About Time: Hindustan Unilever Drops Discriminatory Word ‘Fair’ From Their Popular Facial Creams

About Time: Hindustan Unilever Drops Discriminatory Word ‘Fair’ From Their Popular Facial Creams
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Unilever drops the ‘Fair & Lovely’ title for all of their products in their Indian and overseas markets. According to their official statement, the next step is a “more inclusive vision of beauty – which includes the removal of the words ‘fair/fairness’, ‘white/whitening’, and ‘light/lightening’ from its products packs and communication. As part of this decision, the Fair & Lovely brand name will be changed in the next few months.” Unilever and its Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Unilever, has been at the centre of perpetuating colourism, which is embedded in casteist notions as well, in India. A New York Times article from 2007 quotes a Unilever executive talking scathingly about exploiting deep insecurities, “Taking offence at the products is “a very Western way of looking at the world,” said Ashok Venkatramani, who is in charge of the skincare category at Unilever’s Indian unit, Hindustan Lever. “The definition of beauty in the Western world is linked to anti-ageing,” he said. “In Asia, it’s all about being two shades lighter.”

Unilever’s decision towards inclusivity and an acknowledgement of diversity is a step in the right direction, however, there are contentions that the decision is merely cosmetic in nature.

Present statements from Unilever’s Sunny Jain, President of Unilever’s Beauty and Personal Care division, as reported by Bloomberg run, “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.” Across popular brands, semantics are changing. Communicating more diverse notions of beauty ideals is crucial, especially in our perpetual worldly state of conflict, honing our practice of empathy becomes vital.

Bloomberg also details various other companies such as “Johnson & Johnson” are retreating “from its skin-whitening business, which includes the Clean & Clear Fairness brand in India and its Neutrogena Fine Fairness line in Asia and the Middle East.”

It’s noteworthy that for decades on end, skin-brightening products have been a constant reminder of the notion that the Indian skin-colour (all of which is only 3-4 shades differing in the spectrum) is ‘wrong’. As a crude leftover of the colonial hangover, beauty products like these have a long history of feeding and profiting from the exploitation of deep-rooted vulnerabilities.

Fair & Lovely and other skin brightening products also usually contain bleach that is harmful to the skin. According to Unilever’s statement, however, “Fair & Lovely has never been and is not a skin bleaching product. The brand uses a combination of vitamin B3, glycerine, UVA and UVB sunscreens. This was a much-needed move from harmful chemicals like mercury and bleach, which consumers were using. The brand has been progressively changing its formulation, and includes other vitamins like B6, C & E, allantoin, known to improve skin health and protect the skin from external aggressors, UV rays and environmental pollution. The product is designed to improve skin barrier function, improve skin firmness and smoothen skin texture - all of which help enhance radiance and glow, as currently represented in advertising and communication.”

This, however, is not sufficient. A recent Scroll article posits, “ ... the product details on the company website still say it targets ‘fairness problems’ such as ‘darkness’. Also listed among the ingredients is niacinamide, a melanin suppressant. It is not clear how the renamed cream aims to treat skin any differently from the old tubes of Fair and Lovely, with their pictures juxtaposing a glum dark face with a beaming paler face.” The article continues, “there is little evidence to show that either Unilever or Shaadi.com is motivated by anything other than a need to keep up with a changing popular culture and consumer tastes.”

22-year-old Chandana Hiran had previously organised a change.org petition against Unilever. She speaks to the BBC on the same, “While I am glad that they’re willing to change the narrative, I really want them to relook at their product in its essence. It’s still fairness cream no matter what they call it.”

We need to unearth our gaze of what beauty truly is and could be. It is time we stop looking at beauty as a unilateral singular concept. Beauty industries everywhere need to take note too. People want to be celebrated as they are and do not want to run after an impossible false ideal that they can never attain.

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