The “whitening” creams have a new look but the colorism persists

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) – The world’s biggest cosmetics companies sell a fairy tale that often looks like this: if your husband has lost interest in you, if your coworkers fire you at work, if your talents are ignored, whiten your skin to transform your love life, boost your career and lead the scene.No company has been so successful in spreading this message in Asia, Africa and the Middle East than Unilever’s Fair & Lovely brand, which sells millions of tubes of skin lightening cream every year for so little. than US $ 2 each in India.

The 45-year-old brand earns Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Unilever more than $ 500 million in annual revenue in India alone, according to financial analysts at Jefferies.

After decades of ubiquitous advertising promoting the power of clearer skin, a new branding is emerging around the world. But the fresh marketing of the world’s biggest beauty brands is unlikely to reverse the deeply rooted prejudices around “colorism,” the idea that fair skin is better than dark skin.

Unilever said it was removing words such as “fair”, “white” and “light” from its marketing and packaging, explaining the move as a move towards “a more inclusive view of beauty.” Unilever’s Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Unilever Limited, has stated that the Fair & Lovely brand will instead be known as “Glow & Lovely”.

French cosmetics giant L’Oréal followed suit, saying it would also remove similar wording from its products. Johnson & Johnson has said it will stop selling Neutrogena’s equity and skin whitening lines altogether.

The makeover comes following mass protests against racial injustice after the death of George Floyd, a black man pinned to the ground by a white police officer in the United States.

It’s the latest in a series of changes as companies rethink their policies amid the Black Lives Matter protests, which have spread around the world and reignited conversations about race.

Activists around the world have long sought to counter Unilever’s aggressive marketing of Fair & Lovely, with the brand’s ads being criticized by women’s groups from Egypt to Malaysia.

Kavitha Emmanuel founded the “Dark is Beautiful” campaign in India over ten years ago to counter perceptions that lighter skin is more beautiful than naturally darker skin. She said multinational companies like Unilever did not initiate skin tone bias, but capitalized on it.

“To endorse such a belief for 45 years is definitely damaging enough,” Emmanuel said, adding that it has eroded the self-esteem of many young women across India.

For women high on these fixed standards of beauty, the market is full of products and services that can both lighten skin damage pigmentation and outright lighten skin.

At Skin and Body International Beauty Clinic in South Africa, owner Tabby Kara said she sees a lot of people asking about going a shade or two lighter.

“It’s a general demand in Africa,” she said. “People want to be a little more fair just because society expects or cares more about a person’s fairness. ”

Historically, throughout North Africa and Asia, darker skin has been associated with poor workers who work in the sun – unlike Western cultures, where tanned skin is often a sign of leisure and beauty time. .

India’s cultural fixation for lighter skin is incorporated into daily marriage advertisements, which frequently note the complexion of the bride and groom as “blond” or “pale” alongside their height, age and education.

The old Hindu caste system helped maintain some of the bias, with darker skinned people often seen as “untouchable” and relegated to the dirtiest jobs, like cleaning sewage.

The power of whiter, lighter skin in many countries was further enhanced by European rule, and later by Hollywood and Bollywood movie stars who featured in brightening commercials.

In Japan, pale translucent skin has been coveted since at least the 11th century. So-called “bihaku” products, based on Japanese characters for “beauty” and “white,” remain popular today among major brands.

Tokyo-based premium skincare brand Shiseido claims that none of its “bihaku” products contain ingredients that whiten the skin but reduce melanin which can lead to blemishes. The company says it has no plans to change the names of its products, including the “White Lucent” line, just because other global companies have done so.

In South Korea, the words “bleach” or “mibaek” have been used in about 1,200 types of cosmetic products since 2001, according to the Ministry of Food and Pharmaceutical Safety.

About $ 283 million worth of “mibaek” products were made in South Korea last year, the ministry said.

South Korean beauty company Amore Pacific has said it uses the word “enlightenment” for exports to the United States in order to respect cultural diversity. Nationally, however, they cannot replace words such as “mibaek” on creams sold in South Korea due to laws requiring the use of specific terms to describe the function of skin lightening products.

US-based Proctor & Gamble, which sells Olay’s “Natural White” and “White Radiance” brands, declined to comment when asked if they intend to switch brands globally.

Emmanuel said she welcomed the decisions from Unilever and L’Oréal, but wanted to know if they will shift their whole narrative around skin lightening.

“We’re really excited that this is happening, but we haven’t yet seen what will really change,” she said.

Unilever said in its announcement that it recognizes that “the use of the words ‘fair’, ‘white’ and ‘light’ suggests a singular ideal of beauty that we don’t think is right.” Instead, the statement referred to products that deliver “glow, even tone, clear, glowing skin.”

Alex Malouf, a Dubai-based marketing manager who was previously at Proctor & Gamble, said the companies have performed in front of different audiences around the world but are now paying attention to the societal changes taking place in the United States and Europe, where shareholders are mainly based.

L’Oréal, for example, tweeted last month that it “stands in solidarity with the black community and against injustices of all kinds”. Its products in the United States include the Dark & ​​Lovely brand, aimed at black women.

Outside of the United States, however, the company marketed its “White Perfect” line for a “clear, flawless complexion”.

“But you can’t do that in the digital age because I can see what you’re doing in the US,” Malouf said. “I can see what you are doing here. “

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