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Beauty Codes in India & the UK
by Hamsini Shivakumar and Louise Jolly| New Delhi, India
Tuesday, 7 December 2010
tags: asia, clients & brands, consumer culture, culture, emergence, europe, global vectors, making sense, semiotics, socioeconomics
1. What makes the idea of perfect beauty so powerful in your culture?
Louise: The idea of perfect beauty is a powerful and tenacious myth in so far as it promises immunity to the decay and deterioration of the physical realm. Succeeding in the ‘perfect beauty’ game means you appear to have overcome disease, ageing and death, which are our greatest fears. So ‘perfect beauty’ is about control and power as much as sexuality.
Hamsini: In India too, the appeal of ‘perfect beauty’ is about control, power and sexuality. It is about using the power of science and technology in the pursuit of personal progress. Today, a woman’s face and figure are proven to enhance her earning power and her social status and esteem. Perfect beauty is an alluring symbol of women’s empowerment, to acquire the kind of beauty that can get the world to dance to her tune.
2. What are the codes of ‘perfect beauty’ in your culture?
Hamsini: The key code of perfection here is flawlessness. Skin that is flawless — no marks, no spots, no wrinkles, no dark circles, fair, perfect skin. Hair that is thick, strong, supple, flowing etc., etc. Science and technology are being used to eliminate the flaws that stand between the woman and the ideal of perfection. This is the role of products and of higher-order dermatological procedures. To support this, now all hair care and skin care products use the communication code of ‘measurable results’. All ads are full of the demos and cut-aways of skin layers and hair shafts showing the ‘magic’ of science in action, followed by the results — hair is x% stronger, skin is x times fairer and so on.
Louise: One code that’s noticeable currently in UK culture is ‘performance’. ‘Perfect beauty’ doesn’t just mean concealing imperfections with an external layer (for instance, of make-up or face cream). Instead, it’s about bringing internal processes to an optimum level of performance: for instance, boosting cell metabolism. In this sense, ‘perfect beauty’ is like a top-performing car engine, rather than just a flawless, pretty surface.
3. What are the codes of ‘real beauty’? Is it a strong alternative or counter-point?
Louise: Dove has created an understanding of ‘real beauty’ that’s all about psychological authenticity — revealing the real person underneath the skin. While it’s won many fans, the code faces two conceptual problems. Firstly, do beauty consumers really go for the idea of a ‘true self’, or do they prefer the mutability that comes with the concept of self-as-construct (a ‘pick and mix’ of identifications and fantasies)? And secondly, it’s hard for brands to sell products unless they’re offering some form of transformation or improvement. So Dove is now turning to ideas of clinical efficacy and expertise — as in its new global hair platform ‘Damage Therapy’ [example above].
Hamsini: Dove’s campaign for real beauty never really took off in India and Unilever ran it in a very limited way here. While women here always acknowledge the importance of inner beauty for a woman, meaning not losing intrinsic feminine qualities such as caring, nurturing, sensitivity, that does not make a strong selling proposition for beauty brands — which are expected to aid in visible improvement or transformation of looks.
4. Are any brands or celebrities moving into new territory?
Hamsini: In India, the movie stars continue to be the aspirational beacons and icons and Aishwarya Rai [shown above] continues to reign supreme as the most beautiful woman in India. She is herself a vision of perfect beauty. The media often presents the woman of substance as a counter-point to the perfect and glamorous beauty of the movie stars. These are high-achiever women in various fields who are not conventionally good-looking at all, but focus on presenting their own looks in the most attractive manner.
Louise: In the UK, American celebrities like Dita von Teese, Beth Ditto, and Lady Gaga have been very influential in shaping beauty codes. These icons challenge the opposition between ‘real beauty’ and ‘perfect beauty’ by offering highly constructed forms of beauty that remain idiosyncratic and unique. In other words, they’re neither ‘perfect’ nor ‘real’, which opens up another option for women: self-construction that doesn’t aspire to perfection.
5. Final thoughts
Louise: From what you say, Hamsini, it seems that science and technology are crucial to beauty discourse in India — almost as if the role of flawless beauty is to manifest the power of the technology you can harness (as much as technology just playing a support role to beauty). It also struck me that you brought up the idea of beauty as enhancing earning power and personal progress — so contributing to women’s success in public life. Yet, in an interesting contradiction, the media still distinguishes between ‘beautiful/glamorous’ women and their ‘intelligent/successful/substantial’ counterparts — going back to the old opposition between ‘pretty’ and ‘clever’ in femininity.
Hamsini: Couple of things struck me as interesting in your analysis, Louise. The first is just how compelling the idea of ‘perfect’ beauty is in a capitalist, consumerist society — for various reasons. The second idea is that of beauty as power, something that is as old as mankind, perhaps — but now democratized and available to all women who have the inclination and the money. The third idea is to be able to choose your own ideal of beauty and remake yourself to that — an idea which requires the woman to have tremendous confidence in herself as a social leader. I wonder if in a hierarchical society like India, women will warm up to the thought of being so singular.