These are the salad days for the male skin bleaching market. Cosmetics companies have peddled skin lightening/whitening/bleaching creams to women for eons, but in the past few years, the male market has seen double-digit growth in India. Just listen to these borderline-giddy market stats I ran across from an August press release heralding this new money-making “opportunity”:
On the back of such strong drivers, the skin whitening product segment has witnessed one of the most rapid growth trajectories in the Indian male personal care industry over the past few years, and continues to be promising.
Continues to be “promising”? Promising what, pray tell? Promising to perpetuate colorism myths about the superiority of lighter skin tones? Way to make lemonade out of some post-colonialism lemons, PR professionals. Don Draper would be impressed.
While we might scoff at the spray-tanned guys of “Jersey Shore” and their year-round pursuit of bronze, skin lightening isn’t so easy to laugh off. First, skin lightening is far more globally and culturally pervasive than tanning, with pressure to lighten being highest for those of Asian, Latino, and African ethnicities. For instance, baseball star and native Dominican Sammy Sosa made headlines in 2009 when he copped to using a nightly skin bleaching cream that had noticeably whitened his face. A couple weeks ago, Jamaican dancehall artist Vybz Kartel sparked controversy regarding his forthcoming cosmetics line that includes a skin lightening solution called “cake soap.” This post, however, focuses specifically on the male skin bleaching market in India due to its striking growth since 2005, when the over-the-counter bleaching cream Fair & Handsome hit stores.
The cultural roots of skin bleaching in India and Southeast Asia run deeper than you might think. Yes, Western beauty standards have influenced the practice, but scholars also note that the history of Asian skin bleaching (although it certainly isn’t confined to that continent) traces back before European colonialism and the cultural hegemony it imposed. A 2008 study on the cultural history of skin lightening in India, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea points out:
…An absence of freckles and scars have been preferred since the first dynasty in Korean history (the Gojoseon Era, 2333-108 B.C.E.). Various methods of lightening the skin have long been used in Korea, such as applying miansoo lotion and dregs of honey (Jeon, 1987). In Japan, applying white powder to the face has been considered a woman’s moral duty since the Edo period (Ashikari 2003a; 2003b; 2005). In India, white skin is considered as a mark of class and caste as well as an asset (Leistikow 2003).
As the above passage implies, skin bleaching had long been considered a female beauty ritual, and in 2007, Fair & Lovely even began marketing its products as a tool of empowerment. That misappropriation of feminist ideology proposed that darker-skinned women could break free from the shackles of gender bias and climb their way up the professional ladder if they opted for a bleached skin tone. Two years earlier, the company launched Fair & Handsome for its new male target demographic and enlisted Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan to preach the gospel of male skin bleaching. For men, the empowerment they offered was better romantic success since women presumably would swoon at the sight of their lightened complexion. Fair & Handsome sales soared; no wonder that cheery press release advised, “celebrity endorsement is a significant factor of the brand’s appeal across a diverse set of consumers.”
Last year, Vaseline took a similar approach when it hired Bollywood actor Shahid Kapur as the face of its male skin bleaching product line. The company even developed a Facebook app called “Transform Your Face On Facebook With Vaseline Men,” depicting Kapur’s face split into lighter and darker halves. Despite online protests and anecdotal outrage among Indians calling for the end of the “fairness” myths, the cosmetics trend doesn’t appear to be losing any steam.
And when Agence France-Presse (AFP) asked New Dehli sociology professor T. K. Oommen why men had become more concerned about bleaching their skin, his answer echoed the general rise in male body image issues that I’ve touched on in previous “Isn’t He Lovely” posts. “More and more, there’s an anxiety in the mind of men about having fair skin,” Oommen told AFP, explaining that in the Hindu caste system, lighter skin tones is associated with higher castes, and vice versa.
Clearly, colorism in Indian has been around for centuries, but the more compelling question is why that anxiety has spiked recently among men. Over at Sociological Images, Lisa Wade blames the cosmetics companies for stoking colorism and thereby creating a false need in order to sell products (in the similar way that women are still being told to douche). “The desire for light skin, then, is being encouraged by corporations who stand to profit from color-based anxieties that are overtly tied to the supposed superiority of Western culture,” Wade writes.
Of course, companies can sell colorism directly, so they’ve made the message more palatable by offering a manufactured “empowerment” to women and sexual desirability and confidence to men. Moreover, that market trend press release states:
There has been a noticeable shift in demand, from products that simply claim to make one fairer, towards products that have a holistic, enhancing effect on the skin. Consequentially, several fairness brands in India have undergone a shift in their brand positioning to align with a new, more evolved definition of fairness.
So, by “holistic, enhancing,” they mean lighter and whiter. And by “more evolved,” they must mean cultivating male beauty insecurities and subliminally reinforcing skin color-based prejudice to peddle products. That isn’t to say that the rise in the male skin bleaching market doesn’t diminish the need to address skin bleaching among women. Rather, it’s an alarming indicator of just how culturally engrained colorism has become—and how multinational companies are profiting from it.