Unilever’s line has faced renewed scrutiny in recent weeks, amid a global reckoning with racial injustice, for promoting an image that white or lighter skin is more desirable than darker shades.
“Fair & Lovely” skin-care creams have been a mainstay of beauty aisles in stores across India and elsewhere in Asia for years. Not anymore.
On Thursday, the company Unilever said it would stop promoting skin “whitening” or “lightening,” and rebrand the skin-care line in response to critics who say the products promote harmful stereotypes around beauty and skin tone. But it won’t go as far as some have demanded: ridding stores of the creams and their connotations, no matter what they are called.
Along with similar brands, Unilever’s line has faced renewed scrutiny in recent weeks, amid a global reckoning with racial injustice, for promoting an image that white or lighter skin is more desirable than darker shades.
“We recognize that the use of the words ‘fair’, ‘white’ and ‘light’ suggest a singular ideal of beauty that we don’t think is right, and we want to address this,” Sunny Jain, the president of Unilever’s beauty and personal care division, said in a statement.
Some activists say changing the name and branding is only a start.
Poorna Bell, a writer who has been outspoken on the issue, told the BBC she found Unilever’s announcement “hugely disappointing” and called for the line to be discontinued all together.
“It doesn’t do enough to make reparations for the untold mental and emotional damage done by colorism,” she said, referring to discrimination against people with dark skin tones. “Renaming the products doesn’t mean anything – that’s still just colorism by another word.”
Unilever isn’t new to the controversy around skin lightening. Last year, the company removed “shade guides” and before-and-after images from product labels after campaigns by consumers.
The matter saw a resurgence earlier this month, when like many businesses around the world, Unilever issued a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. “We have a responsibility for racial justice,” the company said in an Instagram post.
Critics responded with objections to the company’s messaging on whitening products.
“But what are you doing about helping to end racism?” one user wrote in response to the Instagram post. “Fair and Lovely needs to STOP creating a culture of shame! You aren’t committed to justice and equity until you stop manufacturing Fair and Lovely!”
Unilever is not alone. Having pledged to fight racism in response to global anti-racism protests following the police killing of George Floyd in May, consumers are questioning company’s track records.
Across much of Asia and Africa, skin whitening products bring in millions of dollars in business for companies. In India, Bollywood stars have promoted them. In Africa, forty-percent of women bleached their skin, according to a 2011 study by the World Health Organization. The market research firm Global Industry Analysts estimated that the international market for skin whitening cosmetics could reach $12.7 billion dollars by 2027.
But backlash is mounting, and companies have begun to respond.
Last week, Johnson & Johnson said it would stop selling skin-whitening products in India, Asia, and the Middle East. Other major personal care companies, like L’Oreal and Nivea, still offer items claiming to lighten or prevent the darkening of skin. Calls for boycotts of these brands, and the companies who produce them, are simmering online.
Modern brands have tapped into stereotypes about skin tone with deep roots in Asia and Africa, entwined with a hierarchies wrought by centuries of colonialism, according to historians. These dynamics also increasingly inform mainstream conversations.
“Colorism is a persistent social force in India, and many South Asian countries,” actor Padma Lakshmi wrote on Instagram. “I know it made me feel insecure growing up. We need to dismantle this harmful relic of colonialism through representation for all skin-tones.”