We’ve all been watching that advert for years. The one in which a girl with wheatish skin is recommended to use a fairness cream and her life changes in 14 days. She aces the interview, becomes a news anchor, gets the job, finds the perfect partner and she gains confidence — all because her skin tone became lighter in two weeks.
One may wonder how they are showing that on public television in this day and age but until a few days ago, such adverts were a norm across the subcontinent. Thankfully, things changed recently when three Pakistani women based in the United States — Hira Hashmi, Anum Chandani and Marvi Ahmed — started an online petition to ban Fair and Lovely.
Inspired by the anti-blackness movement that started in the United States post the torturous murder of George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man killed by a white police officer, these three Pakistani women working in the US decided to tackle the racism and colourism that exists in our own society.
Following their online petition, Unilever Pakistan issued a statement announcing that it will remove the word ‘Fair’ from its flagship beauty brand Fair & Lovely and rebrand the product.
“We have moved the brand communication away from fairness towards glow which is a more holistic and inclusive measure of healthy skin,” Unilever Pakistan CEO Amir Paracha said in an official statement.
What’s more impressive is that a brand as strong as Unilever has had to rethink their products and branding because three intelligent women made them do so. Born and raised in Karachi, Hira Hashmi, one of the champions of this campaign, is an ex-Unilever employee who believes campaigning to ban Fair & Lovely is the first step towards standing against fairness creams.
“This particular cream has existed since 1975 and all prominent brands like L'Oréal and others look at Unilever and follow suit, so it was important to position our campaign this way. The other reason is that Unilever is one of the largest multinationals with huge revenue and a strong footprint. The organization has always stood up against racism and it was time their products reflected that too”, she added.
Hira admits that although they had an idea that people will follow the movement, join hands and relate, they didn’t realize their efforts would cause such an effect.
“We used social media, started off with an Instagram page, connected with friends and invited celebrities to join our movement and it just grew from there”.
Prominent artists from all fields (and across borders) including Fatima Bhutto, Meesha Shafi, Arfi Lamba, Poorna Jagannathan, Sheetal Shetty and countless influencers and bloggers joined hands to increase the reach of this movement.
Anum Chandani, a Harvard alumna working in Texas, called Hira and Marvi with the idea initially. She told Business Recorder that she thinks this is not enough.
“Dropping or changing the name without replacing the product is not enough and we definitely want them to go a step further and actually lead this change with transparency.”
She also added that it’s going to be a very long process before these products stop existing in the market because Asian countries have an obsession with fair skin. “We don’t realize that this obsession is not only harming our community but also creating implicit biases in our mind that hinder us from being better allies to the black community, which is primarily why we started this movement. The goal is to remove these narratives from our community and future generations.”
While this is just the beginning, we need to keep this movement going by having conversations that not only change the narrative, but also open our perspectives.
Anum’s vision for this movement is much more than what meets the eye. “We want Unilever to disclose the percentage composition of the chemicals, particularly, niacinamide in the new branding of this product, because the brand claims there are no bleaching components in it. Even though they mention ingredients but they don’t disclose the percentage composition and doing so will be a step forward.”
According to Anum, Unilever has massive resources, a huge customer base and the power to change the narrative. “They can put in the resources to understand and strategize on how to change the narrative and thinking and really be on the right side of the history. It’s happened before with other products and it can happen again.”
Marvi, who is currently pursuing her PhD at Cornell University, believes the notion of “fair and lovely” is problematic because it constantly perpetuates the notion that fair skin is superior to other skin tones. “It makes those born with darker skin feel inferior and lacking and tells them that in order to succeed, professionally or in their personal lives, they needed to be ‘fairer’. That is the narrative that the product Fair & Lovely advanced, promoting the deep-rooted colorism and anti-blackness that exists in South Asian societies,” she told Business Recorder.
Marvi also brought up the fact that the topic of colorism is even more sensitive in South Asia due to our colonial past, where the white man was the ruler, and the brown-skinned were inferior.
“This has led us to associate all things negative with darker skin, perpetuating ideas of anti-blackness, which prevents us from being better allies to Black communities and the racism they face. It also causes us to raise generation after generation who loathe the color of their own skin and are trapped in the narrative of fairer is better,” she said.
According to Marvi, one of the reasons why the trio began the petition was to hold brands like Unilever accountable to their pledge to fight racial inequality that they publicly made in the face of recent anti-racist movements.
“To make such a pledge while selling a product which promotes colorism is hypocritical and such performative corporate allyship needed to be called out,” added Marvi.
“We are living in a unique moment,” admits Marvi, “where awareness of such issues is increasing and we were able to galvanize widespread support for our petition, which pressurized Unilever to respond.”
In just a few weeks, more than 13,000 people from 94 countries signed the petition and raised their voices. “Every voice counts, and this is one of the ways that people can play their part”, Marvi told Business Recorder.
Interestingly, once Unilever made the decision, the L'Oréal Group also joined hands and acknowledged the legitimate concerns about the terms used to describe skin evening products. The French cosmetics giant decided to remove the words white/whitening, fairness and lightening from all its skin evening products just a day after Unilever’s announcement. Johnson & Johnson also announced last week it will discontinue skin whitening creams and other products from its Neutrogena and Clean & Clear lines.
This circles back to our conversation with Hira where she agreed that this is the first step towards a larger change and movement.
“The dialogue has begun and everyone is a part of this conversation. So many people have come forward and spoken about this narrative and this momentum is not just South Asian, it got coverage globally and this global alignment gives more courage for people to speak up, which helps make brands more accountable.”
With everything that’s going wrong in 2020, this looks like the beginning of a great era. Perhaps we can now hope to see a day when whitening products have no space in the global market and brands promote self-love and acceptance.