On 25 June, the multinational Unilever announced that its Fair & Lovely, will be rebranding itself by taking out ‘fair’ from its popular and successful cosmetic line
The renaming was a response to the backlash fueled by the #BlackLivesMatter movement that started in the United States and has spread all over the world.
More than 18,000 people signed two petitions that demanded the termination of the product and its advertising.
Unilever is not stopping production of the cream or changing the ingredients, but will just stop using the word ‘fair’ in the name and remove its two-face cameo portraying a fairness transformation.
Unilever has a long history for depicting lighter skin tones as the ideal and superior form of beauty, and introduced Fair & Lovely to the Indian market in 1975. For decades it has been the number one fairness product of choice for millions of women across South Asia, and until 2017 it held up to 70% share of the Indian skin-whitening industry.
The reason for the brand’s success is a successful promotion campaign that reinforces the negative stereotype of a Eurocentric ideal of beauty that has its roots in internalised racism, and entrenched colourism in South Asia.
Social scientists have said that this creates lasting self-loathing and irreversible emotional damage to people with darker complexion, perpetuating injustice and discrimination. Colourism therefore reinforces prejudice against individuals with a dark skin tone not just in people of different racial groups, but also among the same ethnicity and caste.
Colourism starts from a young age as children hear relatives ask about a newborn’s complexion just days after the delivery. As the child grows up, the fairness of their skin is repeatedly referenced with great value.
In school, the teasing and bullying of dark complexioned classmates is something many South Asians have to go through. I myself remember being nicknamed “kaali kawaa” (black crow) even in KG in school in Kathmandu.
As children grow up, they are exposed to advertising, TV commercials, and billboards bombarding them with subtle messages promoting colourism. These do not have to be products that are named Fair & Lovely, or blatantly say fairer is better. Products that do not have ‘fair’ in their name, like Nivea, are also spreading the wrong message of fairer skin tones being preferable and more attractive as well.
When they get to be of marriageable age, complexion becomes the main criteria in the selection of a spouse – mainly of women. India’s Shaadi.com matrimonial website removed a search filter based on the skin tone of users.
The existence of such filters in online match-making sites alone proves how deeply ingrained colourism is in South Asia.
One of Nepal’s prominent cosmetologists Shrijana Pradhan said in a recent interview that skin lightening procedures increase during wedding seasons, citing fairness face treatment as one of the most popular services provided by her Sipi Beauty club.
Colourism is also not-so-subtly promoted by the film industry in South Asia, where blockbusters often has dark-skinned actors cast as villains, while the heroes and heroines are fairer.
Bollywood celebrity stars like Sharuk Khan and Priyanka Chopra have actually gotten fairer over time, and other actors have actively endorsed and promoted skin whitening and lighting products. Khan has modelled for Fair & Handsome for men in India as well.