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Opinion

Stop selling skin-whitening products, do not just change their names

Unilever, Johnson & Johnson and others have responsibility to fight colorism in Asia

| India
Fair & Lovely's marketing communication has always hammered home the message that fairer is better.   © NurPhoto/Getty Images

Charukesi Ramadurai is an Indian freelance journalist, currently living in Kuala Lumpur.

In late June, when corporate giant Unilever announced its decision to remove the word "fair" from its blockbuster skin-whitening brand Fair & Lovely, popular in South and Southeast Asia, it felt like too little, too late.

Unilever tweeted, "We're committed to a skin care portfolio that's inclusive of all skin tones, celebrating the diversity of beauty," and said it would remove the words "fairness," "whitening" and "lightening" from products. But it did not say it would stop selling the products.

Twitter memes joked that the new name might just be "& Lovely" while Unilever basked in the smug glow of having done the right thing by the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement, which has put racism front and center in public debate.

But instead of facing up to the way its skin-whitening products, and those of other conglomerates like Johnson & Johnson and L'Oreal, perpetuate colorism, discrimination based on skin tone, Unilever gave us tokenism -- and it won't do.

Launched in 1975, Fair & Lovely, which contributes over $550 million in revenue to Unilever each year, reduces the skin's melanin, which determines how dark it is, with chemicals like mercury. It is popular beyond India in Asian countries including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, whose societies also place a premium on fair skin.

Fair & Lovely's marketing communication has always hammered home the message that fairer is better. There are typically before and after situations, with darker skin set up as the problem, the brand as the solution and lighter skin the stepping stone to success. Two decades ago, the "after" success was marriage to the dream man or, more recently, a coveted job as a flight attendant.

Euphemisms like "glow," "oil control" or "dark spot removal" abound, even after strict guidelines set by the Advertising Standards Council of India in 2014, prohibiting the portrayal of people with darker skin as unattractive or unsuccessful.

These companies did not create the demand for skin-lightening creams; they merely created products that catered to existing demand. But in doing so, they reinforced prejudices and insecurities surrounding dark skin.

South and Southeast Asian society is obsessed with skin-lightening but in India it takes on ridiculous proportions -- from urging pregnant women to drink milk with a dash of saffron to produce a fair-skinned baby to applying multiple layers of talcum powder on the face in the hope of briefly whitening it.

Johnson & Johnson baby powder bottles at a medical store in Kolkata: people apply multiple layers of talcum powder on the face in the hope of briefly whitening it.   © Reuters

This obsession with fair skin perhaps goes back to when Indian society was classified on the basis of occupation, from Brahmins or the priestly class at the top to those once called untouchables, now Dalit, at the bottom. The word varna meant both caste and color, with the implicit understanding that those with fairer skin were higher up. Some observers think it could also be the influence of India's British colonial rulers.

Women bear the brunt of this fixation as a cursory look at matrimonial listings in newspapers and websites affirms. They abound with calls for "very fair" brides and offers of girls, as they are referred to in such ads, with a "wheatish complexion," a singular term used in India to suggest a happy compromise of skin tone.

The unsubtle marketing communications for skin-lightening products, including variants such as BB creams, specialist "anti-marks treatment" creams, face washes, shower gels and chemical bleaches, have made it much worse. Endorsements by actors and cricketers, including superstar Shah Rukh Khan, who still peddles Fair and Handsome to men, have not helped.

A name change is a commendable first step, but how are these companies going to address the damage caused by decades of pandering to this fascination for fair skin? In the past, Unilever has tried to deflect some of this criticism through initiatives like the ineptly named Fair and Lovely Career Foundation to provide career guidance and scholarships to women.

But in the absence of more concrete action that works to remove deep-rooted ideas which equate fair skin with beauty, this will remain mere tokenism. In fact, Hindustan Unilever's website continues to refer to the brand as Fair & Lovely, with no mention of the proposed name change, trilling on about "radiant glow" and "emotional connect."

The way forward is to stop selling such products that erode the self-confidence of women with darker skin, as well as harming the skin with ingredients like steroids, hydroquinone, mercury and lead. It was good news that Johnson & Johnson decided to stop selling its popular skin-whitening Neutrogena Fine Fairness and Clean & Clear Fairness lines in Asia and the Middle East. Celebrities, who wield huge influence in India, should stop promoting these products too.

Finally, companies should stop their offensive advertising and be inclusive in the kind of models used in broader marketing communications. But since I am sceptical about corporates doing any of this willingly -- despite what their official statements would have us believe -- the ASCI must enforce its guidelines.

So far it has been largely all words and no action from the companies, suggesting that their commitment to fighting colorism is only skin deep.

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