Now that everything in the world is being examined under a new lens and being tested for any signs of implied racism, support for the Confederacy or other sins of the mind, nothing should really surprise us anymore. But I’ll confess that I didn’t see this one coming. The Associated Press is reporting that leading manufacturers of cosmetics are now renaming or pulling from the shelves their various lines of “whitening creams.” These products apparently produce a lightening effect on the user’s skin color. One of the largest players in this market is Unilever, with its “Fair & Lovely” brand of skincare products. Other manufacturers have their own competing offerings. But now it’s 2020, so these products need to either disappear or undergo some rapid rebranding.
Following decades of pervasive advertising promoting the power of lighter skin, a re-branding is hitting shelves globally. But it’s unlikely that fresh marketing by the world’s biggest brands in beauty will reverse deeply rooted prejudices around “colorism,” the idea that fair skin is better than dark skin.
Unilever said it is removing words like “fair”, “white” and “light” from its marketing and packaging, explaining the decision as a move toward “a more inclusive vision of beauty.” Unilever’s Indian subsidiary, Hindustan Unilever Limited, said the Fair & Lovely brand will instead be known as “Glow & Lovely.”
French cosmetics giant L’Oreal followed suit, saying it too would remove similar wording from its products. Johnson & Johnson said it will stop selling Neutrogena’s fairness and skin-whitening lines altogether.
I must lead even more of a sheltered life than I’d previously thought because I’d never even heard of these products. Nor was I aware that you can use chemicals to artificially “lighten” your skin tone. I’d been under the impression that such things were determined by the amount of melanin in your skin, so I’m still unsure how these products are doing what they allegedly do.
At the same time, I can easily see how manufacturers would be quick to get rid of anything with the word “whitening” in the name, with the possible exception of toothpaste. I’m assuming that sunscreen and suntan lotions are still going to be acceptable to the social justice police because they all involve darkening the skin, right?
But returning to the original issue, there’s obviously a massive global market for skin lightening or whitening products. The linked report indicates that Unilever generates more than $500 million in yearly revenue in India alone. Global numbers pump up those sales figures to astronomical levels. I’m not sure what the American share of this market breaks down to but this report from 2019 puts the total value of the skin whitening product line globally at more than four billion dollars in 2017, predicted to rise to nearly nine billion by 2024.
So are these companies supposed to just stop selling them now? Clearly not. But Unilevel is “rebranding” their products, changing the name of the Fair and Lovely offerings to Glow and Lovely. L’Oreal spokespeople said they will similarly be renaming their versions of these products. Johnson & Johnson is the only major producer who said they are dropping the product lines altogether.
But… they’re still going to be skin whitening products, right? So how is it any different if you just change the name? Also, the decision by Johnson & Johnson seems foolish in this context. The market for the products is clearly massive but they’re just going to cede the field to Unilever and L’Oreal to avoid having the social justice warriors protesting them?
Speaking of which, what do those complaining about “whitening” products have to say to the tens of millions of customers, primarily women, who are buying all of these products? Should their social betters be allowed to dictate to them what they’re supposed to look like and what skincare regimen they follow? Further, while there are probably exceptions, it sounds like the vast majority of the people being told to stop using these products are women of color. Seriously? The movement is just going to start barking out orders to them now and they’re expected to meekly obey? Talk about a discontinuity in the public conversation.
I’ve never used such a product and have no plans to do so now, so I suppose I really don’t have a dog in this fight. My wife was able to explain the basics of what the products do, but she’s from a very “Anglo” branch of the family tree and has never used them either. Still, this sort of market domination based on the word “whitening” feels like we’ve entered the next chapter in the script of Idiocracy.