Their huge, glowing faces smile down from billboards on the mere mortal residents of big cities like Mumbai and Delhi. Each tooth in their wide grins gleams with perfect whiteness; each strand of their shiny hair lies smoothed flawlessly into place.
Their likenesses plaster the covers of women's magazines and the scores of advertisement pages within. Turn on the television, and you'll be sure to encounter at least one of them expounding on the virtues of the latest shampoo or beauty product. A quick glance at the front page of some of India's biggest newspapers on any given day will yield another glimpse of their tall, toned figures or their playfully pouting faces gracing wide expanses of space below some bold headline announcing their latest accomplishment.
They star in the biggest Bollywood movies, they shake hands with the most famous public officials, and their names are foreign only to those denizens of the most remote villages.
Welcome to 2004 in India, where these women have become some of the country's most celebrated public figures and symbols of national pride.
Who are they? Why, none other than those living dolls that have been crowned the princesses of the world -- the winners of international beauty pageants. In recent years, the list of Indian successes in the global beauty contest arena has been impressive: Sushmita Sen, Miss Universe 1994; Aishwarya Rai, Miss World 1994 (1994 was a beauty pageant Grand Slam year for India -- Miss Universe and Miss World); Diana Hayden, Miss World 1997; and Yukta Mookhey, Miss World 1999. Most recently, Priyanka Chopra, Miss World 2000 and Lara Dutta, Miss Universe 2000, making for yet another grand slam year. Quite a lineup.
Trick question: What do these women have in common? They are Indian, yes, and they are all beautiful. But it is a particular type of beauty that truly unites these women. They are all extraordinarily tall by Indian standards, breathtakingly slim, and are possessed of a light honey-colored skin tone, a characteristic that is possessed by a very small percentage of India's population.
Indeed, when they don their bathing suits and parade before the spotlight in the requisite swimsuit competition segment of their respective pageants, it's difficult to distinguish them from a lot of the other shiny long-legged creatures strutting by their side. Theirs is, according to many, the new "international" face of beauty.
The beauty queens act as vessels for national pride and rallying points around which Indians can unite to celebrate the apparent victory of their country against the rest of the world. After all, the Miss World and Miss Universe competitions are not unlike the Olympic Games.
But India's Sushmita Sens and Lara Duttas are more than just some sort of natural incarnation of Indian chauvinism. Behind their chiseled, smiling faces lies a wave of an almost terrifyingly aggressive commercialism. Companies hawking soap, makeup, shampoo, perfumes, toothpaste, lotions, powders, creams -- you name it -- they're all fueling the seemingly organic and spontaneous national obsession with Indian beauty queens. Corporations seeking to push mass-manufactured cosmetic goods onto the untapped markets of the subcontinent have snapped up the South Asia's beauty pageant superstars as their newest marketing vehicles.
Companies have taken to sponsoring domestic beauty pageants. Competitions are thus named after specific products, and the winners of such competitions are literally "branded" when they emerge victorious, earning such titles as Palmolive Femina Miss India and Colgate Gel Miss Body Beautiful. Once a contestant goes on to succeed on the international stage, she returns as a national celebrity, not least due to the numerous lucrative contracts to act as the spokesperson for the latest beauty products on television, in print, and in person.
And the recent proliferation of such Indian beauties who have garnered fame and acclaim in the international pageant arena is no coincidence, either. The Miss World and Miss Universe competitions are universes unto themselves in terms of the politics behind their selection processes; yet it is clear to most that the pageant juries favor certain types of women who conform to an (highly questionable) "international" standard of beauty.
What that translates into, of course, is that women of sub-Saharan African descent with flat noses and big lips, or East Asian women without big round eyes will most likely be weeded out of the running, while those Latinas had best shed their curves to stand a decent chance.
Accordingly, Femina, India's largest women's magazine that runs, of course, on the dollars of cosmetic product advertisements, actually initiated a national campaign about ten years ago to change the way local beauty pageants were run. Among other things, judges were instructed to choose women with an "international" rather than merely Indian "look" in order to increase the chances that the next Miss India would become the next Miss World. Hence the entire pageant business in India underwent a transformation into a virtual industry in which companies from the beauty industry "invested;" and the result was a product that was fairer, taller, slimmer, and straight-haired, and much more likely to be well-received on the global scene.
These rare tall, thin, and fair specimens of apparent human perfection represent the whitewashing of Indian norms of beauty. More importantly, they have begun to play an enormously significant role in the lives of the average Indian woman.
Among those corporations who clearly stand the most to gain from this bizarre pageant phenomenon are those panning perhaps the most frightening beauty product of all: the fairness cream. While Europeans and North Americans frequent tanning salons and tint their skin dark orange with self-tanning creams, many women and even some men in southern hemisphere countries continue to buy and use creams and lotions to the opposite effect, in the hopes that they'll morph into lighter-skinned versions of themselves. In Nigeria and Thailand, Brazil and Mexico, and even (gasp!) among those darker citizens of the US, Canada, and Europe, lighter skin is a constant goal for which people are willing to pay. But perhaps nowhere has big business seen and seized the enormous potential for profit in this disturbing but real collective yearning than in India.
The mother of all fairness creams on the subcontinent, Fair & Lovely, was developed and launched by consumer goods giant Hindustan Lever in 1976. Fair & Lovely's reach has extended beyond India. Today it is marketed in over 38 countries and has become the largest-selling skin lightening cream in the world, but its biggest customer concentration remains in South Asia itself. The brand comes in several incarnations; consumers have the delightful convenience of choosing between not just Fair & Lovely Fairness Reviving Lotion and Fair & Lovely Fairness Cold Cream, but also Fair & Lovely Fairness Soap.
Hindustan Lever, though one of the first to capitalize on the business opportunities inherent in Indians' obsession with skin color, is no longer the only company successfully selling bleaching agents in South Asia. Its army of competitors has grown to include CavinKare's Fairever, Godrej's FairGlow, Enami's Gold Turmeric and Naturally Fair, Revlon's Fair & Glow, and many, many more.
Whether these fairness products actually work on the Indian skins upon which they are being slathered is suspect, but also really beside the point. They might just contain sunscreen, but either way they sell like hot cakes among Indians who dream of fair horizons. Estimates place fairness products as accounting for up to 40 percent of profits earned by the entire cosmetic industry.
While Hindustan Lever owns 50 percent of this market share, its competitors need not despair since the market for fairness creams is growing at a whopping annual rate of 15 percent. The success of Fair & Lovely in recent years is revealing, to say the least. Hindustan Lever's skincare business grew by over 20 percent in 2001, led by Fair & Lovely; the company claims that 60 million plus Indians now regularly use its product.
This is only the beginning. India's two billion-strong population and rapidly growing middle class has become of the world's largest untapped markets for consumer goods. A decade after a massive drive towards economic liberalization, the country is experiencing a full-blown epidemic of consumerism. A new middle class, estimated at between 250 and 300 million, has started to buy, buy, buy. Cell phones and shopping malls abound; chain restaurants and packaged foods are replacing fresh food; cars, motorcycles, clothes, and computers are heavily marketed and snapped up at unprecedented rates.
To complete the cultural transformation, satellite and cable television have extended to even rural areas, which can now enjoy their non-stop programming replete with soap operas and MTV knock-offs. Glossier Cosmo-style women's magazines like Femina and newer Elle India tout nightclubs, hip-huggers, and spaghetti straps. While a vast majority remain mired in staggering levels of poverty, these enormous changes have reshaped the culture at the top of the income distribution triangle.
It is within this context of dizzying economic and cultural metamorphosis that the beauty queen has become an icon in India, and the drive towards intrepid new techniques of cosmetic product marketing has kicked into a high gear. What's most disturbing about these trends is the way in which they intersect, combining the worst of corporate parasitism and materialist consumerism with already problematic popular notions of female desirability and worth. For as in most parts of the world where color-consciousness is a norm, the impact of India's collective obsession with fair skin is gender-biased.
True, light skin has implications for social status among both men and women, but nowhere is it of more consequence than in the commodification of female attractiveness. This celebration of fairness as a feminine virtue is not new in South Asia's patriarchal history, but what is shocking is the extent to which it continues today.
Indian matrimonial columns or websites (Shaadi.com, for example) reveal how skin color determines a young woman's "marketability" to preferred marriage partners. Along with caste, religion, and family background, skin tone is one of the most noted characteristics when it comes to describing women. Not surprisingly, the desired shade is never "deep brown" or even "glowing bronze" -- only the fair are in demand.
India is an enormous and diverse country, and its citizens encompass a wide range of ethnicities and exhibit a range of physical characteristics. The Miss Universe-primed stars of the silver screen, television advertisements, and domestic beauty pageant scene never include women with the lovely dark skin and thick, curly hair of the South or the high-cheekboned, East Asian-featured residents of the North East. The most-recognizable woman in India today -- the national pride and joy, ex-Miss World and current Bollywood megastar -- Aishwarya Rai has creamy, translucent skin, but she also has brown hair and piercing blue-green eyes. In other words, hardly representative of India's ethnic variety. While corporations are making a killing in the fairness cream market for the moment, perhaps they might be well instructed to look ahead to the next buying trend. Did someone say hair dyes and colored contact lenses?
So what to make of the hidden connections between the sheer force of the beauty queens and the fairness cream explosions? It's clear, most of all, that while these intertwined phenomena are obvious products of globalization and exposure to new cultural and economic norms, they could never be written off solely as examples of Western cultural imperialism and economic hegemony.
First, Indian culture has long carried within itself the ugly capacities for female objectification and devastating color-consciousness. Second, and just as important, it is Indians who are making a killing in the new skin-bleaching and cosmetic markets, not, for the most part, American or European corporations. Who, then, is to blame? Hindustan Lever? Consumers? Magazine editors, shopkeepers, television producers, politicians? Aishwarya Rai herself?
The answer, of course, is all and none of the above. We all pay attention to skin color, whether we admit it or not. We all admire beautiful women, and we all want to be desired. Finally, we're all consumers, and we all contribute in some way to the ravenous machinery of mass-produced commercialism. The point of such an exercise of recognizing collective responsibility, though, is not to make us despair and turn all helpless and jellylike in the face of the monsters of human shallowness and greed.
Rather, in learning to avoid displacing the blame for such embedded social stains onto abstract notions like "globalization", we should be learning to think harder about our roles in the world. In this case, that means remembering that other people's notions of beauty sell, but only if we buy them.
Does globalization have to mean the inexorable growth of cultural homogenization and insatiable consumerist appetites? Of course not, and neither does the "international face of beauty" of the future have to be a single, packaged physical incarnation of melting pot (read: assimilation) ideology. Instead, it seems like there's no better time than now to remind ourselves that beauty is difference, and we have the power to decide what we desire. And our desires, ultimately, are what give us, mere consumers, the power to determine the shape of our world as it rockets into the post-modern future.
Priya Lal is a columnist at PopMatters.com