Hindustan Unilever’s decision to drop the word “Fair” from its skin-whitening cream, Fair and Lovely, can only be called a cosmetic change. The move was aimed at making their “skin care portfolio more inclusive” and celebrate “a more diverse portrayal of beauty”, announced Hindustan Unilever chairman Sanjiv Mehta on Thursday. But the change, by all accounts, remains at the level of branding.
This is not the first time the company has attempted to rebrand the cream. In 2019, words such as “fair/ fairness”, “white/ whitening” and “light/ lightening” were dropped from the packaging. Now, Mehta announced, the emphasis would be shifted from “fairness” to “glow”. But words such as “glow” and skin “brightening” have long been used by cosmetic products as more acceptable alternatives for treatments that aim to lighten skin tone.
Besides, 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.
Fair and Lovely’s rebranding was an apparent response to the Black Lives Matter protests that were triggered by police violence against black people in America and evolved into a conversation on racism and colourism across various contexts and countries. Other brands and companies have also been called out. A Change.org petition by an Indian American prompted the matrimonial website, Shaadi.com to remove its skin filter. Earlier, users would be asked to describe the colour of their skin under the “skin tone” option. They could also search for prospective mates by skin colour. When questioned about it, Shaadi.com reportedly said it was “product debris that we missed removing”.
So far, 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. Fairness might still be fetishised in large sections of India – for years, advertisements have urged prospective brides to use fairness creams if they want to find a good match. But a certain kind of influential urban middle-class consumer would be tuned into the new conversations rippling out of the United States. That Black Lives Matter was a cause célèbre became clear when Bollywood stars spoke out about it, sometimes with messaging that misfired horribly. These actors were then called out for endorsing fairness creams or not speaking out on caste and religious discrimination in India.
The packaging of the creams may have changed but not their substance. And while Shaadi.com will no longer ask for your skin tone, you can still search for prospective partners by caste, which is what skin colour stands for in India. Dropping a word on the packaging or a search option may lend these products a glow of wokeness. But it only whitewashes in-built prejudices that are yet to be challenged in any meaningful way.