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Promises, promises

SHEILA KUMAR
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Society The cosmetics industry is both bloating and gloating, even as it grows rich on the aspirations of a billion people

W e, of course, are a nation of billions. Billions whose aspirations run the gamut. We aspire to more money, bigger cars, better houses. We aspire to fairer skin, slimmer silhouettes, glossy hair. We aspire to an appearance that cuts 10 years off our real age. And if our aspirations tend to reach for the sky, so what? There's an industry that moves alongside our aspirations, intent on fulfilling each and every one of them.

Back when the feminist movement was in its nascent stage, stalwarts such as Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan warned women against succumbing to the blandishments of the cosmetics industry. The crux of their argument ran thus: don't buy everything offered to you. Step back, pause a moment, use your intelligence. And you'll find most of what's on offer is pure moonshine.

Moonshine on your face and money in their pockets.

Back then, these far-sighted women were up against a formidable foe, one hydra of a corporate entity with as many heads as (very) deep pockets. It all boils down to economics, of course: there was and is a lot of money in cosmetics. Corporations don't tend to sit pretty, and they keep at it. Promote or die an ignominious death being their adopted creed, they set to work. The barrage of advertisements all work like the water method torture…eventually, they wear you down to a state of happy compliance.

Asia ranks second

What hit the West more than two decades ago took its time but has definitely arrived on Indian shores and what's more, is positively thriving. Which brings us to the figures: the US leads the world cosmetics market, pegged at a cool USD 50 billion. Asia, and yes that includes us, is a close second. In 2009, the cosmetics industry touched Rs. 356.6 billion (USD 7.1 billion). What exactly drives this huge market? Simple; it's a combination of vastly improved purchasing power and the rising awareness of the Indian consumer. Variety being the spice of life, what's on offer these days is positively mind-boggling. Specialty cosmetics is quite the rage, be it the lash-growing mascara or nail enamels that dry in a micro-second. Says Sruthi, 23, who works at Thiruvananthapuram's technopark: “I make reasonably good money, so I don't see why I shouldn't spend well on quality stuff for my skin, face and eyes — Rs. 800 for skin cream, Rs. 1,200 for the best mascara there is, it's all for the good.”

Then there is the business of natural/organic cosmetics. Much of this falls into a grey area with no real research to back it up. Which translates into more promises, not all of which can be believed implicitly.

It's all about branding, but of course. The bigger, the better-known the brand, the more its products will cost. People pay for the reassurance of the brand name. In a strange corollary, consumers also believe that expensive equals superior quality. In India, as in large parts of Asia, fairness creams do brisk business, selling the enchanting promise of fairer skin to the dusky masses.

Tina Roy works at the beauty counter of a well-known MNC that deals in face and hair products, at one of Bangalore's malls and corroborates on the fairness cream trend. “It's amazing, the kind of money people will pay to acquire lighter skin. To me it smacks of desperation but if the clients are happy, who am I to complain?”

So, whatever happened to the reetha and shikakai powders that served as excellent hair cleansers? The besan and malai mix that made for a super face pack for all types of skin? Alas, all of them fell by the wayside, overtaken by glitzy packaging, Photo-shopped faces, air-brushed bodies …and promises galore.

The irony is, even as the consumer pays through her nose for these fancy cosmetics, she could well be paying for exposure to dangerous chemicals such as phthalates and DMDM hydantolin that have been linked with cancer, asthma, allergies and fertility issues. Studies have shown that the average American woman uses 12 beauty products every day, exposing herself to about 160 different chemicals; one can assume Indian women aren't lagging too far behind. Whoever has the time to read, or understand, the fine print on the packaging?

So, the next time you read of miracle mud, exhilarating elixir or some marvellous skin milk, pause. Take a step back and think. And you will realise you have done quite well all these years without the touted marvel. Not all promises deliver, see?

SHEILA KUMAR

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