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.



Posted on September 29, 2011, in india and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. 🙂 I couldn’t stop laughing at the Indian men’s fairness cream. I hadn’t (yet) heard.

    Good grief!!! Whatever next.

    Had been very busy and just found the time today to catch up on your Blogs.


  2. This is an unconscious attempt to attain the symbol of being rich. In India rich people are fairer in complexion as they don’t have to expose themselves to the sun.

    In west it is the opposite, rich people will have tanned complexion. Darker complexion means trips to the Caribbean or some exotic place. And generally rich people could afford such trips in the past.

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