Indian men seek whiter shade of pale

BANGALORE, India — Skin-whitening products aren't just for the ladies anymore.

In new India, where the market for skin-lightening creams is more than $500 million a year, men are being spoon-fed the message that having fairer skin is the fastest way to fame and fortune.

And they are eating it up.

Venkatesh Vadde, 25, has been using lightening cream for the last couple years. He says it helps him look more professional at his job as a quality analyst in Bangalore.

"My girlfriend makes fun of me," he said during a recent interview. "But I don't mind because lots of men I know use fairness creams."

According to figures provided by market research group Nielsen, sales in the men’s segment of skin-lightening creams are galloping ahead at a yearly growth rate of nearly 30 percent, overtaking the growth rate in the women’s segment, albeit starting from a lower figure.

Anti-tanning treatments, bleaches, face-lightening facials are all the rage at BYS Unisex Salon on Bangalore’s shopping strip, Commercial Street.

“Young men feel skin lightening will make them attractive to women, it will make them look smarter when attending a job interview,” said the salon's manager Rafiqur Rahman, adding that men tend to have more disposable income to spend on such products and services.

The cosmetics industry has made billions of dollars selling skin-lightening products to women. But in the last couple of years, multinational and Indian cosmetics makers have discovered a vast, virtually untapped male market. Commercials, billboards, magazine advertisements drum the unrelenting message: lighter, fairer skin is the key to getting that dream job and hooking that gorgeous girl.

The ads targeting men follow a familiar pattern: A dark-skinned actor is shown feeling dejected and forlorn. His friend/Bollywood hero shows him the secret to a better life — yet another brand of skin lightener. He gets several shades lighter using the skin cream. Soon, he is transformed to an ultra-attractive, utterly eligible version of his former self.

The list of Bollywood stars endorsing such products for men is impressively long, ranging from superstar Shahrukh Khan to hunk John Abraham to the boy-faced Shahid Kapur.

As if the commercials and billboards are not convincing enough, Hindustan Unilever’s Vaseline brand has launched a Facebook application that digitally re-tones photographs for the social networking site. “Transform your face on Facebook with Vaseline Men,” urges the Facebook page.

The app, which features actor Shahid Kapur’s photo divided into darker and lighter halves, has gotten anything but a smooth reception.

Cries of racism are all over the blogosphere. A women's rights website objects to the app that contains the "striking shot of Kapur's face divided into dark and light with the blatant suggestion that one is desirable and the other not."

Vaseline is unfazed by the barrage of criticism. Its products are tailored to meet the needs of consumers, said a spokesperson for the company. “Much like self-tanning products in North American and Europe, skin lightening products are culturally relevant in India,” the spokesperson wrote in an email, asking to remain anonymous.

The matrimonial pages of any newspaper are testimony to Indians’ fairness fixation. Darker-skinned brides and grooms are often described as having a "wheat-ish complexion," so as not to put off prospective matches.

Skin color is a sensitive subject because, historically, paler skin signified higher status in India’s intricate caste system.

So supermarket shelves are stocked with a confounding array of creams for lightening, whitening, brightening, freshening, anti-aging, cleaning and so on. The prices range from about a dollar a tube to $50 and upward.

Still, there are some Indians who resist the stereotype that fair is beautiful.

“Skin lightening creams are not for sophisticated, urban men,” said Prasad Bidappa, a Bangalore-based fashion and image consultant who grooms upcoming models and actors. “My lessons are never about fairer skin but about healthy skin,” said Bidappa.