The Beauty Game
by Anita Anand
Penguin Books, Delhi, 2002
xviii+205, Price: INR 250
Reach for it” is Anita Anand’s unapologetic advice. Just like the hype that it swallows hook, line and sinker, The Beauty Game, promises what it cannot deliver. The blurb claims that the book covers the middle ground between the critics and the apologists of the beauty business. Far from being a balanced synthesis, The Beauty Game is an unabashed plug for the beauty business and the creation of a branded paradise that offers consumers the vacuous choice between buying and perishing. It believes that a standardised mass produced idea of beauty is not an affront to intelligence, but a creator of opportunities, and the stepping stone to women’s empowerment. Like the skin fairness cream that promises you self-esteem, and the shampoo that guarantees you the edge over others, this book echoes the myths of the beauty industry, and is in that sense as much a product of the multi-billion-dollar media and beauty world as any tawdry cosmetic on the market.
Focusing on changing notions of beauty and the growing beauty industry, the author claims to examine the nexus between liberalisation, beauty pageants, designers, fashion, media, women’s aspirations and an expanding middle class. Anand begins on a personal note, placing herself in the narrative. We know her as a 50-plus woman with leucoderma (a skin disorder affecting normal colouration) and a weight problem. Research on the book led her to treat her leucoderma, a painful process by her own account, and to go to a weight loss centre. Her aspirations, the author concludes, were primarily based on how she saw herself and the trouble she could take to be acceptable to herself. After this confession there are very few surprises.
Anand argues that liberalisation created prospects for middle class women. Seeking to look good, they constituted a willing market for beauty products. Supply followed demand and, by meeting consumer need, the beauty industry burgeoned. The core idea of the book is simplistic rather than simple. Since not looking good in today’s world gets women nowhere, the beauty industry has rendered a service by giving them knowledge about looking good and being self-assured. It is responding to a situation, not dictating it. Media and advertising merely give product information. Celebrating the consumption of endless kilograms of cosmetics and the attendant manipulation of the human body, Anand stoutly denies that glamour is a modern invention. Anyone critical of the beauty business is clubbed as reactionary and undemocratic; her evidence – the violent protests by the Hindu right against beauty pageants and Valentine’s Day celebrations. There is simply no attempt to engage with the much more nuanced arguments of the liberal-left critiques.
The book betrays a regrettable lack of logical thinking. The solecisms are too many and the axe is ground too loudly. Arguing that ‘glamour women’ are needlessly derided even though they are accomplished and capable women, no different from those in any profession, Anand seriously misrepresents intelligent perspectives, which have nothing against the beautiful people. These critiques are in fact less about the people who consume beauty, and more against those who make them consume it. Perhaps such misrepresentations are necessary, because Anand’s sole purpose seems to be to laud the entrepreneurs of beauty (like Shahnaz Husain, who, incidentally, for tax reasons professes to sell ayurvedic medicines and not cosmetics), the achievements of an industry whose income has increased three-fold in one decade, and the triumph of cosmetic firms (“Maybelline’s growth, like Revlon’s is fascinating”). With such energetic brand promotion, it is a wonder that the book was not sponsored by the industry (assuming in good faith that it was not).
The Beauty Game then dwells with glee on the success of weight loss centres, gyms, beauty parlours and cosmetic treatment centres. Buying into the idea that a ‘good complexion’ is a fair complexion (“everyone craves for fair skin”), Anand uncritically presents ‘facts’ about the success of the fairness cream business and extols a loathsome advertisement for Fair and Lovely cream, which ends with a young woman who through diligent and unstinted application of the cream becomes fair and hence lovely and therefore is employed as an airhostess and thereby proves to her father that she is as good as a son. How much more empowerment does a woman need? Anand urges sceptics to gloss over the projection of the fair as lovely, and the lovely as employable. The cream after all created an opportunity, did it not? The saga then wends its way to the impressive role of the media (television and print) in giving disinterested information about beauty products and enabling women to make educated choices. All good clean fun for the entire family. Quite predictably, the author forgets to probe the connection between disinterested information, informed choices and the advertising business in India, whose revenues grew three times as fast as the GDP did.
There is an entire chapter of interviews with a cross-section of women who participate in the beauty world. These seven ‘representatives’ of Indian women have only gained from their association with the business of beauty. The critique by so eminent a scholar as John Berger is refuted by the casual quotes of such scintillating intellects as Shobha De and Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar. Talk of Nijinsky and the carthorse, this one outdoes it by a length! As a clincher, the author endorses the Afro-American actress and ‘Bond lady’ Halle Berry’s view that women should use their sex appeal to get ahead. The women’s movement should have no qualms about using any weapon in its arsenal.
The consumer assembly line
In her attempt to go beyond the image of beauty, Anita Anand valiantly grapples with the world of business, of which she clearly does not have much of a clue. The inability to go beyond appearances, coupled with an irritating credulity lead to flimsy and meaningless arguments. Anand’s naïveté derives from an outdated textbook understanding of economics, notably the idea that supply is always demand-driven. She fails to note that in a world dominated by giant conglomerates operating on a global scale, needs are created, tastes fashioned, and diversity obliterated, until there are a few overarching standards to which most people are forced to conform. Supply can dictate demand using powerfully intrusive media and advertising.
Because of Anand’s absorption with the idea of free and informed choice, her blessings are with the ever-swelling ranks of prosperous urban teenagers uniformed in spaghetti-straps or tube tops, low-slung, tightly-hipped jeans that reveal the thongs and outlines of designer panties only to fall in flares over startling high-heeled footwear. She nods approvingly at the same armies leaving beauty clinics after rounds of waxing, bleaching and tinting. There is not a murmur over the increasing surgical recourse to breast, buttock and thigh lifts, breast augmentation and wrinkle removal.
Surely it must have struck her as being odd that so many people across the world do exactly the same thing. Whether in Buenos Aires, Jakarta, Johannesburg, Kathmandu, Montreal or Sofia, well-heeled teenagers consume soda and burgers, swear by MTV, and want to be ‘cool’. There is now even a school in Japan that specialises in instructing youngsters in how to be cool. These recruits to the army of transnational corporations exercise only one choice: the choice to join in or be left out. The creation of this consumer assembly line is not the accidental outcome of independently emerging demands. There is a systematic process to it, and it is achieved through the mass media. It is this connection between the media and global standards of beauty generating a uniform supply-driven demand that Anand either fails to explore or chooses to avoid.
In the last two decades, firms seeking markets beyond national boundaries could no longer afford the tag of ‘multinational’. The prefix ‘multi’ meant that they would have to adapt to local habits. Instead they found it more profitable to call themselves ‘global companies’. Their brands rode on the values and lifestyles they sought to promote. Since many corporations had to resist the charge of “American neo-imperialism”, they were wise enough to incorporate an appearance of diversity in their promotional campaigns (Benetton for example). But, the net purpose and result was identical across vast regions. ‘Thanda’ now means Coca-Cola in South Asia, and not nimbu pani, lassi, sugarcane juice, or just plain water. Likewise, being ‘cool’ means wearing one of a limited range of apparel brands, having a record company-led taste in music, having the right kinds of body shapes and various other attributes which cost a lot of money. Only the ubiquitous high-fives come free. The corporate world has even gobbled up ‘opposition’ and ‘rebellion’. Rastafarians are hip and Che Guevara images the most flaunted fashion statement. Geographical and cultural boundaries begin to break under this onslaught of global ‘taste’ making. It is the managerial destruction of the public space for real cultural freedom and choice.
Correspondingly, tastes get standardised and cultural artefacts are bastardised to be marketed across cultural and social boundaries of a gradually homogenising class of consumers. The beauty industry is at the forefront of this management of demand by the creation of tastes, since this international enclave of global consumers is united by the common urge to ‘look’ the prescribed way, that is, by the common need of the hip crowd to look just like each other. Markets are obviously made by clever people who, unlike Anand, do not believe what the textbooks say.
Liberalisation helped the process, as the removal of tariffs ensured that the emotional and psychological demand for beauty products could actually become an effective demand once prices were allowed to fall within the range of middle class purchasing capacity. The reordering of investment priorities in the liberalised climate also erased the distinction between luxuries and necessities in the economic philosophy of the nation and the social and moral philosophy of the consuming classes. The mass demand for beauty is the circular creation of marketing departments and media houses and not, as Anand thinks, the sui generis expression of some innate desire.
Product companies have growth and profit targets, while media strategists decide what and how to sell. Far from giving mere product information, the role of advertising has been about brand imaging. After all, apart from the brand, what is the special property that distinguishes one bathing soap from the next? Anand is obviously not updated with the developments in corporate marketing. The age of advertisements simply giving product information is long over. Mere product information is not sufficient to sustain the fortunes of mega-corporations. It only takes some common sense to bust the racket. Since a beauty cream scientifically cannot reverse the ageing process, it becomes necessary to ensure the suspension of disbelief. One of the techniques is to leave the actual product itself out of the focus of the sales pitch and create brand use, with or without any conviction in its efficacy, as part of a lifestyle definition.
This accounts for the enormous growth in advertising budgets. The growth in advertising expenditures in global business is an indication of how marketing departments have established control over affluent society and shaped its attitudes. According to the 1998 Human Development Report, the growth in global ad spending “now outpaces the growth of the world economy by one-third”. Global ad spending currently stands at USD 435 billion, which is more than the GDPs of many nations. Brand loyalties have to be created and human billboards for Tommy Hilfiger and Esprit tee shirts found. Mere product information could not accomplish this feat, particularly since all these products are manufactured by exactly the same set of people. Since it is only the brand that distinguishes similar products, just product information cannot serve any purpose.
This inability to understand real economic processes is a blemish that stands out starkly. Anand gives details about the sponsorship of beauty pageants, but fails to analyse the significance of her own data. Philanthropic intentions do not lie behind large media and cosmetic houses promoting events like Lakme India Fashion Week. The high-profile nature of the branded Miss India events, post-liberalisation, is not coincidental. Anand’s views on pageants are nothing less than a rhapsody to beauty queens, and the book basks in the arresting statistic that in the 1990s, six winners were from the South, delighting in the fact that four of these were from India. Perhaps it is this obsession that prevents her from getting to the real soul of these events. It is not merely the need of pageants to find new areas of conquest that leads to so many winners of international competitions being from the overpopulated, underfed and newly liberalised parts of the world. The sponsors of these events are large media and beauty brands. Taking the beauty pageant to new territories and making beauty queens from countries with the right kind of market demography is geared towards bringing fresh entrants into beauty consumption through the publicity blitz that accompanies each such event. The industry thrives on the surge of interest in and consumption of the wares of the beauty world that these events evoke.
Standardising the beauty of representatives from each country is the key to the sale of products, since everyone can be made to have the same beauty needs. So Miss Philippines, Miss Venezuela, Miss Ukraine and Miss Greece, all of them equally branded, are all also of similar height and weight (5’9″ – 110 lbs), have lower than 22 percent lean to fat ratio (the average for a healthy 20-year-old is 29 percent, this increases with age), and, barring unalterable minor differences in skeletal structure, are contrived clones of Barbie doll, with measurements of 33-23-33 (a slight variation since the projected measurements of a Barbie doll, if she were a full-sized human being, would be an impossible 36-18-33).
The rest of media-friendly womanhood is doomed to be in permanent competition with the minuscule band of emaciated supermodels who spend an inordinate part of their life grooming themselves. Since she is intent on prettifying the ugly world of beauty, Anand obviously did not see fit to interview anyone who lost out in the beauty business: the anorexic, the suicidal has-been or ‘loser’ who cannot, despite strenuous effort, match ‘supermodel’ proportions, or the girl hounded by the flesh trade masquerading as a modelling firm to cash in on the craze for glamour.
The targeting of middle-class youth by the global glamour business is not inadvertent. The global teen demography is 1 billion. Nepal’s under-19s make up 50 percent of the total population of 24 million. The demographic structures of the developing world are convenient for the global consumer business. The young are particularly susceptible to the enticements of advertisements and the weight of peer pressure. Add to that the fact that they do not have family responsibilities that demand financial prudence and the stage is set for peer dictated profligacy in appearance and looks. Assisting them in their search for attitude and a sense of belonging, fashion and ‘personal care’ outlets become fertile grounds for hunting ‘cool’. Corporations infiltrate schools and colleges by sponsoring ‘Ms Fresher’ competitions and other exhibitionist activities. Elders in residential localities follow suit, organising beauty pageants for girl children who are coached to sashay into the future in anticipation of laurels at higher levels. Meanwhile, as the class with the disposable income preens in public, the gulf between those who can only watch the vulgarity and those who can participate in it grows wider. There is no empowerment through beauty for the dispensable class. Author Anand has nothing to say about this.
Miss India’s India
As far as the empowerment argument is concerned, the author’s perspective does not seem to travel beyond the tinted glass of the India Habitat Centre, located in a posh part of New Delhi, where, once a week, she met her “ladies’ club drinking friends” who cheered her on. Whether the Indian middle class expanded or acquired more disposable income as a result of liberalisation is a moot point. It certainly became more consumerist and has come to dominate public policy. Whether women of this class have been empowered is debatable. Liberalisation has had an uneven impact on Indian women. Every process has its winners and losers. Moving away from the few successes to the multitude of Indian women presents a less sanguine wide-angle picture. Economic liberalisation in India was only a part of the stabilisation and Structural Adjustment Policy (SAP) packages dictated by the Fund-Bank. It was accompanied by privatisation, fiscal ‘discipline’, the removal of subsidies in crucial areas, and globalisation. Enough macro- level evidence has been put out about the negative effects of SAP on Indian women. The gamble on the market has led to rising misery in a developing country that is home to the largest number of the world’s poor. Perhaps it is time to put the gossamer dresses and perfumes in their place among these grim aggregates.
SAP no doubt reorganised the labour market. While employment may have got increasingly feminised, there was good reason for it. Female workers are flexible and cheaper. The terms of employment more often than not involve casual or part-time work, piece-rate payments, and a great freedom in hiring and firing. Among the consuming classes, women have of course been hired as front office or sales staff. Very few have broken through the corporate glass ceiling. The flip side of the feminisation of the workforce has been the feminisation of unemployment, especially since the economic slowdown of the mid- 1990s.
Female unemployment rates have been consistently high. There is also the double burden of work in the household as well, the labour for which is unrecognised and unpaid. Several million Indian women do not have easy access to fuel and water, which adds to their labour time. Structural adjustment, while addressing the balance of payments deficit and the stability of the rupee, has not paid even lip service to the living standards of the bulk of Indian women, for whom fiscal and monetary issues have any relevance only to the extent that it has a bearing on their daily struggle for existence.
Double-digit inflation has led to a decline in real wages. Between end-March 1990 and end-March 1995, the price of foodgrain in India rose by 90 percent and that of edible oil by 60 percent. The face of poverty in India is getting increasingly feminised. While the followers of the Washington Consensus proclaim that poverty has been reduced, and economists quibble over the definition of and actual numbers below the poverty line, there is no doubt about mounting deprivation and hunger. In such a climate of hostile everyday conditions, household budgets are placed under great strain by the pressure of rising consumerism. Even as the models strut the ramps, and TV spins fantasies of well-appointed homes, more and more Indian women cannot afford shelter, clothing or sanitation.
Given the women-unfriendly macro environment, things on the whole are worse for the majority of Indian women who are working harder, earning less, living unhealthier lives, and being more objectified and victimised. Globally, half the world’s population performs two-thirds of its work hours, receives one-tenth of the world’s income, and owns one-hundredth of its property. Nail varnish and lip-gloss do not help very much in the face of such cold and killing facts. Those mouthing praises of reform in the name of middle class well-being and seeing signs of progress in the manipulations of the beauty industry, must pause to consider whether it is only the middle-class upwards who qualify to be ‘Indian’ in a country where the annual per capita income does not fetch even a middling frame of Ray Ban goggles.
The title of Anita Anand’s book betrays the ignorance of her arguments. Beauty, so far from being a game, is serious business. The Beauty Game’s inability to grasp the essentials of this business ends up as a caricatured understanding of Indian society and economy. Corporate- defined beauty offers an excellent lens through which to gain insights into such issues as social conditioning, market creation, product and gender profiling, and class differences. The possibilities have been squandered thanks to the infantile assumptions of this book and its author. To the final personal endorsement of the beauty world by the author (if her daughter wanted to contest in a beauty pageant, she would not stop her), may we remind her of the fate of Russia’s Miss Universe who was recently ousted for “failing to carry out her responsibilities” and replaced by Miss Panama?
Oxana Fedorova, a 24-year-old police officer, was reported to have gained weight, become pregnant and married secretly after being crowned in May 2002. She defended herself on the grounds that the contract was in English which was not her first language and that her removal had been motivated by a dispute with the organisers over a two-month break to defend her doctoral dissertation. It is not all money and glamour in the world of beauty, but a fair bit of servitude too. And then of course, has Nigeria shown us another side?