The laws of reality are such that calling a duck a “squirrel” does not necessarily make it so. Magical thinking, at least on this planet, is still just that and to believe it might amount to any material change is an exercise in delusion.
So. When Unilever announces plans to rename its infamous Fair & Lovely skincare brand, in response to years upon years of backlash over its notorious skin-lightening products, all amid the literal riots and protests against anti-Black racism and police brutality erupting across the globe, it’s hard not to think they’ve totally missed the point: changing the name of a thing does not change the thing itself.
On Thursday, the company announced it would be removing the word “fair” from the brand’s name, in order to pivot toward “a more inclusive vision of beauty.” Fair & Lovely, which is mostly sold in South Asia, will become, very plainly, “& Lovely,” or maybe just “Lovely,” or anyway some other name that doesn’t employ the word “Fair,” as though that might make the whole situation more so (fair, that is).
The company also acknowledged that, in the past, it played up “the benefits of fairness, whitening and skin lightening” through its marketing techniques, that its branding has historically suggested “a singular ideal of beauty” and that it would now, instead, as a means of atonement, choose to emphasize “glow, even tone, skin clarity and radiance.”
“The brand has never been and is not a bleaching product,” it added in a statement.
This statement, however, seems to belie the earlier iterations of Fair & Lovely products, which included shade guides on packaging.
Since the announcement, Twitter has been loaded with frustrated responses to the news, with the overarching sentiment being that a name change isn’t enough:
And two Change.org petitions have a much more pointed take on the matter, and their perspectives suggest an IG post and a name change will amount to little more than — pardon the pun — a cosmetic shift.
“This product has built upon, perpetuated and benefited from internalized racism and promotes anti-blackness sentiments amongst all its consumers,” one petition with over 13,000 signatures reads, just before demanding Unilever immediately cease production and marketing of Fair & Lovely products.
And the other: “Fair & Lovely tells us that there is something wrong with our color, that we have to be light in order to feel beautiful. In order to feel worthy. It negatively impacts a person’s self-esteem from a very young age, warping their sense of self, as well as how they perceive others.”
Unilever recently voiced support for Black Lives Matter
All of this news comes on the heels of an Instagram post Unilever made in early June, in which it promised “to take action to create systemic change to address institutionalized racism and social injustice.”
The company took pains to clarify that it had already pledged more than $1 million to date “to organizations and activists working for social justice and racial equality,” and that it would continue to march toward whatever moral project it had set out for itself in light of social upheaval.
Changing the brand name doesn’t address its cultural and health implications
Fair & Lovely has long been Public Enemy Number One in an impassioned conversation about skin bleaching and its irrevocable relationship to colourism and internalized racism. (Hence the once-viral hashtag #unfairandlovely, a campaign against the colourism associated with the product.)
Over the last decade, several of the brand’s commercials across South Asia have been banned and categorically condemned, with many depicting darker-skinned women as inferior and less desirable than fairer-skinned women.
The truth is, these waters run deep. As of 2017, the skin lightening industry was worth somewhere around $4.8 billion USD globally, with most of the market being supported by the middle class in East Asia, according to the Guardian.
And the desire for lighter skin exists far beyond those borders. These products have a cult following in the Caribbean, too, and a World Health Organization study found 40 per cent of Chinese women regularly use them; in Nigeria, that number is 77 per cent.
The problem is these products are often unsafe to use. In an investigation from February of this year, CBC Marketplace found some skin lightening products sold right here in Canada contain “alarming levels” of toxic ingredients, like hydroquinone and mercury — possible carcinogens that, if you use them for long enough, can cause severe skin issues (burning, discolouration, rashes, scarring, ochronosis, skin cancer, etc.).
Apparently, none of these dangerous ingredients can be found in Fair & Lovely, but Norway still banned two of the company’s creams when it found traces of mercury and hydroquinone in them; the company suggested those banned creams were just counterfeits.
Unfortunately, changing the name of the brand fails to address any of this. And calls from the public to ban the products entirely have also gone unanswered. Meanwhile on Twitter, Unilever continues to reply to users, assuring them that their products don’t contain any skin lightening ingredients at all, seemingly ignoring the 2008 study that found mercury in its creams, and another one, ten years later, that found lead and arsenic, too.
With files from Maija Kappler