In a country largely obsessed with fairness, Unilever’s India subsidiary, Hindustan Unilever Limited, late last month, decided to re-brand its skin-lightening cream, Fair & Lovely, a South-Asian beauty giant, removing the words ‘fair/white/light’ from its packaging and replacing them with ‘glow’, hence renaming it ‘Glow & Lovely’.
“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,” said Sunny Jain, Unilever’s beauty and personal care division’s president.
Many netizens on Twitter were quick to applaud the move, though some pointed out that it was too little, too late. Having been built upon the rhetoric of ‘fairness is beauty’, Fair & Lovely routinely perpetuated internalized racism and anti-blackness sentiment while raking billions in profit, should it be this easy to shed their colourist, racist skin?
While the move may outwardly look like a ‘fight to end colourism’ and a ‘step towards inclusion’, it’s timing is awfully convenient with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement raging around the world since the past few months. Given its timing, this feels more like a reactive measure, rather than a change out of self-realization.
No matter what they call it, it’s still a fairness cream.
The rebranding exercise is nothing but a marketing gimmick as they’re selling the same old wine in a new bottle, the cream being the exact same, with its fairness enhancing components, now added with a new ‘glow’. Using terms like skin-brightening and glow also seems fishy for they act as back-door entry terms to the wider world of fairness. Brands have a moral responsibility of shaping their consumers’ psyche without reinforcing regressive belief systems. One might argue that their heart is in the right place but is a name change enough to revert the consumer psyche about skin colour which is deeply rooted in society and has been constantly perpetuated by the brand itself for the past four decades?
Dropping a word and claiming innocence seems suspiciously less than a cosmetic change but hinged on cold, hard profit—prompted by the American introspection of colourism. HUL and other skin-whitening brands have amassed huge profits, largely by peddling the narrative that fair IS lovely, and perpetuating racist, casteist ideas of skin colour. Their advertisements have deviously been focused on twisted ideals of women emancipation and aspirational messaging; how dark-skinned women are unsuccessful, but start prospering if they become ‘fair’, and therefore, ‘desirable’.
Bollywood and brownface.
MNCs are not the only ones to have benefitted off this archaic notion of colourism—from advertising to television, cinema, and even news; there has been little challenge to it. Ironically, various Bollywood stars like Priyanka Chopra and Sonam Kapoor took to social media to support the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but faced serious backlash having been the face of various fairness campaigns; but not a peep of dissatisfaction towards the megastar, Shahrukh Khan, the brand ambassador of Fair & Handsome. In recent years, Bollywood stars like Ranveer Singh and Bhumi Pednekar have ‘darkened’ their skin tones, in an exercise of ‘brownface’ and skin-tone signalling; to portray characters from ‘humble’ backgrounds or in the latter’s case a dark-skinned woman. How difficult must it be to hire actors who are naturally dark-skinned!
Starting with ‘dadima ke gharelu nuskhe’ to the ‘doodh jaisa gorapan’, this dark-skin taboo is more harshly foisted on women but crosses over gender barriers to manifest in men too, with products like ‘Fair and Handsome’. Indians are mired in their obsession with fair skin, which seems surprising in a country with a majority of brown-skinned people; but is symptomatic of a life-long training in self-loathing and caste-based discrimination, deepened by the colonial hangover of fair skin. Enmeshed with hegemonic structures of inequality, ranging from caste to class and even gender privilege, having fair skin is perceived as a mark of class and status.
Will the society ever change?
Netizens have vehemently complained over Johnson & Johnson recalling its fairness creams in the Indian subcontinent, with various people calling it an ‘infringement of their rights’, and even claiming it to be ‘discriminatory towards their communities’.
Due to its aspirational positioning, ̶F̶a̶i̶r̶ Glow & Lovely has historically found more consumers in small towns and the rural parts of India who are blissfully uninitiated in the politics of skin colour. They are clueless about the fact that they are buying into a doctrine that directly feeds into their own oppression. And they WILL embrace ‘Glow & Lovely’ with open arms. Ultimately, what remains to be seen is how Unilever executes their rebranding strategy while trying to dismantle the belief system that they themselves have built and nurtured. Their actions will reveal whether they can be redeemed, if ever.