The evolution of traditional beauty codes

Woman receiving pizhichil, ayurvedic oil bath

In Pizhichil, dosha-prescribed warm oil is applied to the head. © Getty Images

Woman receiving pizhichil, ayurvedic oil bath

In Pizhichil, dosha-prescribed warm oil is applied to the head. © Getty Images

For centuries beauty criteria in India have been based on specific symbolism. Today, this beauty code has expanded but remains essentially rooted to tradition.

A fair complexion and well-defined features once meant high social rank and a sign of belonging to the best castes. Today, although light skin is still an indispensable reference, the notions of radiance, softness and a velvety feel have been added.

A rounded, curvaceous body was prized as fertile, “a body for procreating” and remains a symbol of femininity and beauty today. However, there is an additional dimension of slimness that was not important before.

Thick, long and black hair has always been the crowning glory of Indian women. Tied back or weighed down, it was a symbol of control over instincts. Today, women still value long, dark tresses but they also want their hair to be shiny, soft and smooth.

These beauty codes frame the pan-Indian beauty ideal, which exists despite the regional diversity and are embodied by adulated beauty icons such as Aishwarya Rai and Kareena Kapoor. For example, the word “gori”, which means “fair”, has become a byword for a beautiful woman.

Did you know ?


1/ Three Indian stars belong to the very private circle of L’Oréal faces: actress and former Miss World Aishwarya Rai; Freida Pinto who was discovered in the film Slumdog Millionnaire (2008) and more recently, the actress Sonam Kapoor who stars in Bollywood is the new L’Oréal Paris face in India.

These three icons perfectly incarnate ideal Indian beauty: fair complexion, long dark silky hair and big expressive eyes.

2/ The Bindi – or kumkum – is the dot that Indians draw between their eyes.

It is a religious symbol but it can also be used as a mere cosmetic ornament. Coming from the Sanskrit word “bindu” which means “a drop”, the bindi represents a person’s mystical third eye and symbolises good luck.

Traditionally applied with red kum-kum powder, today it is sometimes replaced by stickers of different shapes, sizes and colours.

3/ Each beauty attribute has its importance in India but its order of priority is not the same between men and women, although complexion is still key.

For women: 1. a fair complexion, 2. a blemish-free complexion, 3. an attractive figure, 4. beautiful eyes, 5. long silky hair

For men: 1. an athletic build, 2. a fair complexion, 3. a blemish-free complexion, 4. expressive eyes, 5. strong hair

Source : L’Oreal consumer insight study, 2011