Fair and charming: a skin lightening cream changes brand, but the prejudice remains

A sales assistant owns the Unilever product, Fair and Lovely Skin Equity Cream in a store in New Delhi on April 30, 2013.Image copyright
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Consumer giant Unilever says it will rename its cream to lighten the best-selling Fair and Lovely skin and remove the word “fair” from its name. While the news has been well received, activists say the measure does not go far enough, and in India demand for such products shows no signs of declining.

Unilever and its Indian subsidiary Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) have been widely criticized for promoting colorism and making girls with darker shadows feel insecure and inappropriate.

The pressure had increased since last week when the American multinational Johnson and Johnson announced that it would no longer produce or sell two of its creams that are popular in Asia and the Middle East in response to the death of George Floyd and the global debate on racism that provoked. .

“Conversations in the past few weeks have highlighted that some product names or claims about our Neutrogena and Clean & Clear dark spot reducing products represent fairness or whiteness better than their own unique skin tone,” Johnson and Johnson said in a statement. . “This was never our intention: healthy skin is beautiful skin.”

Fair and Lovely is India’s best-selling skin lightening cream, with 24 billion rupees ($ 317 million; £ 256 million) in annual revenue.

Since the 1970s, when it was first released, teens and young women buy millions of tubes each year in a country where lighter skin is routinely equated with beauty.

Bollywood leading actors and actresses have been featured in commercials to endorse Fair and Lovely that promote fair skin as a means of finding love or a glamorous job.

On Thursday morning, Fair & Lovely had a high trend on Twitter in India, with hundreds demanding a ban on their advertising and sales.

In the past two weeks, at least three requests for change.org have emerged worldwide, asking Unilever to remove cream from markets in Asia and Asian stores in the West.

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Fair and Lovely is popular in various Asian countries including Bangladesh

One said that this product “builds on, perpetuates and benefits from internalized racism and promotes anti-black sentiment among all its consumers.”

On Thursday afternoon, Unilever decided to act, saying “A new name for the cream has been chosen and is awaiting regulatory approvals.”

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“We recognize that the use of the words ‘fair’, ‘white’ and ‘light’ suggests a unique ideal of beauty that we do not believe is correct, and we want to address this,” the company said in a statement.

He added that they were working to make their skincare product portfolio “more inclusive” and “want to lead the celebration of a more diverse representation of beauty.”

In recent years, they said they had already made some changes, such as removing a shade card from packaging and stopping before and after skin tone comparisons in their ads.

They also promised “to present women of different skin tones, representative of the variety of beauty in India and other countries” in their future campaigns.

‘It’s still cream of justice, no matter what they call it’

While many rejoiced over the announcement, describing it as historic and a great victory, others noted that it was old wine in a new bottle, as the company was still going to sell the same cream with the same ingredients, but under a new name.

Chandana Hiran, who wrote one of the petitions, told the BBC that Unilever’s announcement was “a ground-breaking decision,” but it was only “a first step toward inclusion.”

“While I’m glad they’re willing to change the narrative, I really want them to see their product in its essence. It’s still a fair cream, no matter what they call it.”

So the important question is: is a name change enough to change the perceptions of skin color that have been maintained and perpetuated for centuries?

In recent years, campaigns like Dark is Beautiful and #unfairandlovely have questioned Indian’s obsession with fair skin.

Increasingly, urban educated women on social media have called Bollywood stars and popular beauty pageants to promote colorism.

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Media caption#unfairandlovely: women speak out against skin lighting

But the campaigns have had very limited impact, haven’t affected the popularity or market for equity products, and demand continues to rise.

That explains why Johnson and Johnson’s announcement last week to withdraw their equity products caused some people in Asia to say that if they wanted to buy them, they should be allowed.

On social media, some even said it was a form of discrimination against their communities.

And I know that in many parts of India too, the unavailability of Fair and Lovely will be greeted with anguish: large numbers of customers are in a small town and in rural India and are unaware of skin color policies and the Black Lives Matter movement that is raging in the west.

And they would hug the substitute for Fair and Lovely whatever his name is.