In India, Skin-Whitening Creams Reflect Old Biases For decades, the cosmetics industry in India has made millions selling skin-whitening products to women. Now, it's making more money by convincing men that they should be lighter, tapping into a preference that has deep roots in India's history.
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In India, Skin-Whitening Creams Reflect Old Biases

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In India, Skin-Whitening Creams Reflect Old Biases

In India, Skin-Whitening Creams Reflect Old Biases

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Would you take a moment to do some calculations with me here? These are the kinds of numbers that somebody who's marketing a product might think about. There are nearly seven billion people on the planet. One in six of them is an Indian. That's more than a billion. And of those billion or more Indians, around half are male. That's a massive potential market.

Most of those Indian men had little disposable income in the past. But now, as India's economy grows, some are moving up in the world and becoming consumers. And that trend has been spotted by the cosmetics industry, which is now going after the new Indian man, trying to persuade him that he needs a different look.

NPR's Phillip Reeves explains.

PHILLIP REEVES: There are many riddles in India, but few more baffling than this: The country contains more than one billion people, most of whom are brown. So why do some of them want to change color?

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: For decades, the cosmetics business has made millions selling skin lightening products to Indian women. Now it's making more money by persuading Indian men they should be lighter. Industry analysts say skin lightening creams for men, first introduced a few years back, are selling well, and that the Indian market's growing.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: The ads tend to send the same message: light skin makes you attractive to women and successful at work; dark skin, by implication, does not.

Mr. DASHAN GUKANI(ph) (Model): Obviously what you don't have is what you want. The Western world, they go in for tans, they want to get a little brown touch to themselves. They think that's hot. But what we think, since we're brown-skinned people, white is hot.

REEVES: Dashan Gukani models for TV and press commercials. He's 27 and works in Mumbai, capital of India's entertainment industry. He says modeling's a tough business.

Mr. GUKANI: Oh my God, it's really, really competitive. I got in easily, but even if I go for an audition now, the audition goes on for three days and there are at least 500 boys coming in for an audition each day.

REEVES: Gukani says he's lucky to be, as he puts it, nice and fair. He also has naturally curly hair. He says advertisers like his look because it's unusual. But Gukani believes most of the young Indian men who show up for those auditions are using skin lightening creams.

Mr. GUKANI: (Unintelligible) I think at least 300 of them definitely. Earlier it was all hidden, but now it's all open. They want to be fair, they want to be nice. Anyone who's fair gets on Indian television.

Mr. NRADHA KRISHNAN: Well, Indians like white skin, that's it.

REEVES: Nradha Krishnan is founding editor of Man's World. This is one of half a dozen men's lifestyle magazines that have cropped up in India in recent years, targeting the country's new class of affluent, fashion-conscious males. He says in India skin color is an issue from birth.

Mr. KRISHNAN: Indian women also want their kids to be, you know, fair skinned. That's one of the first things that they ask, will it be fair skinned or, you know, when a kid is born. And it's right across cuts across the country.

REEVES: Cosmetics manufacturers claim their skin whitening creams produce results within weeks, even days, though some people are skeptical about this. These creams generally contain sunscreen and moisturizer plus a formula the companies claim affects your skin's melanin, which determines its color. This is a sensitive subject in India.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: The cosmetics industry and the ads they use have been accused of reinforcing stereotypes about race, caste and gender. Kavitha Emmanuel from the women's rights group Women of Worth is among the critics.

Ms. KAVITHA EMMANUEL (Women of Worth): We believe that beauty is beyond color. And every women or every child born, male or female, you know, has the right to believe that they are of value.

REEVES: Emanuel says some Indian women are so concerned about pigmentation that during pregnancy they'll eat saffron and powdered gold in the belief that this will make their babies lighter.

(Soundbite of crumpling paper)

REEVES: To see the scale of the pressure on Indian women to have paler skins, you only need pick up an Indian newspaper. I'm looking at the Times of India, at a page full of ads from parents seeking brides for their sons. There's one here looking for what it describes as a very fair-skinned girl, and there are lots of others like it.

The desire for pale skin has roots that run deep into India's history. It's entwined with Hinduism's complex social hierarchy or caste system. Those higher up the scale generally tend to have paler skins than people on the bottom rung.

Manasharedi Madavan(ph), a young writer who blogs about Mumbai's social scene, says that's one reason some Indians seek to become whiter.

Ms. MANASHAREDI MADAVAN (Writer): It indicates to someone who's meeting you the first time that you are born into a family where you have had to do no outdoor work, and that your status is higher because you've never had to be in the fields or do any of that.

REEVES: Madavan says the prejudice in favor of lighter skin is stronger among India's older generations. Those skin whitening ads aimed at young people don't seem to have worked on her.

Ms. MADAVAN: I like being brown. It's nice that I can wear clothes that contrast with my skin color, and I have lots of fun with it, with the brownness. In fact, I go out of my way to get even browner.

Mr. PERLETTE CACA(ph) (TV Commercial Director): Men have been wanting to be fair, as long as theyve had (bleep) beaten out of them by fairer men.

REEVES: Perlette Caca is a well-known director of television ads in Mumbai and a social commentator. He says some Indian men have for centuries been using indigenous natural products to lighten themselves. He has an unusual theory about why. He says throughout history India's repeatedly been invaded. These invaders - Persians, Moguls, the British and so on - tended to have lighter skins than Indians. So paler skin has become associated with power.

Mr. CACA: It's something that is a part of the legacy and the burden that the dark man has to bear for the pillaging and the raping and the conquering of the white man.

REEVES: Caca's nearly 60 and has a successful career behind him. He has a word of advice for young Indian men who are hoping that having paler skin will put them on the road to social or sexual conquest.

Mr. CACA: It's always a waste of time to look different from what you are. What is the most attractive thing about a man? When he's younger, it's his belief in himself and his articulation and his imagination. And when he's older, his bank balance.

REEVES: Phillip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

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