Selling Lipstick, Talking Empowerment

Posted: July 18, 2011

Are women’s magazines in India interested in the reality and wider experiences of today’s women?

By Amrita Rajan

Regardless of gender, age or interest, at some point or the other, most of us have read a woman’s magazine. Our mothers subscribed to it, some auntie was always using you as a guinea pig for an exotic recipe she discovered in one, girl friends smuggled it into school to giggle over the sex column, guy friends borrowed it to find out more about women, you’ve leafed through it at the beauty parlour. Nominally, they target a niche audience, but when the aforesaid niche is half the population, it’s no wonder that the ladymags are shaping the national consciousness in subtle ways.

Neither is it surprising that in a country like India, with its several languages and varying socio-economic realities, women’s magazines cater to a variety of tastes. And over the years, the difference between the so-called vernacular publications and the English magazines, whether it’s homegrown or the Indian edition of an international brand, has grown vast.

With few exceptions, Indian women’s magazines in English are following the mainstream trend by increasingly pitching their content towards a more urbanized, Westernized, youthful market. They carry ads for handbags that cost thousands of rupees, show models wearing labels that usually retail in dollar amounts and feature dream holidays that run into lakhs of rupees. The articles are about sex toys and multiple partners; the recipes need ingredients only available at specialty shops.

The pictorials – like pictorials everywhere, I suppose – showcase women who’re three sizes thinner, one foot taller and several shades fairer than anyone you know in real life.

The pictorials – like pictorials everywhere, I suppose – showcase women who’re three sizes thinner, one foot taller and several shades fairer than anyone you know in real life. And the poster women are the new Bollywood It Girls: bold, fashion forward, and loving it all. I’m sure your mother is still welcome to subscribe but this is the dream as sold to young professional women with disposable incomes.

Theoretically, this is cause for cheer. As India transforms economically, Indian women are changing too. They have their own concerns, many of them new to India, which include – dating: online, in the office, friends of friends; housing: living alone, with roommates, as a paying guest; commuting: long distances, in a city, traveling for work; dressing: corporate wear, casual Fridays, while socializing. What is appropriate behavior, codes of conduct in unfamiliar situations and alien spaces, dealing with the emotional fallout of the single life… these young women are the pioneers of our time and your modern woman’s magazine is well-poised to become their Bible, replicating a kind of success that has long since faded in the West.

But thanks to a combination of international editions that retain certain portions of their original British or American content (Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, etc) and Indian magazines that seek to compete (Femina, Women’s Era, etc), reading a glossy ladymag in India can be a fairly schizophrenic experience. Inside the expensive, high quality pages are two Indias – one is upper class, the other is middle class. And sometimes it seems like the magazine’s entire focus lies in giving tips to the latter on how to act like the former.

Apart from the obligatory article or two on sexual harassment and healthy living, few seem interested in exploring the wider experience of the young Indian woman. Perhaps this is what lipstick feminism boils down to in countries like India: a focus on selling actual, overpriced lipstick rather than debating what it represents.

…despite all the clever advertising slogans, there isn’t a brand in the world, luxury or otherwise, that can help you buy better self esteem or magically transform you into Aishwarya Rai.

I’m reminded of a scene from Sanjeev Bhaskar’s [The Kumars at No. 42] travel documentary in which he briefly signed on as a guest judge alongside Maureen Wadia for what I assume was one of the preliminary rounds of the Gladrags Mrs. India contest. He would later dub it “the world’s strangest beauty pageant”. Hopeful young women appeared before the panel to be asked such zingers as, “What do you think of the mile high club?” only to look completely mystified and subsequently mortified by the fact that they were ignorant of a highly public, uncomfortable and completely unsanitary sex act.

That is the power of the dream. It is largely an empty one – despite all the clever advertising slogans, there isn’t a brand in the world, luxury or otherwise, that can help you buy better self esteem or magically transform you into Aishwarya Rai. But as reality television and movies like Bunty aur Babli have taught us so well over the past few years, it is a dream fuelled by ambition. The desire to become one of the glittering throng is deep. People want to be part of the It crowd, be it ever so foreign, and they’ll go to any lengths to achieve it.

Indian women’s magazines have gone through many changes over the years – they’ve spoken for empowerment, encouraged literary voices, and created a space where women could frankly discuss issues of importance to them without judgment, be it in the early 20th century or much more recently. If only they could continue that fine example.

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Comments

1 Comment


  1. Thank you for the very perceptive article. I quite agree that Indian women’s magazines are quite mystifying – I wonder who their target audience is. I have lived abroad for many years and I must say that most women’s magazines abroad are similar. Handbags for $300 and above are the norm. Neither in India nor abroad have I been able to afford the glitz or glamour being sold in these magazines. Luckily, I don’t feel the need for these accessories, but I can definitely say that the fantastically skinny and flawless models continue to mock me no matter which continent I live on!

    I have not read many magazines in local languages in India and I wonder if they are any different.

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