Monthly Archives: September 2011

India’s Dreadful Obsession with Fair Skin

A trend in India that shows no sign of stopping or slowing down is one for “fairness” skin creams. This trend is not endemic to India, it is actually a pan-Asian phenomenon. So, just like the Western world of naturally fair skinned Caucasians spend their time in the sun or tanning salons in order to darken themselves, this reverse trend for making skin fair is prevalant in the darker skinned Asian countries. Something about the grass being greener on the other side perhaps…?

Calling this a trend is kind. It’s more of an obsession. Notwithstanding people from Thailand, Malaysia, Korea,  and other Asian countries with the same obsession, let’s focus on India.

As crazy as it sounds,  fairness is considered beautiful, sweet, clean…where the heck did this all come from?  A typical matrimonial advertisement in India would read – “looking for fair, slim and tall professional for fair, slim and homely girl (age: 24)“.  

For you Americans, in case you are wondering, “homely” is actually a compliment in India. I think it means a cross between beauty queen and kitchen queen. 🙂  And, for you Indians, in case you are wondering, “homely” in American means “definitely not attractive” (and that’s the kind definition).

So, when a baby is born in India, the first question from the inquisitive aunt is “Is she/he fair?“. Not, “Is the baby healthy and doing fine?”.  Sad but true.

The fairness cream market in India alone is bumping up to $500 million, with healthy growth rates of 12-15% per year. This means every brand from the local to international ones such as Nivea, L’oreal,P&G, J&J and others are players. Hindustan Unilever is the market leader with a 70% market share, promoting the popular “Fair & Lovely” cream. Note that if you are fair, by association, you are lovely.  A clever product naming strategy that has obviously worked for them.

While there is a definite inclination towards the female Indian, more recently, men’s fairness has also opened up – with Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan (for “Fair and Handsome“!), Shahid Kapoor and John Abraham endorsing men’s skin whitening products. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, I guess.

Even as international runways are actively promoting dark skinned beauties as models, and fashion magazines are coming under fire for photo-shopping cover girls to be fairer than they really are, I really don’t see minds changing any time soon in India.  For one thing, this has been part of the cultural makeup of this country for centuries (check out some of the mythology), and for another, there is the whole current economics angle with a healthy market for fairness products that is only going to get bigger. So, sad to say, no one is in a hurry to stop this train from continuing to move backwards.


Here is an inforgraph that I found on the website of Emami (makers of Fair & Handsome promoted by Shah Rukh Khan) that explained why men need fair skin (don’t miss the “Womens”). This is so tacky and wacky, it’s hard to figure out whether to laugh or cry!  Just in case you think this has to be a joke, here’s the link to that page. 


Moving on, from wacky to bizarre  (or vice versa), the latest odd product extension for this already nauseating market is what I heard on TV the other day. It was a commercial for, get this, a fairness deodorant!  In other words, don’t just smell nice under your arms, get fair and lovely there too. I call this taking things a bit too far.  Even for India.



Philanthropy – the real kind, the Bill Gates kind

The Wealthy World We They Live In

The Forbes’ latest list of billionaires was just published. Did you know that the world now has 1,210 billionaires, with a total net worth of $4.5 trillion? I would never have guessed!

In addition, the emerging nations are making their mark on this list. The number of billionaires has doubled in China while Moscow surpasses all other cities in the number of billionaires. Mexican tycoon Carlos Slim has topped the list for two years in a row  and other prominent names, including Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Larry Ellison as well as India’s Lakshmi Mittal and Mukesh Ambani, make their regular appearance in the top end of the list.

India’s Wealthy

So, India has some of the top billionaires in the world. Multi-millionaires are sprouting everywhere you look in the fast growing mostly healthy economy. But, philanthropy among the wealthy is still a fairly new concept. There are some rare, admirable instances, for example, the Tata Foundation or Wipro founder Azim Premji’s foundation, and one hopes that these become examples that others in this country emulate. I have yet to hear about an Ambani foundation, although everyone has seen the Ambani mansion that has changed the skyline of Bombay (not for the better).

And Religion

I think it is fair to say that people in this country feel more comfortable giving to God (e.g. temples) than they do for charitable causes. Why else would there be such rich temples in India? Because when you give to God, you are usually also asking for something back, and that makes it a comfortable bargain.

But Philanthropy?

What this country needs is more philanthropy of the real kind, what I call, the Bill Gates kind. Really, has anyone anywhere in the world done more for human causes than Bill Gates? Everyone looked up to him when he founded and grew Microsoft to the software behemoth that it became. But, in my humble opinion, what he is accomplishing, along with his wife as part of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is leaps and bounds over anything else we may have admired him for.

If you have not done so, I encourage you to check out the website to see what they are accomplishing. Prepare to be amazed. And humbled. I thought I would list out all the initiatives that they have got going but their breadth is so massive, it’s not possible to do justice to them in a simple blog post. What’s doubly impressive is about more than the creation of the foundation, it’s the active involvement and commitment of the founders in its efforts.

Quick Facts – The Gates Foundation

Here are just a few notes for you to chew on –

  • Their asset trust endowment, as of June 2011, was a staggering $36.3 billion.
  • Since its inception, they have provided grants for a total of over $25 billion.  In 2010 alone, they endowed grants worth $2.6 billion.
  • Their philosophy is very simple and just as profound- they are guided by the belief that every human has equal value and therefore help people around the world to live healthy and productive lives. 
  • So, in developing countries, the Foundation focuses on health and helping to lift people out of hunger and extreme poverty while in the U.S. it seeks to ensure that all people—especially those with the fewest resources—have access to the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life.
  • Geographically, the foundation reaches out and supports work in more than 100 countries and in the U.S. works in every one of the 50 states.
  • The approach to giving is holistic and pragmatic – strategize, process, measure, adjust. See diagram below:

I hope you’ve heard of The Giving Pledge

One of the most impressive accomplishments of this man (and separate from the Foundation) has been The Giving Pledge. Along with his wife Melinda Gates, and Warren Buffett, he is asking the wealthiest individuals in the world to publicly pledge and commit at least half of their wealth to charity either during their lifetimes or after their death. This has to be the largest fundraising initiative in the history of the world.

Bill and Melinda Gates have pledged the majority of their wealth (Gates is second richest in the world with net worth of $59 billion) and Warren Buffett (third wealthiest in the world with net worth of $39 billion) has pledged 99% of his wealth. 

By setting wonderful examples, these billionaire fundraisers have succeeded in this endeavor already; you can see how many billionaires and multi-millionaires have publicly pledged to give away their wealth to help the world. Each have personal pledge letters that are inspiring to read. For example, here’s one sentence from Bill and Melinda Gates: “We feel very lucky to have the chance to work together in giving back the resources we are stewards of. ” 

So far, the majority (if not all) of the pledges have come from people in the United States. But, the plan is for the Gates and Warren Buffett to go international with their pledge requests. They have already met with many of China’s and India’s wealthiest individuals to exchange ideas on making the greatest impact with philanthropy within their countries. This is part of their ongoing dialog to encourage them to give. The question is – will they succeed?

Bill Gates is not waiting for Chinese and Indian billionaires to help

He has a solid setup of his foundation in both countries. In India, Avahan is the India AIDS Initiative that is making a real difference with the help of over $300 million from the Gates Foundation. And, that’s just one initiative.

In 2009, the Government of India presented an award to recognize his contributions to the country. It is more than worthwhile to read what he said when he accepted this award.

Here are a couple of excerpts:

Let me be absolutely clear: India faces some of the toughest health problems in the world. You have the ability to save millions of lives and set a great example for the rest of the world. And the Gates Foundation will do what we can to help you take advantage of this historic opportunity.”

I believe you will achieve your health goals. You have the energy and the intellect to do it. And you have the commitment that is necessary. You also have the full cooperation and support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We are impressed by what is happening in this country, and we want to help“.

Thank you, Mr Gates

Do you feel as I do, that Microsoft is small potatoes compared to what Bill Gates is all about now? It’s as if  that was merely a stepping stone for his real life mission (and you know there’s nothing “mere” about Microsoft!).  That endeavor gave him the means to give back to humankind, and when you read about him today or what he writes in his annual letter for the foundation, you get the feeling that this effort has taken over his life. And what’s more, that he is relishing it.

As a person of Indian origin, as one human of 6 billion in the world, all I can say – deeply, humbly and from the bottom of my heart is – Thank you, Mr. Gates for all that you do, and for being a shining example to the people of this world.

Bill Gates Photograph By World Economic Forum [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Other images from Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation website
%d bloggers like this: