By day, Anil Chopra drives hard bargains on pricey imported cars, but every Thursday night this burly Indian businessman shifts gears for a leisurely skin-lightening facial.
Mr. Chopra, 35, says he makes time for his regular beauty regime at a Delhi salon because "there is more competition to look presentable in the corporate world today.
"It can also help with the ladies," he adds, winking awkwardly as the clinician scrapes thick white paste from his face.
Mr. Chopra is one of a growing number of Indian men, both urban and rural, who have recently adopted the female habit of using skin lighteners or bleaches in the belief that a pale complexion brings success in life, love and business.
International cosmetic giants such as Nivea, Avon, L'Oreal and Unilever are cashing in on this trend but the market leader is an Indian firm, Emami Group Ltd. In the four years since it launched its "Fair and Handsome," skin-lightening cream for men, the company has seen sales grow annually by 35 per cent to about $30-million, says its director Mohan Goenka.
But critics suggest companies are profiting by convincing men to succumb to the same prejudice that prompted women to first use similar products. In status-conscious India, dark skin was traditionally associated with the lower social strata who often made a living outdoors, while Brahmins, the priestly caste, were revered and fair-skinned after spending generations indoors studying religious texts.
Even today, newspaper matrimonial ads confirm this preoccupation as prospective brides and grooms often mention their "fair," "wheatish," or "light" complexions.
Brinda Karat, an Indian parliamentarian, says skin fairness products reinforce these old stereotypes.
"They are racist, prejudicial and demeaning," Ms. Karat says. "These items and their advertising clearly devalue dark skin."
She points out that ads for the products play on these negative attitudes. Typically, they depict Bollywood stars showing sad, dark-skinned comrades how a fair complexion attracts both love and good jobs. One recent commercial has the hero plainly tell his unfortunate friend that he is unlucky "because of the colour of your face."
"Our culture does tend to savour people with white skin and sadly, this is now being reinforced for men," says Ms. Karat, who recently demanded stricter advertising guidelines from fellow legislators.
At the Delhi-based Centre For Advocacy and Research, director Akhila Sivadas has also objected publicly to the products because they suggest "black skin is a tragedy, while fair equals success and happiness all tied in with a little Indian machismo and groomed for a global look."
Emami's Mr. Goenka says demand for his firm's cream "might reflect a fascination with fairness that's a carry-over from our British Raj period."
But he also thinks it's simply a different beauty concept. "In the West, people want a tan and here people just like to be fair."
He says his customers aren't just sophisticated city men. About 40 per cent of the cream's purchasers live in small villages where they pay six rupees (about 14 cents) for weekly home treatments.
A recent AC Nielsen marketing report for India speculates the trend reflects "increasing disposable incomes or greater exposure to the West" with the explosion of satellite television and Internet service in India, and concludes "good times are ahead for marketers."
Sanjay Sawhney, a Delhi salon franchiser, agrees. He recently attended a national skin care conference in Mumbai where speaker after speaker acknowledged that "the Indian man is much more aware and beauty conscious than just 20 years ago."
Already, the men's fairness market in India is estimated to be worth $70-million. Marketers are constantly adding new products including whitening soaps, moisturizers, powders, lightening aftershaves, even fairness wipes.
Mr. Sawhney says racism isn't behind the trend. "It's just that opposites always attract. Dark skinned people want light. Curly haired people want straight and on it goes."
Whatever the reason, increased desire has also spawned cheap, black-market imitations that can cause facial scarring and skin damage. Ms. Sivadas, the consumer advocate, says a few bogus products for men and women even contain ammonia, hydrochloric acid or dangerously high doses of hydroquinone that can cause cancer, adrenal gland problems and mercury poisoning.
Some dermatologists are even discouraging the use of legitimate skin-whitening products because they say the creams require constant application, are only partially effective and become a regular drain on the pocketbook.
But back at the Delhi salon, Mr. Chopra says he's just relieved men now have their own fairness products.
"I used to borrow my sister's or my mother's whitening stuff. It was so terrible, so embarrassing."
Special to The Globe and Mail