Does changing the name of a fairness cream change its very essence? Does it cease to be a product that proposes to miraculously transform dark-skinned people into fair-skinned ones?
Does it stop building upon a colour complex that it has nurtured over decades: ‘dark is beautiful and fair is not’, ‘dark is unwanted while fair leads to success’?
Unilever’s longstanding hot-seller Fair & Lovely is finally getting rechristened to a more politically correct name. The word ‘fair’ is going to be replaced by an apt word associated with glowing, healthy skin.
According to the official press release issued by the brand, this change comes as a transition that was initiated last year, when the brand ‘moved away from benefits of fairness, whitening and skin lightening, towards glow, even tone, skin clarity and radiance’.
In his quote, Amir Paracha, Chairman and CEO, Unilever Pakistan ltd, said, “…This ambition has been in the works for some time with significant steps such as the removal of the dual-faced cameo and shades guides from the packaging of Fair & Lovely in 2019…”
But what took Unilever so long to realize that it needed to change a name that was very obviously cashing in on colour complexes? And can a change in name really change the narrative that has been hauling in profits for the brand for many decades?
A Fair & Lovely Pakistan ad from last year emphasized on the word ‘glow’ rather than ‘nikhar’. But the Urdu word ‘nikhar’ is translated to mean brightness and a glowing lustre. We’re not going to get fooled by this politically correct wordplay. It’s quite obvious that the cream is still promising to do what it has always done: make you white.
Following UniLever’s decision, the L’Oreal group also announced that it will be removing words like ‘whitening’, ‘fairness’ and ‘lightening’ from its skin evening products, according to a report published in The Guardian.
It is, of course, obvious that these changes have come about following the #BlackLivesMatter movement, with the world agitating against colourism and racism and whitening creams getting heavily criticized for building color complexes.
These complexes, that privilege white over dark, have been prevalent all over the world for a very long time. Their roots can be traced back to colonial times, when the fair-skinned British ruled the world while the poor serfs who worked for them were dark.
In the post-colonial era, economic discrepancies were incorrectly linked with color. The rich spent most of their time indoors, living comfortable lives and therefore had lighter skin. The poor worked out in the fields and were darker.
Fast-forwarding to present day, it is common for girls in the Indo-Pak subcontinent to be told not to drink tea because it will make them darker. Newborn babies will be massaged with ‘ubtan’ in an effort to make them fairer. In many families, girls are discouraged from indulging in outdoor sports because it will make them tanned and therefore, less pretty.
Fairness creams have been benefiting from this mindset for years now. A typical storyline for fairness cream advertisements narrates the ordeal of a dark girl who is unable to succeed in school, at her job or usually, in getting the attention of the boy she likes. A few applications of a fairness cream transforms her and suddenly, the world is at her feet.
To the susceptible mind of a young girl – or even an older one – these stories can have dire consequences. On a psychological level, a woman with dark skin may suffer from low self-esteem and frustration as she tries to rectify a feature that is God-given.
Overuse of fairness creams can also lead to physical damage. Global players like Unilever, L’oreal, Garnier and Pond’s have products that abide by heath standards but there are many other over-the-counter options that create a fair complexion overnight, with the aid of dangerous chemicals like mercury, hard metals and steroids.
According to Masarrat Misbah, founder of the Depilex range of salons as well of the SmileAgain foundation which aids acid burn victims, she discovered that some of the girls in the foundation were trying to lighten the acid scars on their faces by mixing different fairness creams and applying them.
“Their skin broke out into blisters. These girls’ skins are more sensitive and the reaction was immediate. On women with normal skin, the damage will be slower and less noticeable. But it will be there,” says Masarrat.
“The steroids in these creams can lead to acne, pigmentation and skin thinning which can result in skin cancer. The mercury that is absorbed in the body can harm the kidneys, the brain and the reproductive system. The girl applying the cream to be fairer so that she can get married may face problems reproducing, once married, because of these very creams.”
Small-scale fairness creams may lead to these very dangerous consequences but major global brands are very careful about the products that they retail. Numerous scientific researches can be found on the Internet proving that well-known fairness creams are not hazardous to health. But the damage they do is still there.
They nurture colourism. They take on popular celebrities to make their products even more desirable. They haul in huge sales and are lauded as best-sellers. They open an avenue where other, less conscientious players rush in. These players don’t care about health hazards. All they want to do is cash in on colour complexes and get a slice of the lucrative pie that encompasses the trade for fairness.
Driving this point home were a number of Pakistani celebrities who have openly declared that despite some very attractive offers, they had never endorsed a fairness cream: Mahira Khan, Sanam Saeed, Momina Mustehsan, Mehwish Hayat, Ayesha Omar and Iqra Aziz.
“It’s pretty normal for fair-skinned actors to be offered ads for fairness creams at least three or four times a year,” says Ayesha Omar.
“The big brands make offers but so do smaller ones hoping to make a mark. I think I got offered my first fairness cream endorsement 13 years ago. But from the very onset, I was not comfortable with extending my support to a narrative that equated a fair complexion with success. Growing up, also, I felt disconcerted by this line of advertising. I had friends with very diverse skin tones and I used to wonder how they must feel when they saw these ads that unabashedly put down dark skin. It is a concept that I have never been able to accept.”
Momina Mustehsan, similarly, feels that a life in the spotlight comes with certain social obligations.
“Dropping the insinuation that fairness is the definition of beauty and a marker for success is a positive first step towards brands not exploiting the long ingrained notions that associate ‘whiteness’ with beauty and elevated statuses. Marketing strategies should not be based on creating, promoting or reiterating insecurities or mindsets that make a human feel less than or uncomfortable with their own skin. Being in a position of influence, we need to play our parts in being responsible and mindful in how we enable or discard a mindset that we all agree is detrimental.”
“If brands are acknowledging a need to revisit their philosophy, it’s time the consumer does the same and appreciates each human for how they are. We all need to play our parts now.”
Mehwish Hayat also speaks out, “It’s about time that we break stereotypes that associate success with a certain skin tone, a certain kind of hair or simply looking beautiful. Changing the label is a great move but the message, also, needs to change. Healthy skin is aspirational. Not fair skin.”
She continues, “I’ll be honest. When I was about 17, I was part of a fairness cream ad. It was only the third or fourth ad that I worked in and back then, I didn’t realize the ethical implications of what I was doing. Fairness creams were just considered so normal back then. A lot of us didn’t realise how they were building complexes."
"A few years later, when I was offered another such ad, I refused. Over time, I think the world has become more aware about the wrongs that have been prevalent for so long. And now that we are aware, we can no longer extend our support to a product that relies on colourism for profits.”
In this newly aware world, it’s great that Fair & Lovely and L'oreal are opting for change in words. It shows how constant critique can bring about change. This wordplay will also make so much more sense if the brands also change the messages they give out. Words like glow and radiance tend to get associated with fair skin. Why not, instead, work on a product for healthy skin? Why not eliminate the concept of a fairness cream altogether?
Moreover, will the ads also alter their problematic storylines? Unilever India, in its official statement, has stated that their marketing campaigns will now be inclusive towards all skin tones. Will the Pakistani contingent also be making similar efforts?
It’s high time that other fairness creams follow suit. They need to change their names. They also need to stop being fairness creams. The world has had quite enough of marketing campaigns lauding fair complexions. It has also suffered enough because of them. A rechristening is a first step but it should ideally lead to a complete discontinuation.Pond’s ‘White Beauty’ and L’Oreal Paris White Perfect we’re looking at you. Care for a rechristening? Better yet, a discontinuation?
There are many others – major brands like Ponds White Beauty, India’s Emami Fair and Handome and Neutrogena ‘Fine Fairness’ and local ones that coin themselves as beauty creams.
Celebrities also need to start being more discerning about the products that they endorse. Their fans place them on pedestals and they have a responsibility to reject advertisements that have toxic implications.
Fair is not beautiful. It’s going to take many years to uproot the color complex that is now wedged into our psyche. It’s going to take a lot of debates and petitioning to stop the production of whitening creams altogether. Time to get started.