27 Jun 2020  |   03:55am IST

The fair choice: When society truly believes beauty is not skin deep

The decision by the multinational conglomerate Hindustan Unilever to drop the word “fair” from one of their most important brands but does it mean anything in a society which strongly believes that being fair means getting a heads up in life
The fair choice: When society truly believes beauty is not skin deep

Ajit John;

Was the decision fair? And will these decisions be lovely? It took Hindustan Lever over a decade to realise that their iconic “fair & lovely” cream which brands fairness as a leitmotif of beauty needed a name change. And that change had to convey that beauty had to be more than skin deep.


This begs the question. Was the move merely cosmetic, or a serious rethink on its positioning. 

Sapna Shahani a senior PR professional felt it was fantastic that the company had decided to drop the word  “fair” from its brand name. She felt it was a long time coming. The protests she felt had reached a critical mass and it was perhaps hurting their image.  She said “This is the age when you have to be responsive. People did not like it when very influential celebrities promoted the brand without a care. The celebrities could have exercised better judgment”.

The bias against dark skin she said was prevalent for centuries. This bias would coexist with class and caste and it was there for everyone to see. She said “I remember as a child we had a lady who would work in the house and she would rub her face very aggressively with a sponge. Her face would be red and the skin would look sore. She said she wanted to be fair. To be fair means to be of a higher class, to be treated differently. Look at the media the models in advertisements are all fair. This is a manifestation of our prejudices”. 

Anuradha Holst, one of the first in Goa to respond to the market's communication needs, felt this was drummed into the psyche for years and was a form of prejudice towards anyone with darker skin. The belief that fair skin was superior was visible around and it was creating a lot of mess. The decision by the company to drop the word “Fair” from the brand name, she felt, was a good move but it would not change much on the ground. The feeling that white or fair was superior was embedded and it would take a while. 

A man who was once involved in chartering the course of major brands in the country had much to say. Vinay Kanchan, Mumbai based brand storyteller and Innovation Catalyst said “My take is that it was a bold decision, but perhaps one which was a long time coming. Racism is a serious issue and is assuming larger proportions every day. The George Floyd incident in the US, probably brought it back in the center of public consciousness. ‘Fair & Lovely’  had been getting a lot of flak from prominent media influencers about its brand name and also for a long time the tonality of its communication, which used to imply that if you are dark you have no chance. given a brand name like Fair & Lovely, even the intent of not focusing on just skin deep beauty can easily get lost’ 

Kanchan said that for years, communication has traumatized young women across India. It stoked a deep-seated obsession with fairness, it is good that Unilever 


taken this decision now.” 

Fair point but is that enough?  Oishorjyo, writer, theatre maker and feminist felt the conversation had been completely hijacked by capitalist ‘wokeness’.  She said “It has (brand) ‘value’ these days, to be perceived as a brand with a progressive value system. So sure, it’s a step in the direction, but unless brands like Unilever are willing to reconsider everything from their hiring policies, especially at high level positions, pay gaps, right down to basics like whether there are sanitary pads stocked in the bathrooms, it feels like another empty move, done to get some ‘woke points’ and social media applause”. 

Another woman with very clear thoughts on the matter was Nupura Hautamaki felt it was good Unilever had dropped the offensive bit though she felt being proactive instead of reactive was  always better, but brands world over, she felt rarely do that. 

For the much younger Kavita Patil, journalist & restauranteur, the anger was obvious to see. She said “I don't understand how dropping 'fair' from fair and lovely makes them stand against racism because the sole purpose of the product is to make the skin tone lighter. If they really believe and want to fight racism then they should stop manufacturing such products. You have to understand nothing has changed, the product still remains a fairness cream". 

What’s in a name they say? Well, the makers of fair and lovely, felt the burden of “fair” and dropped it. But it is unlikely that they will feel much lighter unless real policy changes come about, and as some women like young Kavita Patil feel, they stop making fairness creams altogether.


Iddhar Udhar