lesser status. But there has been backlash. Some media painted Mir's statement as "slamming" Mahira Khan, predictably pitting two of Pakistan's most recognizable celebrities against each other.
Neither Sana Mir nor Mahira Khan will lose popularity over the controversy — Khan's fans are supportive of Khan's appearance in the ad so far, even as some see this as a turning point where South Asian women are starting to voice their resistance to impossible beauty ideals forced upon them in the name of revenue and profit. Social media users have observed that Mahira Khan too has spoken out before against fairness cream ads and has questioned the Pakistani penchant for unnaturally white skin.
Previous marketing campaigns for Veet have included Miss Veet, a modeling competition on the lines of America's Next Top Model. So far, Reckitt Benckiser, which markets Veet in Pakistan and elsewhere in South Asia, has not released any official statement about the current controversy.
Bina Shah is a writer living in Karachi, Pakistan. Her forthcoming novel, Before She Sleeps, a feminist dystopian story about women's lives in a future Middle Eastern society, will be published in August 2018. She tweets @binashah