Profits v. Public opinion: What drives the beauty myth in India?

Profits v. Public opinion: What drives the beauty myth in India?

India’s beauty industry is booming. In 2011 alone, the Indian cosmetics market had sales of INR 264.1 billion, and the market size is increasing 15-20% per annum [source] – due in part to rising incomes and increased affordability. The rise in consumption is not limited to urban India. Startups operating in rural India cite instances of high demand for cosmetics like Fair and Lovely, often above and beyond demand for health products like sanitary pads.

What drives the boom of cosmetic products – particularly those that aspire toward a very specific standard of beauty (fairness, tallness, Anglo-Saxon features)? To offer some insights, in mid-February the Columbia Alumni Association hosted a panel entitled “Ideas of Beauty and Love in Contemporary Urban India” with the movers and shakers of the beauty industry:

  • Fahad Samar, filmmaker, and author Scandal Point
  • Rochelle Pinto, fashion writer at Vogue India, and co-author with actress Kareena Kapoor of her memoir Style Diaries of a Bollywood Diva
  • Leeza Mangaldas, Chapter Co-Head CAAI-Mumbai
  • Juhi Pande, author
  • Dharmendra Manwani, head of Jean Claude Biguine

Manwani kicked off the discussion on a positive note: beauty products and treatments are a “tool that provides great confidence to people.”

JUNIPER - What Drives Beauty Myth

But what drives their conception of beauty? Fahad Samar mentioned that north Indian and Afghan ethnic beauty soon became the standard in Bollywood, leaving out other ethnicities in the national conception of beauty altogether. He also commented on the impact of role models on young girls, referencing Sushmita Sen’s boob job which was quite probably “soul destroying for non-voluptuous women who feel that’s the standard.”

That’s the point at which a pure business lens breaks down, and we cannot take the success of the cosmetics and film industries as a proxy for consumer empowerment or satisfaction. The film, TV, and cosmetic industries flood the average girl’s consciousness with copious images of a very specific ideal of beauty daily, through every medium. The psychological effect of that flood of images cannot be understated. When a young girl who does not fit into stereotypical beauty standards believes in the propagated ideal, it breaks down her self-esteem, instilling shame and insecurity in place of self-confidence.

In a practical sense, the marriage market is also based heavily on the same beauty standards perpetuated by the beauty industry, often sidelining girls’ unique strengths and beauty. Particularly when it comes to skin color, white skin rules – it’s no secret that boys and girls are teased for their skin color, and one’s degree of fairness can determine one’s marriage prospects, with online marriage profiles clamoring after “wheatish” skin.

Moreover, the beauty standards are entirely class-based, favoring those at the top.

Rochelle Pinto disagreed that beauty standards are imposed by the top. In her opinion, the industry simply provides the types of images that the public craves. Optimistic about the future, she believes that “democracy is entering in the realm of how we portray human beings.” The public is less satisfied to see airbrushed models and is demanding more “real” looking models in magazines. She also feels that as more women join the upper ranks in the industry and take part in the decision making process, representations of women will change for the better– for example, by resulting in richer female characters in shows and movies (she cited “Girls” producer Lena Dunham as an example.)

Samar provided a counter-example: The Indian TV industry has a large number of women at the top, and the storylines of the ever-popular saas-bahu dramas have remained the same—often patriarchal with weak female characters—because the public demands it.

So the question remains: In order to empower individuals to embrace their own beauty, and for society to be open to different types of beauty, which has to change first: public opinion on what beauty looks like or the images and role models pumped out by the the beauty and film industries?

Manwani brought it down to the individual level, asserting that in the end “it’s more about if you love yourself” and “everyone we see is uniquely beautiful,” explaining that even the celebrities “are all like us” – not exceptionally beautiful, but a product of intense grooming and makeup.

This may be a happy conclusion for those lucky enough to live among the elites, but for the majority of Indians who don’t meet the Bollywood concept of beauty, it’s still a difficult journey to social acceptance.

Many are tired of the classist, imperialist beauty standards that dare teach children to resent their own features and skin color, which was borne out of thousands of years of their own unique cultures and heritage. So, the tide is starting to change.

Some women have taken it upon themselves to begin to change popular beauty standards. Kavita Emmanuel’s Dark is Beautiful campaign, strongly championed by Sushmita Sen (the film industry’s favorite “dusky” actor), has started the battle to change mindsets. One simple step you can take is to sign the petition against the insidious advertising by Fair and Lovely or take the message to your community.

Real change starts first with self-acceptance – then, it’s not a far off step to spread your message far and wide.