Selling Sikkim Girls

Aside from its notorious bath bombs, Lush prides itself on its ethical and exploitation-free standards for both its workers and its products. However, it seems that the company has a free for all stance when it comes to capitalizing on minorities and their cultures. In this case, Lush has been luring western consumers into buying Sikkim Girls that are “subtle, seductive, heady, exotic, floral. They’ve cleverly marketed a prostitution ring in broad daylight. And this is hardly an overstatement when Lush profits immensely from the slandering and appropriation of Sikkimese women.

After my purchases, I browsed around only to find myself staring at the familiar name of Sikkim while holding a placard infused with incredibly demeaning, misogynistic, orientalist statements about Sikkimese women.  I left the store, with purchases in hand, meaning to support their mission to ensure fair wages and animal cruelty free practices. Instead, I felt exploited, unsettled and disgusted. I pictured the two dimensional Sikkimese women being undressed as the perfume bottle wore down, dragging their chubas and their smiles to the floor.
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With all their talk about recognizing injustices, there is an uncomfortable irony to how exploitative this marketing ploy is. Lush is effectively carrying on orientalist traditions of selling stereotypically disparaging images of the East. When a clerk and a customer in the West engage in a transaction handing over a Sikkim Girl from one Western hand to another, both play a ritual of creating a supply and demand of exotic finds. They normalize the trafficking of bodies, identities and cultures, which is criminal to the effect that they have disregarded the fact that these are not theirs to barter with.

Much like the environmental cost that is not shouldered by rabid, capitalist companies, Lush is unburdened by the social impact of its products. Especially as a white, British company, it does not consider the consequences of continuing the Orientalist tradition that demeans the East to an oversimplified trope. It goes without saying that the description of the product reinforces hyper-sexualized images of the Asian woman. We go to great lengths to define ourselves as complex individuals and yet, we are consistently bottled into a mixture of demure fetishes – and in this case, fragrance. The Lush directive also infantilizes and reduces Sikkimese women into seven choices: ranging from 0.3 fl. oz to  3.1 fl. oz. They cannot be women, they are forever diminutive girls whose only skill is in luring. It is extremely disturbing at the thought of young girls being sold to benefit a white, colonial power that still references them as “exotic.”

Consumers of the Sikkim Girls most likely do not know where Sikkim is or who the Sikkimese are, much less their complex history and the varieties of cultures and narratives. They will have just one descriptor of them, the one provided by Lush: “soft sirens who seduced a Darjeeling café owner’s son-in-law, simply with the subtle and sensual sway of their bodies.” Lush wields the same power as the person who writes up definitions for the Oxford-English dictionary has. It defines the Sikkimese women in the tradition that Orientalism has long done so.

“There is very little consent to be found, for example, in the fact that Flaubert’s encounter with an Egyptian courtesan produced a widely influential model of the Oriental woman; she never spoke of herself, she never represented her emotions, presence, or history. He spoke for and represented her….to speak for her and tell his readers in what way she was “typically Oriental.” Edward Said, Orientalism (6)

On that note, let us talk about consent. Where is the consent of Sikkimese women to be defined as seductive, exotic creatures and the consent for their identity to be sold off in confined, plastic bottles? The only marker of consent has been from a British-Indian Sheema Mukherjee who brought this description and tale of Sikkimese women to Lush. Talk about colonial-majority power! Mukherjee entitles herself much as mainland Indians do in discriminating against Northeast Indians. A Sikkimese friend of mine relayed everyday taunts of “chinki,” and that as soon as mainland men see her and her friends, they start shouting “4 rupiya, 4 rupiya,” auctioning them off as prostitutes. It is troubling that Mukherjee did not see how problematic her position was as an ethnically mainland Indian. She goes to Darjeeling (not even Sikkim) and is relayed a story of how dangerous Sikkimese women are from a man who runs the “Hot Stimulating Café.” Not only is the description of Sikkimese women relayed by a non-native Sikkimese, but that too, it is relayed by a man whose son-in-law was apparently seduced by a Sikkimese woman. This is the stuff of hateful gossip and yet it has become a defining marker of Sikkimese women.

Unfortunately, there is more. The image below is from the UK Lush page. Do my eyes deceive me or is this representative of the hyper-sexualized, exotic Arab woman? If you go to the page, you will see the woman conjuring the viewer with her hands in the stereotypical manner that brown women are expected to dance. I see no correlation between Sikkimese women and the stereotypical Arab woman, but, if they are to be lumped into a homogenous “exotic” identity where cultural markers are disregarded then yes, this image makes complete sense.

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It pains me to describe the next image.

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Sheema Mukherjee additionally co-opted the Sikkim Girls name for her song entitled, “Sikkim Girls.” It was only fitting that she perform this song at LushFest 2012 while five white women flail their arms and gyrate their bodies in the imitation of a snake. The white women also consistently lie down and then get up to flail their arms and then lie back down again while a white man in dreadlocks and something supposed to pass off as a dhoti,  watches them while pacing back and forth. This scene is fitting for the description of the Sikkim Girls fragrance: “the overt sensuality of jasmine is demurely covered in this perfume, creating a subtly seductive fragrance with a hint of ‘come hither’ ”. The white women are engaged in seducing this white man and he, in turn, has effectively responded with his watchful glare as ensured by the Lush promise. The perfume will make you a seductive powerhorse that no one will be able to resist. A man will want you and know that you want it when he smells Sikkim Girls on you.

The act of white women lying down on the floor is suggestive of vulnerability and a lack of control of their own bodies. The only times that the white women are in movement is when they are seducing the white man. This notion that the purpose of women’s bodies is solely to service men is presented in the description of the Sikkim Girls perfume as well. The Sikkim girls are said to have seduced the son-in-law “simply with the subtle and sensual sway of their bodies.” It is very common in stories like this that women are simply walking and the manner of walking is somehow misconstrued as suggestive and suddenly they are accused of seducing men. Can’t a woman just walk?

Also, note again that these are all white women. They’ve been given the privileged role of representing Sikkimese women and the entire, ‘exotic’ non-white populace. These white people gyrate their bodies to a colonial-majority woman’s song about a culture that does not belong to any of them. This dance is then supposed to represent the Sikkimese women who are purported to be husband-stealing girls. I suppose I don’t have to reiterate how much of a white-dominated, racist, privileged, exploitative narrative this is. I’m hard pressed to find any mention of efforts made to give back to the Sikkimese community in exchange for selling Sikkim Girls in the thousands, quite probably turning in at least a million dollars in profit.

But who cares right? It’s a dog-eat-dog, capitalist world and you do what you can for the money.

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