Tall, fair, and debonair: The ideal Indian man, according to beauty products and Bollywood

Wanted: Fairer skin.
Wanted: Fairer skin.
Image: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri
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“Tall, dark, and handsome” is a common phrase echoed by people around the world when describing the most ideal, attractive man. But in India, local people have something else in mind when they describe what they most want in a man. The “tall, dark, and handsome” is being replaced by the “tall, fair, and debonair”, spurred by recent trends in the skin bleaching market.

Increasingly, men in India who have light skin are taking over as the darlings of public appeal portrayed in Indian movies.

Indian women have been patronising this market for years as fair skin is believed to be a critical attractiveness trait. The importance of being “fair” is probably explained easiest by looking at the typical stereotypes portrayed in India’s massive film industry, best known as Bollywood. Dark-skinned people are often portrayed as villains and rough characters. In Indian movies influenced by Western ideas the “good guys” are also invariably fair-skinned.

Given the update in skin lightening products for men, the question that comes to mind is: are men working harder at being fair-skinned?

It seems so. As recently as 2015, the Indian bleaching cream market alone accounted for 46% of facial cream sales and earned $331 million. Its yearly rate of growth was calculated at 18%. At the same time, Indians applied 233 tons of this “magic” whitening potion to their faces for purposes of maintaining a lighter complexion.

Now Indian men have joined in the buying frenzy, lifting the bleaching cream industry to profit margin bliss.

First women, then men

Multinational companies such as Unilever got wind of India’s obsession with light skin early on. Indian women were their first customers. Unilever developed Fair & Lovely in 1975, claiming as a brand it stands for the belief that “Beautiful, radiant skin enhances not only a girl’s outward appearance; it also plays a critical role in boosting her self-confidence,” and then revved up the commercial production of the misdirected fairness ideal.

As one of the pioneering establishments in the bleaching cream business, Hindustan Unilever was in a position to dominate the market. As the dominant player, they have kept vigilance over India’s long-established craving to be light-skinned. In the early days, Fair & Lovely was sold almost exclusively to women. On their website Unilever contends, that: It is the number one fairness cream in India and is popular throughout Asia.

Historically, fairness creams were purchased by women exclusively. Until the mid-2000s, purchases by men were not a marketing option. Eventually, companies like Unilever realised that almost a third of those who used fairness creams were men and this was hence an immediate market spur.

After years of product success, Emami, an Indian-owned company began producing Fair & Handsome for men in 2005. They describe it as a cream for those who have darker skin and want to look more light-skinned.

With endorsements from entertainers and celebrities, Fair & Handsome took off, claiming a 40% share of the men’s fairness cream market.

One of the endorsers is Bollywood movie star Shah Rukh Khan, whose fame and sex appeal make him popular throughout India and the world. To boost its sales of Fair & Handsome, Emami hired Khan to promote its product by appearing in its commercials. In one he is depicted as tossing a tube of skin bleaching cream to an adoring fan.

Local activist groups have criticised Khan for exploiting his celebrity status in the worst possible way.

Bollywood is a huge and successful business. Its male stars are the heartthrobs for even the most reserved Indian women. So when bleach cream companies, with their massive marketing budgets, are now making huge profits in their portrayal of light-skinned men as the societal ideal, the use of skin lighteners by males is set to become even deeper entrenched.

Ronald Hall, Professor of social work, Michigan State University and Neha Mishra, assistant professor of law, Reva University of Bangalore.This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.