Bollywood From Beyond

Beauty queens and fairness creams

| January 29, 2004


With a population of two billion, a surging middle class, and a flood of Western cultural ideas coming in through satellite TV and glossy magazines, India is on a capitalist stampede, poised to become the world's largest market for consumer goods. One of the major icons of India's modernity is the beauty queen -- several Miss Worlds and two Miss Universes have come from the subcontinent in the last ten years. Their beautiful faces are plastered on billboards and featured in movies and TV commercials constantly. Priya Lal, in PopMatters, calls attention to those faces' most prominent quality--their 'international' or Western look.

As Lal puts it: 'They are all extraordinarily tall by Indian standards, breathtakingly slim, and are possessed of a light honey-colored skin tone that they share with a rather small percentage of their country's population.' This skin tone has become the ideal and has powered what Lal calls 'a newly sophisticated and newly cunning cosmetic product industry.' Of these cosmetics, 'fairness creams,' skin-bleaching agents, are the most aggressively marketed and the most unnerving. It is estimated that 40% of the profits of India's entire cosmetic industry come from fairness creams, the most popular being Hindustan Lever's Fair & Lovely. The trend seems to combine what Lal refers to as 'materialist consumerism with already problematic popular notions of female desirability and worth.'

Still, Lal acknowledges that the links between the popularity of Indian beauty queens and the surging sales of fairness creams aren't entirely clear. These trends can't be fully explained as the results of globalization or Western influence, either. Indian culture has a history of objectification of women and color-consciousness, and it is Indians, not Europeans or Americans, who are profiting from the popularity of fairness creams. Rather than assign blame, Lal suggests we attempt to think harder about our notions of beauty. 'Beauty is difference,' she reminds us. 'We have the power to decide what we desire.'
-- Kyle Cohen

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