Every few years, my family and I visit Pakistan. The minute I exit the airport, huge billboards with a smiling, white woman holding a bottle of Fair & Lovely cream always greet me. When we arrive home, I turn on the television and I see the corresponding commercial. Some variation of a girl with milky tea-colored skin complains about her complexion in a mirror. Once she puts on Fair & Lovely, she instantly feels more confident and beautiful. Everyone around her notices her transformation too. However, Fair & Lovely’s commercial doesn’t just promote its latest BB cream; it promotes colorism.
The National Conference for Community and Justice defines colorism as “discrimination by which those with lighter skin are treated more favorably than those with darker skin.” This bias has been in place for centuries. For instance, take a look at the painting “Ham’s Redemption” by Modesto Brocos. It portrays blanqueamiento, or whitening, in Latin America. A grandmother of a darker skin tone thanks God for her grandchild that is lighter in color, almost white. Through this imagery, the work reflects the belief that a lighter skin tone is favorable, whether that be because of status or beauty.
As a result of this discrimination, skin lightening products have become prevalent in South Asia, Latin America and Africa. Fair & Lovely products and advertising perpetuate the idea that whiter skin is more beautiful than pigmented skin.
In combination with societal pressures, its product becomes more than a whitening cream; it convinces people of color that they need to change their skin to have value. The psychological and emotional damage from Fair & Lovely creams and commercials is irreversible.
Popular media also broadcasts colorist ideals. While at first glance, it may seem that American television and film have become increasingly diverse, there is a lack of dark-skinned actors. Stars like Zendaya Coleman have addressed this industry-wide issue. She has said before that she knows she gets more roles than other Black women because she is “Hollywood’s acceptable version of a Black girl.”
Still, colorism in the U.S. manifests differently than in other countries. Other nations with less diversity have internalized biases that have developed within their societies. For this reason, skin whitening companies target these countries due to their ingrained colorism.
Fair & Lovely is not the only company profiting off of societal biases. “The product lines, Neutrogena Fine Fairness and Clear Fairness by Clean & Clear, were not distributed in the United States but were sold in Asia and the Middle East,” according to The New York Times. The distinction made here is important to note. Neutrogena Fine Fairness and Clear Fairness are specifically not available in the United States.
Both of these brands are household staples in the U.S., but its international lines are questionable. After all, their face washes are in every Rite Aid, and commercials with celebrities like Olivia Holt come on at least once an hour.
No, instead, Neutrogena made the strategic choice to sell its whitening products to two areas of the world that are known for having colorism: Asia and the Middle East. While in the U.S., it strives to promote ideas that everyone is beautiful, in other countries it promotes exclusion.
Now catching up with the current zeitgeist, Fair & Lovely has decided to correct its mistakes. It did so by changing the name to Glow & Lovely, and removing anything saying “white,” “fair” or “lighter” from its products.
In fact, Sunny Jain, president of Beauty & Personal Care at Unilever, said: “We are fully committed to having a global portfolio of skincare brands that is inclusive and cares for all skin tones, celebrating greater diversity of beauty. We recognize that the use of [these] words suggest a singular ideal of beauty that we don’t think is right, and we want to address this.” Now, let’s break this down.
First, changing the name from Fair & Lovely to Glow & Lovely is not much different; just like “fair,” “glow” connotes lightness.
Second, removing the whitening related terms from the products does not erase the image of the company as a whitener distributor or the mental damage it wreaked on people around the world. A name change and the removal of these terms is not an apology or a form of reparations.
Third, Fair & Lovely cannot suddenly announce a shift toward diversity and skin inclusion. It is playing into the performative scheme many companies have joined since Black Lives Matter picked up momentum. It neglects to mention on its website or press statements that it changed the name and the names on its products only after the emergence of petitions.
Though it is possible that the company is changing for the better, why did it remove words like “whitening” but still sell those same products?
An easy way to check if these products will still whiten is to look at their mercury percentage. Yes, you read that correctly. Skin whiteners are not just dangerous for society’s perceptions of one another, but also toward the human body itself. In January of this year, Norway banned two of Fair & Lovely’s products because they contained mercury and hydroquinone.
For those unfamiliar with hydroquinone, it is known as “the biological equivalent of paint stripper.” These toxic chemicals can have devastating effects on skin, kidneys and even reproduction. Fair & Lovely claims that these two products were counterfeits, but that doesn’t completely wash the company’s hands of the issue.
Now, imagine a young girl of color. After facing relentless whitening commercials and advertisements, she begins to feel that her beautiful umber skin color isn’t as pleasing as a creamier, white skin color. The local store sells Fair & Lovely for the same price as other creams, making it affordable. She lets the cream bleach her skin under the pretense that she will be what society dictates to be beautiful.
As she does so, she falls victim to the belief that her color — her identity — is not good enough, poisoning her mind and her body in order to feel some self-worth. These creams may erase her dark spots, but the psychological and physical damage will endure.