One Color Contraceptive Does Not Fit All

It's small, thin and waterproof. And it's discreet -- unless you are a woman of color.

Ortho Evra, the newly approved contraceptive skin patch by Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceutical, has been recognized by Time Magazine as one of the best inventions of 2002 and dubbed "the perfect birth control." But because its peachy-beige tint makes the new patch more noticeable on women of darker skin tones, it isn't perfect for everyone.

According to Donna Lamb, a journalist, speaker and anti-racism activist, the company's oversight can be summed up in two words: white privilege.

"White privilege sends a message. It says you don't fit, that you don't belong, that there is something wrong with you," said Lamb. "It represents the standard, the right and the good thing and tells you what you should conform to. It says, 'You are less than those who this was made for.'"

Lamb says white privilege is such a regular factor in day-to-day life that most people don't even realize it exists.

"It's hard to have people identify and care about something as long as it's happening to 'them,' as long as it's happening to 'those people.'"

But even people of color, Lamb says, are sometimes complicit in living with white privilege.

"If you've spent your whole life being treated as less than or as worthless, sometimes you may feel like you have to choose your battles. So, some people may not think the color of a patch is that important; they just learn to live with those kinds of things."

Judging from the lukewarm complaints about the limited color choice for the patch, "living with it" is exactly the route some have chosen.

"As I understand it, initial research for the patch did show that women wanted to be able to choose from different skin tones. But, they also thought it was such a novel concept that they were willing to use it anyway," said Vanessa Collins, director of medical affairs for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

"It would have been nice to have a variety of skin tones represented in the patches and for them to be more perfectly matched to skin tones of the women using them," Collins said.

What Is 'Standard'?

According to Linda Mayer, spokesperson for Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceuticals, the lack of variety in shades for the birth control patch had more to do with timing and science than anything else.

"The patch was approved about a year and a half ago, and because of the technology available to us in that time frame, we developed basically the standard patch color -- what you see on a Band-Aid," said Mayer.

For many years, Johnson & Johnson's Band Aid was available in only one shade -- similar to that of the Ortho Evra patch -- that generally blended to match the skin tones of white skin. After hearing calls to make Band-Aids more inclusive of varying skin tones, the company released its sheer Band-Aid, now a top seller in its extensive line of bandages.

Ortho-McNeil Pharmaceuticals is part of the Johnson & Johnson corporate conglomerate, but clearly it didn't learn from Band-Aid's example.

Mayer said the company has received a small number of complaints about the color of the patch, and is looking into the development of other colors in the product's next phase of development.

"We have done a lot of market research with this product on Caucasian women as well as women of color. The acceptance rate is high for both groups," said Mayer.

"But we are talking about testing other colors -- even something like a decorative sticker to place over the patch, making it more appealing to some groups of women."

Collins says companies like Ortho McNeil should form focus groups and listen carefully to their consumers.

The company, in fact, could ask its own models. The product's high-profile Web, print and television marketing campaign features several women of color in ads, with Ortho patches clearly not matched to their skin tones.

But Collins also said consumers should be willing to speak up, noting that the company needs to see a demand for variety before investing research and funds into developing other colors.

Speak to the Bottom Line

Like Ortho McNeil Pharmaceutical and Johnson & Johnson, other companies have dealt with the skin-tone dilemma.

Binney & Smith, Inc., manufacturers of Crayola crayons, released a line of "multicultural crayons" in the early 1990s after educator feedback about the lack of variety in "skin shade" colors.

"We started to hear from teachers that their kids weren't able to find enough colors to represent themselves when they went to color," said Susan Tucker, spokesperson for Crayola. "And so we developed the first box of eight multicultural, earth-toned crayons as a direct result of hearing that our consumers wanted that."

Tucker says the response to the new shades was so positive the company expanded the line to include even more multicultural products, including culturally inclusive paints, markers, colored pencils and clay.

While it isn't clear if the next phase of development for Ortho Evra will bring with it a new slate of colors, Collins says it's the consumers who really make the difference.

"If the company is to add more colors, the women who use the patch will have to let them know that's what they want."

Lamb agrees.

"There is no such thing as appealing to the conscience of a corporation," she said. "You have to talk the language they talk: the bottom line. When consumers speak up and companies fear looking bad or suffering financial repercussions, then they'll listen."

Dana Williams is a staff writer for Tolerance.org.

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