The stupendous stock market debut of India’s online beauty products retailer Nykaa shows, among other things, the enormous investor confidence in the future relationship between Indian women and cosmetics and makeup. Having studied the attitudes to beauty and sexuality of Indian women in pre-liberalisation, pre-internet (almost prehistoric) times, the line that springs to mind is the one from the 1960s Virginia Slims ad: “You’ve come a long way, baby”.
In the mid-1980s, the market research agency I worked for was commissioned by Lakmé, the pioneering company that brought makeup to Indian women as early as 1952, supposedly at the instance of Jawaharlal Nehru who was concerned that Indian women were wasting precious foreign exchange on cosmetics, and asked the Tatas to manufacture them in India. The brief was to understand how middle- and upper-class urban women thought about using makeup and to find ways to crack the code of a consumer who was proving to be stubborn in her attitudes and resistant to marketing inputs. We went to big metros and smaller towns like Vijayawada and Varanasi, desperately seeking ways to grow Lakmé’s small revenues.
The study showed the troubled and complex relationship between Indian women and makeup. Using it was a no-no in South India at any age and stage, but in the north, it was mandatory after marriage. Unmarried girls wore makeup on the sly and said they washed their faces clean before returning home from college or work.
Actors Zeenat Aman and Parveen Babi on the one hand, and Smita Patil and Jaya Bhaduri on the other, formed the two poles of “bold” girls and “good” girls. The often articulated view was that wearing makeup was like wearing a label around your neck saying that you wanted to attract the opposite sex. While laali and kaajal were considered to be in the time-honoured tradition of shringar, lipstick and eyeliner were not blessed with the same cultural label. The curiosity to use was strong, but women said that the number of products you used had to be limited so as to not cross over to the “vamp” or “bold girl” side of the fence. So two things on your face were alright, but applying five — blusher, lipstick, eye shadow, eyeliner and foundation — was considered overdone. Young women we interviewed declared that while boys would obviously flock to over made-up girls at parties, they did not respect them.
Then there was the whole issue of not knowing how to use makeup and being afraid of ridicule, or worse, of looking ghastly. In focus groups on cooking, if you asked the women how to make a dish, they would all give very specific instructions and a greatly animated discussion would follow. However, when the subject under discussion was the best way to use eyeliner or blusher, there were awkward silences in the group and even the Ms Know-It-All (you usually find one in every focus group) would be under confident and preface her demo with, “I don’t know what is the right way or what will work for you, but this is the way it works for me”.
Based on this, the ad agency ran a print campaign to talk to women and morally purify makeup. The headlines said it all. “Is it bad to look good?” asked one and proceeded to argue that it was not. “Does makeup label you fast, loose or ‘that type’?” was another headline with copious body copy. Then came the educational campaigns. “For poetic eyes, a bit of prose,” was the one that explained the subtle and “correct” way to use eye makeup. The campaign, amazing as it was, did not move the needle much and the cosmetic market chugged along at the Hindu rate of growth.
Enter the post-liberalisation Indian digizen, a vast army of Indians with direct and indirect digital access, fuelled by cheap, China-made smartphones and Jio-driven incredibly low data prices, and dazzled by all the magic of the internet, from entertainment to train tickets to temple darshans. The rest, as they say, is history. The democratised opportunity to put what you have “out there”, with no one frowning at whatever stuff you want to strut, made free content grow in leaps and bounds and YouTube channels exploded telling you everything from how to look like Aishwarya Rai using 14 makeup products to how to drape your sari to look slimmer and how to achieve smoky “Arabic” eyes, and so much more. You could Google in privacy and figure out how to unwrap the power and magic of makeup without being deterred by social judgement. It was this milieu that shaped the aesthetics and the social and sexual sensibilities of the new Indian woman. Fortunately, Bollywood also moved away from the heroine-vamp stereotype and makeup was no longer good-bad, just all good.
The mobile phone camera has set off a photo-sharing explosion and looking good is aspirational for most women. Display pictures on WhatsApp form your first impressions on the world that knows and doesn’t know you. All this has moved makeup’s cultural label towards a more global one of being a smart aid to help you make the best of your looks. Of course, as with everything Indian, there are hidden rules, and the makeup expected of a demure bride is very different from that of a matriarch at Karva Chauth.
Wedding photographs are of paramount importance now across social strata, far more than the rites and rituals. Wedding matchmakers, especially those that cater to modest-income customers, have mostly gone online for the preliminary approval process. That makes a good photograph even more important. And everyone now knows that the camera lens rewards makeup effort and punishes natural imperfections. If earlier you needed to pay a photo studio for all the effort of a good photograph, now you can experiment with makeup and free selfies to get there. Where there is demand, supply arrives in the form of solo or small services providers — the makeup lady has now joined the essential cast of a wedding crew alongside the mehendiwali.
Today, young Indian women will say an emphatic “no” to the questions Lakmé’s ad agency asked in its campaign in the early 1980s.
Malcolm Gladwell, in his book What the Dog Saw, writes of the transition of American women from the Clairol hair dye ad that said, “Does she…or doesn’t she? Only her hairdresser knows for sure,” to the L’Oréal tagline of, “Because I’m worth it”. In the same way, from Lakmé to Nykaa, makeup and the Indian woman have, indeed, come a long way.
This column first appeared in the print edition on November 19, 2021 under the title ‘Powered by lipstick’. The writer is a market strategy consultant