Dubai: The world’s biggest cosmetics companies have been selling a fairy tale that often goes something like this: If your husband’s lost interest in you, if your colleagues dismiss you at work, if your talents are ignored, whiten your skin to turn your love life around, boost your career and command center stage. No company has had greater success peddling this message across Asia, Africa and the Middle East than Unilever’s Fair & Lovely brand, which sells millions of tubes of skin lightening cream annually for as little as USD 2 a piece in India.
The 45-year-old brand earns the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever more than USD 500 million in yearly revenue in India alone, according to Jefferies financial analysts.
Following decades of pervasive advertising promoting the power of lighter skin, a re-branding is hitting shelves globally. But it’s unlikely that fresh marketing by the world’s biggest brands in beauty will reverse deeply rooted prejudices around “colourism,” the idea that fair skin is better than dark skin.
Unilever said it is removing words like “fair”, “white” and “light” from its marketing and packaging, explaining the decision as a move toward “a more inclusive vision of beauty.”
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Unilever’s Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Unilever Limited, said the Fair & Lovely brand will instead be known as “Glow & Lovely.” French cosmetics giant L’Oreal followed suit, saying it too would remove similar wording from its products. Johnson & Johnson said it will stop selling Neutrogena’s fairness and skin-whitening lines altogether.
The makeover is happening in the wake of mass protests against racial injustice following the death of George Floyd, a black man pinned to the ground by a white police officer in the US.
It’s the latest in a series of changes as companies rethink their policies amid Black Lives Matter protests, which have spread around the world and reignited conversations about race.
Activists around the world have long sought to counter Unilever’s aggressive marketing of Fair & Lovely, with the brand’s advertisements criticized by women’s groups from Egypt to Malaysia.
Kavitha Emmanuel founded the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign in India more than a decade ago to counter perceptions that lighter skin is more beautiful than naturally darker skin. She said multinational companies like Unilever did not initiate skin tone bias, but have capitalized on it.
“Endorsing such a belief for 45 years is definitely quite damaging,” Emmanuel said, adding that it has eroded the self-worth of many young women across India.
For women raised on these fixed standards of beauty, the market is awash in products and services that can both brighten pigmentation from skin damage and outright lighten skin.
At the Skin and Body International beauty clinic in South Africa, owner Tabby Kara said she sees a lot of people inquiring about going one or two shades lighter.
“It’s a general demand in Africa,” she said. “People do want to be a bit fairer simply because society expects or is more interested in the fairness of a person.”
Read Also: Fairness creams are not the problem. Fair privilege is
Historically, throughout North Africa and Asia, darker skin has been associated with poor labourers who work in the sun – unlike in Western cultures, where tanned skin is often a sign of time for leisure and beauty.
India’s cultural fixation with lighter skin is embedded in daily matrimonial ads, which frequently note the skin tone of brides and grooms as “fair” or “wheatish” alongside their height, age and education.
The ancient Hindu caste system has helped uphold some of the bias, with darker-skinned people often seen as “untouchables” and relegated to the dirtiest jobs, such as cleaning sewage.
The power of whiter, fairer skin in many countries was further reinforced by European rule, and later by Hollywood and Bollywood film stars who’ve featured in skin lightening ads.