Bollywood From Beyond

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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