In India, Fairness Is a Growth Industry

Shopkeeper Gurdip Singh says skin-lightening creams are big sellers, though at about $1, they're half a day's wages for some. Still,
Shopkeeper Gurdip Singh says skin-lightening creams are big sellers, though at about $1, they're half a day's wages for some. Still, "everybody wants to look good," he says. (By Emily Wax -- The Washington Post)
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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 4, 2008

CAVELOSSIM, India He's the rugged type, with sculpted arm muscles. He rides a motorcycle and wears a trendy tank top, wraparound sunglasses and slicked-back hair. There's only one problem: His skin color is a few shades too dark. His fair-skinned love interest won't even accept his offer of a rose.

But in this popular Indian television ad, the protagonist is able to buy a magic cream that will change his status in life, turning his brown skin several shades lighter and causing his beloved to swoon.

The new product is called Fair and Handsome, and it's among the male skin-lightening creams that are exploding in popularity in small towns and cities across India. While such products are nothing new among Indian women, for whom fair skin has long been a symbol of affluence and status, sales of the product for men are growing at nearly 150 percent annually in emerging markets, according to a recent study by Ernst & Young.

"It's all lower-middle-class men who want the product now," said Ajay Gupta, 52, a pharmacist, who said the creams often sell out. "What it really means is that the young and up-and-coming Indian male wants to look fair and therefore rich. He wants to be smart and good. The cream is now part of many men's grooming routine and very popular at barbershops."

Whitening face masks, soaps and exfoliating lotions are available across Asia. In many parts of India, fair skin is seen as highly desirable. Matrimonial ads always include long descriptions of a potential mate's complexion.

Now, with India's economy soaring, more and more men from smaller cities and towns want to have their skin lightened and attract fairer-skinned brides, who often come with larger dowries in this largely dark-skinned country of 1.1 billion. Experts say the trend is a startling sign of so-called aspirational products in India's growing markets.

"In India, the poor man has a rich man's aspirations and wants to live tomorrow's life today," said V. Shantakumar, chairman of India's branch of Saatchi & Saatchi, an advertising agency that handles Olay, which puts out several whitening products. "That's reflected in the advertising with the social mobility dream of wanting cars, washing machines, air conditioners and, of course, skin-lightening creams."

The creams often cost about $1, or half a day's wages for many Indians. Despite the expense, the creams might as well be liquid gold for some young men, who believe pale skin will lead to well-paid jobs and wealthier mates.

Vinod Kumar, 18, a dark-skinned cigarette salesman, said he buys Fair and Handsome every month. "I want to be rich and fair like my film hero," he said. "To be pale would make me be so smart."

Some companies have started to produce tiny packages of the cream so that poorer Indians who can't afford an entire tube can still strive toward lighter skin.

"A guy taking his girlfriend out for a film today has all the aspirations of a richer man and will spend money on a shampoo or a skin-lightening cream in a small packet," said Anant Rangaswami, editor of Campaign India, an advertising magazine. "There is more disposable income in the hands of young people today, and the lower-middle classes are dreaming big."

Some say those dreams shouldn't include lighter skin. The products are seen by critics as reinforcing long-held discrimination against darker skin, especially in northern India, where it is often linked to lower-caste professions.

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