Amid the global outrage on colourism and racism in the light of the Black Lives Matter Movement, India’s largest consumer goods company Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) last week said it will remove the word ‘Fair’ from its popular but controversial product ‘Fair & Lovely’. The company will continue to sell the product.
The consumer giant’s decision follows years of criticism, and various petitions asking the company to stop marketing and selling the product filed by activists on Change.org.
“This product has built upon, perpetuated and benefited from internalised racism and promotes anti-blackness sentiments amongst all its consumers,” said one of the petitions, which has been signed more by more than 13,000 people.
“We recognise 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,” Sunny Jain, president beauty & personal care, Unilever, said in a statement.
The fairness product industry has been criticised for “perpetuating racism and social inequalities by reinforcing beliefs about the benefits of skin fairness for cultural capital”. A 2018 study conducted in Mumbai which explored the use of skin fairness products amongst people aged 16–60 years, found that women were twice as much likely to use fairness products. In the study, almost 38% people said they have used fairness products, and reported to be influenced by the media, followed by friends and family. According to the study, 17% reported that they experienced adverse effects of using these products.
Femoai asked people what they thought of HUL’s move, and whether it will help lessen India’s obsession with fairness. Here’s what they had to say:
Anjana Swaminathan, 34
For as long as I remember, I have seen women around me, friends and relatives, use the Fair and Lovely cream as well as promote it enthusiastically. I have a somewhat dusky/ wheatish complexion, which appeared darker while I was growing up, than it does now, courtesy some acne and lack of sunscreen. I remember the women in my neighbourhood and family advising me and my mom that I use this cream. To be honest, I never understood the big fuss around being fair. And, seeing people, that too women themselves, focus on being fair as the singular idea of beauty, bothered me.
I couldn’t express my emotions in words then, but I knew even then that I will never use this product and I never have. While I was doing my MBA, I learnt about the many concepts in branding and marketing and when that happened, I was even more shocked and disappointed that companies would leverage such vulnerabilities to promote a product for purely monetary reasons without realising its detrimental impact on women across all generations. While I am glad that HUL is taking this step, I wish it hadn’t taken them this long. I also wish that I had also thought about this more clearly and voiced my opinion a lot earlier than I have.
I remember the women in my neighbourhood and family advising me and my mom that I use this cream. To be honest, I never understood the big fuss around being fair. And, seeing people, that too women themselves, focus on being fair as the singular idea of beauty, bothered me.
Jahnavi Batra, 22
How is it that they’re progressive enough to understand its harmful branding, but stupid enough to believe that it’s fine to have a lightening/brightening cream in the market. WE DO NOT NEED MORE MARKETING AROUND FAIRNESS. Indian women should love their color! How is it okay to have little girls look for ‘brightening’. Changing the branding isn’t changing a mindset. You have a platform – use it. Stop greenwashing in the beauty industry.
Trupti Kanade, 32
I think the move by HUL is unfortunately a little too late. Changing brand names hardly matters in India where beauty is often equated with fairness because that’s what our popular culture celebrates. What we need is a change in mindset.
Gourab Baksi, 37
HUL is only renaming the product, the product itself is not being withdrawn which points to a much deeper problem in our society about how women are perceived based on their appearance in every aspect of life.
(Editor’s note: Views are personal, they do not represent the views of companies these individuals work for.)
Skin Color, Cultural Capital, and Beauty Products: An Investigation of the Use of Skin Fairness Products in Mumbai, India. Hemal Shroff, Phillippa C. Diedrichs, and Nadia Craddock
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