‘Colorism’ persists as global whitening cream brands undergo makeover


In the wake of global mass protests against racial injustice following the death of George Floyd, decades of pervasive advertising that promote the power of fairer skin is undergoing a makeover.

A re-branding is hitting shelves globally as big multinational corporations like Unilever, L’Oreal and Johnson & Johnson said they will remove wordings like “fair”, “white” and “light” from its products.

Fair & Lovely, a 45 year-old brand which sells millions of tubes of skin lightening cream annually for as little as US$2 a piece earns the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever more than US$500 million in yearly revenue in India alone, according to Jefferies financial analysts.

Explaining its action, Unilever said it is moving towards “a more inclusive vision of beauty.” Unilever’s Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Unilever Limited, said the Fair & Lovely brand will instead be known as “Glow & Lovely.”

It’s the latest in a series of changes as companies rethink their policies amid Black Lives Matter protests, which have spread around the world and reignited conversations about race.

But it’s unlikely that fresh marketing by the world’s biggest brands in beauty will reverse deeply rooted prejudices around “colorism,” the idea that fair skin is better than dark skin.

Activists around the world have long sought to counter Unilever’s aggressive marketing of Fair & Lovely, with the brand’s advertisements criticized by women’s groups from Egypt to Malaysia.

Kavitha Emmanuel founded the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign in India more than a decade ago to counter perceptions that lighter skin is more beautiful than naturally darker skin. She said multinational companies like Unilever did not initiate skin tone bias, but have capitalized on it.

“Endorsing such a belief for 45 years is definitely quite damaging,” Emmanuel said, adding that it has eroded the self-worth of many young women across India.

For women raised on these fixed standards of beauty, the market is awash in products and services that can both brighten pigmentation from skin damage and outright lighten skin.

At the Skin and Body International beauty clinic in South Africa, owner Tabby Kara said she sees a lot of people inquiring about going one or two shades lighter.

“It’s a general demand in Africa,” she said. “People do want to be a bit fairer simply because society expects or is more interested in the fairness of a person.”

Historically, throughout North Africa and Asia, darker skin has been associated with poor labourers who work in the sun — unlike in Western cultures, where tanned skin is often a sign of time for leisure and beauty.

India’s cultural fixation with lighter skin is embedded in daily matrimonial ads, which frequently note the skin tone of brides and grooms as “fair” or “wheatish” alongside their height, age and education.

The ancient Hindu caste system has helped uphold some of the bias, with darker-skinned people often seen as “untouchables” and relegated to the dirtiest jobs, such as cleaning sewage.

The power of whiter, fairer skin in many countries was further reinforced by European rule, and later by Hollywood and Bollywood film stars who’ve featured in skin lightening ads.

In Japan, pale translucent skin has been coveted since at least the 11th Century. So-called “bihaku” products, based on the Japanese characters for “beauty” and “white,” remain popular today among major brands.

In South Korea, the words “whitening” or “mibaek” have been used in about 1,200 kinds of cosmetics products since 2001, according to the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety.

About US$283 million worth of “mibaek” products were manufactured last year in South Korea, the ministry has said.

Emmanuel said she welcomes the decisions by Unilever and L’Oreal, but wants to know whether they will evolve their entire narrative around skin lightening.

“We’re really excited it’s happening, but we’re yet to see what is really going to change,” she said. (Source: Mainichi Japan)