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Opinion ‘Fair & Lovely,’ skin whitening and the pitfalls of performative allyship

A customer picks up a “Fair & Lovely” skin-lightening product from a shelf in a shop in Ahmedabad, India, on June 25. (Amit Dave/Reuters)
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Anum Chandani is a graduate of Harvard Business School and currently works in the energy industry. Marvi Ahmed is a PhD candidate and researcher at Cornell University. Hira Hashmi is an MBA candidate at New York University.

As South Asian women born and raised in Pakistan, we have experienced colorism from a young age. We were told time and again that the color of our skin defined our self-worth. As a young girl, one of us, Hira, was frequently told by her aunt that she would have a difficult time finding a spouse because of her skin tone. Another, Marvi, was told at the age of 6 that her mother would have to work hard to lighten her skin for the “better.” And even as an adult, working as an engineer on oil and gas rigs in Pakistan, the third, Anum, was taken to a cosmetic store by a colleague who tried to force her to buy the skin-lightening cream “Fair & Lovely,” telling her that was how she would become more respected.

These stories are not anomalies. There are millions of stories of people, in South Asia and beyond, who are taught throughout their lives that the color of their skin is too “dark” to be “lovely.”

At the center of these attitudes was the iconic brand “Fair & Lovely.” It is owned by the global consumer-goods conglomerate Unilever, whose portfolio also includes more progressive and inclusive brands such as Dove, Vaseline and Ben & Jerry’s. “Fair & Lovely,” now called “Glow & Lovely,” is one of Unilever’s best-selling personal care products in South Asia, with annual sales worth more than $560 million. The product was first introduced to the market in 1975 and is sold in India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Middle East and some parts of Africa.

In June, inspired by anti-racist movements in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, and in an attempt to be better allies and confront anti-blackness in South Asian communities, we started an online petition to ban “Fair & Lovely.” The petition clearly resonated with others, receiving more than 15,000 signatures from 97 countries — with good reason.

For decades, the product’s million-dollar advertisements have promoted colorism and anti-blackness by linking confidence and personal and professional success to skin tone. In one ad we recall seeing while growing up, a retired father is shown wishing he had a son instead of a daughter. The daughter notes her father’s disappointment and heartbreakingly hopes to get a better job, but looks in the mirror with despair because she is apparently not “fair” enough to have a successful career. After using “Fair & Lovely,” she becomes several shades lighter, lands her dream job and is able to turn her life around and make her father proud. This type of marketing has been blatantly broadcast for decades to reinforce discriminatory beliefs in our societies.

We tackle colorism, the “model minority” myth and how to effectively bring up Black Lives Matter with your non-Black family of color. (Video: The Washington Post)

The roots of the South Asian obsession with fair skin can be traced back to two centuries of colonization, where brown and dark skin was looked down upon. Some trace it back even further to issues of casteism and classism, when poverty and deprivation were linked to the darker skin of those working outdoors and lighter skin was associated with power and prosperity. This sentiment has been internalized across society, entrenching inequalities and discrimination.

Though ingrained colorism has existed in the South Asian community for centuries, brands like “Fair & Lovely” have made it a day-to-day commodity and have developed lucrative business models around openly marketing anti-blackness. This needs to fundamentally change.

On June 25, after mounting public pressure against the brand, Unilever announced it will evolve its skin-care portfolio, ending reference to whitening, lightening and fairness. About a week later, the company announced it was renaming the product “Glow & Lovely.” While the move to drop references to skin-lightening is welcome, without deeper change, the same problematic messaging will continue in more subtle ways.

This is not the first time Unilever has rebranded “Fair & Lovely.” In 2017, after the government of Ghana imposed strict restrictions on skin-bleaching products, Unilever changed the name of the product in Ghana to “Even & Lovely.” (Unilever has denied that it is a bleaching product containing harmful chemicals.) Yet advertisements for the product following the name change continue to sell similar narratives about beauty standards, highlighting the pitfalls of performative allyship. And though the company says the product is now meant to produce “even tone skin,” there is no sign that its ingredients and makeup have changed from when it was marketed as a skin-lightening cream.

This is a pivotal moment where societies and communities around the world are being pushed to address their biases and confront their own inherent anti-blackness and racism. We recognize that it will take time to heal and unlearn toxic attitudes. But we hope that companies and brands, especially those with wider influence, will move beyond performance and fully join the fight.

Read more:

Mili Mitra: Netflix’s new hit ‘Indian Matchmaking’ misses the full story on arranged marriage

Rana Ayyub: Outrage over an elephant and celebrities embracing Black Lives Matter expose India’s deep hypocrisy

Kavita Das: What ‘Indian Matchmaking’ gets wrong — and right

Thenmozhi Soundarajan: A new lawsuit shines a light on caste discrimination in the U.S. and around the world

Barkha Dutt: Who’s afraid of Priyanka Chopra?

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