Friday, 17 July 2020

#Unfair&Lovely: Why Changing A Name Doesn't Change The Decades Long Narrative

**Post updated on Thursday 23rd July 2020 to include extra story**


When the Black Lives Matter movement took centre stage after the murder of George Floyd, a flood of emotion came through to fight against racism, injustice, systemic bias and prejudice. And rightly so because enough is truly enough. It brought up a lot for the black communities or the world, but it also brought up more conversations between minority cultures as a whole. One of those conversations was about skin whitening. 

Author, actress and Top Chef host, Padma Lakshmi shared a tweet last month about "Fair & Lovely", a popular Indian skin whitening brand, and criticised it, calling ultimately for its disbanding. Thought Lakshmi was not the instigator of the conversation (it's been going on for a while, trust me), it definitely opened up the topic wider in a time when awareness is at the forefront of everyone's minds. 

Fair & Lovely, owned by Unilever, launched in 1975 and has been a leading skincare brand in South Asia, racking up billions of rupees every year. The company was brought to the spotlight as of late due to overwhelming criticism and a call for action by people. Their response? A name change but a continuation of selling their products, whose key ingredient is niacinamide - a melanin suppressor, a chemical the brand patented in 1971. 

  

The newly proposed name would take out the word "Fair" and replace it with "Glow", as well as losing the words "fair/fairer", "whiten/whitening" and "lighter/lightening" from their branding. Yet they still plan to sell the products. While some consider this a step in the right direction to fight colourism, I on the other hand think it's a total cop out.

Changing the name to "Glow & Lovely" doesn't take away the fact that "Fair & Lovely", it's previous household known name, is still a skin-whitening product that promotes to South Asian women the idea that in order to be validated, they have to be a lighter skin colour. It also doesn't change the fact that Unilever and Hindustan Unilever specifically will continue to sell the product; the only change being smacking a slightly different label on the packaging. 

And it seems like Unilever isn't the only company making a change since the online backlash resulting from the amplification of melanated voices from the Black Lives Matter movement. Johnson & Johnson also made the decision in June to pull certain skin-lightening products, such as their Neutrogena Fine Fairness and Clean & Clear Fairness lines, amidst questioning from Buzzfeed News

The Skin Whitening Industry, that is primarily focused towards Asia, the Middle East & Africa is a multibillion dollar earner that is dominated by conglomerates Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, L'Oreal and Proctor & Gamble. The targeted products for these areas are not sold in the US nor the UK and if sold, are targeted only towards Asian or Black-owned stores.

Fair & Lovely India Advert

Fair & Lovely Sri Lanka Advert

For years, advertising of products have shown the ideal that these skincare products are not only going to help your skin, they'll indefinitely change your life. Many Bollywood stars who have been the faces of products or brands completely have been slammed as of late for protesting against racism yet endorsing products that advertise that whiter skin is better. Priyanka Chopra Jonas has been at the forefront of the backlash on celebrities. 

Over her career she has endorsed a few skin whitening products and it's been problematic; not just her endorsement but the adverts themselves. In 2008, Chopra Jonas played a key part in the Pond's White Beauty advert campaign alongside Saif Ali Khan & Neha Dhupia. The premise of the advert is that Khan and Chopra Jonas were in a relationship, he then leaves her for Dhupia's evidently whiter skintoned character and when Chopra Jonas sees an advert for the Pond's product, she suddenly thinks that's going to fix her problem, get her back her man and give her the illusion of confidence. Oh, this advert was split into a series of episodes. Don't believe me? Watch it for yourself. 

Pond's White Beauty Advert Series, 2008

Yeah, that happened. And Priyanka is not the only Bollywood actress who I've seen endorse such products; Deepika Padukone, Sonam Kapoor, Katrina Kaif and more. Even male actors such as Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan. Not only have they endorsed or maybe used the products, they've even reportedly undergone skin whitening treatments in order to appease some product of colonialism that makes it impossible for women or even men to be accepted the colour they were born. Skin whitening isn't the only treatment that is evident in Bollywood either; all sorts of surgeries can be seen taking place such as nose jobs, lip fillers, implants, reductions etc. But let's get back to the topic at hand; if everyone and their mum is out there constantly promoting and advertising skin whitening creams, wouldn't you feel the pressure?

  

These adverts have been far and wide across South Asia especially; they're a regularity on my TV screen and have been for years now. It's not something that I was privy to in my childhood because in England, you don't get advertising for skin whitening or lightening creams. But when I moved to Sri Lanka back in 2009, I can guarantee you that during every ad break you would see at least one of these commercials on screen promoting said products. You would be lucky if you saw none and most of the time you would definitely see two, or the same advert twice. No wonder it's multibillion dollar industry. 

Looking at my own skin, I know that I suffer with pigmentation from breakouts and it definitely affects how I feel. And while people suggested I use whitening creams to combat it, I steered clear of that. Not just down to my own decision, but my mum's influence too. She's known of the effects of skin whitening cream for so long and never, ever wanted me to use them. My Mum has told me stories of when she was younger where she would be called "darker" or considered not as good looking because she was "darker" than her friends, some of whom were using creams to make their skin fairer. Let me tell you something about my mother; the lady is beautiful - always has been, always will be and she's never changed, not for anyone. This is probably one of the biggest reasons I love and admire her so much. 

 

You see, my Mum has this ironwill and she doesn't let anything get to her. Maybe on the initial delivery of those types of comments it might have hurt, but after that it just went right over her head because she has never been bothered about what other people think. I wish I was more like her in that way. Due to her strong mentality, I never felt that pressure to change my skin to fit into some ideal that is held over South Asians or Middle Eastern or Black communities. I'm lucky, but not everyone is. I've been told when I was little that I was ugly because I'm brown (when I was the only brown kid in my primary school) or that I can't be this or that because of the colour of my skin. But why does a different pigmentation automatically diminish one's worth or opportunities? Why is it that colonialism which ended years ago has effects that are still ricochetting into everyday life? 

This article on BBC News on girls who use whitening creams to make themselves more  confident shows exactly the kind of pressures faced in South Asian communities and it doesn't come down to advertising and product placement; it can stem from home too. 


An outrageous story that I read and heard about, which I wish I heard about earlier, was that of Kinita Shenroy, the ex editor in chief of Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka. According to a Buzzfeed News article written by Megha Rajagopalan, Shenroy was sent packages by Unilever of Pond's White Beauty products back in 2017 & 2018 - the first package of which she ignored because she had already told their marketers she would not be promoting skin whitening. The second package however she couldn't ignore due to the pressure from the Unilever team for Shenroy to publish about the products on social media. Sticking to her own ground, Shenroy asked the question of why we are still being forced to promote skin whitening instead of accepting who we are. 

via Kinita Shenroy & Buzzfeed

Read the article for the full outrageous story (as the pressures faced in Sri Lankan beauty pageants), but I'll get to the climatic point of it: Unilever pressured Cosmo Sri Lanka's publishers to fire her or guarantee advertising over two pages every six months of Shenroy's use of Pond's products. Shenroy stood firm and left the magazine, and journalism altogether even after taking legal action and contacting heads of Unilever. Unilever still maintains a good relationship with Cosmo Sri Lanka and is advertising on a regular basis. Can you believe that? All because a woman said no to an age old narrative that she didn't want her readers to be influenced into. But I have to commend Kinita for her headstrong bravery that did not allow her to bow down to a conglomerate that threatened her.

Even with all the protesting going on social media across the brown girl gangs, it's still yet to take true effect. I want to share this advert from a Sri Lankan brand called "Lia", which my girl Upandha shared with me and I was shocked when I watched it. Even more shocked when I realised the advert was released a month ago. A MONTH.

For those of you who don't speak Sinhala, I'll break down the ad for you: a girl get's a phone call from a friend who says she's getting married and wants the girl to be her bridesmaid. The girl immediately proceeds to look at her skin and ask herself "how can she be bridesmaid like this?" She then gets a text saying there's a gift for her at home, she heads home, finds the gift and opens it to reveal a myriad of skin whitening products or "Diamond Fairness" products. The camera then pans up to a wall to show the said-friend who's getting married as way whiter than the girl who's been given the gift. And then we get a round down of the products, which includes creams, face wash and even A SUPPLEMENT. And then comes the wedding day and she's suddenly a whole bunch of shades lighter, catching the bouquet and supposedly happier. Just watch it because I can't even make this shit up. 

Lia Sri Lanka Advert, 2020

The sad fact is that this advert is one of many and they don't seem to be going away. And no longer is it just the pressure to actually apply a cream but I know countless women who use Facetune or similar apps to whiten their skin in photos before they post them. It's a ridiculous archaic societal pressure that shouldn't be felt. But that's easier said than done. 

Skin whitening is just the surface of deep rooted issues against race. And while we collectively call for change, we need to do more. So allowing a brand like Fair & Lovely or a conglomerate like Unilever to stick on half a different label to a range of products that earns millions of dollars a year and thinking that will fix the problem cannot slide. Do they really think that changing the name to "Glow & Lovely" is going to hide the fact that they are still selling and advertising products with the key ingredient as a melanin suppressor? Or that they are still going to overwhelmingly promote the idea that to be the best, your skin has to be whiter? 

Here's the ultimate point I want to make; changing a name on a label, removing a word or words, marketing differently isn't going to change the fact that there's this overwhelming pressure on people of colour to change their skin to fit some out of touch societal point that fairer is better. Who decided that? Colonisation? And even now that colonisation is way over we're still accepting those ideals? It's funny when you think about how lighter or white skin tones constantly want to tan or be a darker shade, but melanin skin tones are criticised if considered too dark.

Meghan Markle, The Duchess Of Sussex gave a speech for the 2020 Girl Up Leadership Summit recently and there's one particular line that resonated with me and that I feel works perfectly here.

"Chase your convictions with action."

The fight against colourism may have not just begun, but it should be continued. We, regardless of gender or race, should fight for a world where these sort of issues aren't just accepted or spoken about for a moment. These are ongoing battles that need support. We live in a world now where our voices can be heard by multitudes with the touch of a button on a screen. Continue your support in the Black Lives Matter movement, don't let your voice fall short there. Continue your support in issues like #UnfairAndLovely. Call out to those who need to be told. Have the hard conversations. 

But most importantly, remember that you, however look, whatever your skin tone, you are beautiful and no one should ever make you feel differently. 

Sending you lots of love & hope you're staying safe,

Emily xx

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