White LiesUnilever and L’Oréal Can’t Rebrand Their Way Out of Colorism

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Hannah Amaris Roh is Bitch Media’s 2020 Sacred Writes Writing Fellow

On June 3, the Anglo-Dutch cosmetics conglomerate Unilever took to Instagram to demand racial justice amid the global Black Lives Matter reckoning, writing “Unilever believes it is our responsibility to take action to create systemic change to address institutionalized racism and social injustice.” Critics immediately pointed out the company’s rank hypocrisy—since the 1970s, Unilever has been a leading producer of  skin-lightening products sold across South Asia. In response to the Insta-backlash, Unilever released a statement announcing “the evolution of its skincare portfolio to a more inclusive vision of beauty,” including changing the name of its signature skin-lightening product, Fair & Lovely, to Glow and Lovely. Unilever’s decision was followed by similar rebranding moves from companies like L’Oréal, the world’s largest cosmetics company, which announced its decision “to remove the words white/whitening, fair/fairness, and light/lightening” from its similar products. 

Growing up in Korea, I was surrounded by skin-whitening products. I recall the countless photographs of white women models displayed in the cosmetics section of Korean department stores. Whitening is commonly built into the Korean skincare regimen—just one example is the “White Lucent” collection from Shiseido (the fifth-largest cosmetics brand in the world) includes a day cream, overnight cream, and sheet mask. The ubiquitous whitening regimens are so normalized that the very term “whitening” connotes not simply a beauty ideal but an entire self-care routine. And it’s an explicit practice of colorism that is too deeply ingrained in the Asian beauty industry to be uprooted by a rebranding move. As critics have already noted, Unilever’s recent effort is merely a surface-level attempt that cannot address the root of colorism—a literally cosmetic fix unlikely to change anything.

It may be easy for those of us in the West to see colorism in Asia as an anathema, but the “pale ideal” actually has long roots in European history. Skin bleaching is an ancient practice that can be traced all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, according to cultural sociologist Shirley Anne Tate. Paleness signified a higher socioeconomic status, since it implied one did not have to engage in manual labor outdoors; according to Tate, European colonialism and imperialism exported this beauty ideal to other parts of the world, where skin-lightening products “were used by white women to make sure that they maintained a white complexion, especially in the heat of the tropics, for example.” As whiteness became equated with a higher social standing within colonized and enslaved communities, colonialism and racism thus produced colorism. In other words, colorism and capitalism became two sides of the same coin, as whiteness conditioned and thus signified socioeconomic opportunity. 

In Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, the skin-lightening industry is valued at an estimated $8.3 billion as of 2017; in India in particular, where Fair & Lovely has been sold for decades, it’s an estimated $4 billion. In the global marketplace, companies like Unilever and L’Oréal are trying to have it both ways, seeking credit for removing the language of whitening without actually changing the products that drive their profits. Meanwhile, brands like Estée Lauder aren’t even pretending to try: The conglomerate’s U.S. site doesn’t sell whitening products, but the last time I checked, Estée Lauder Korea’s “whitening” page is very much alive and well, filled with the “Crescent White” line of creams, essences, sunscreens, and toners that purportedly make your face “smoother,” “softer,” “cleaner,” and “clearer,” as well as  “cover[ing]  your dark spots or flaws.”

What is really meant by “whitening” as a form of skincare? There’s the process of literally lightening the skin by reducing melanin concentration, of course. But there’s another set of promises offered, ones that laud such products as a means to “cleanse” and “purify” the skin, and in turn, make it smoother and more radiant by removing any impurities, like dirt and microparticles in the air. The sales pitch of whitening products isn’t just a paler complexion, but also the promise of hygiene and health. I am reminded of the Smithsonian’s collection of cosmetics through history, whose annotations note that 19th-century skincare products in America “straddle[d] the line between medicinal and cosmetic.” More specifically, though, these brands make a philosophical claim about hygiene and health that is presented in personal, individual terms: They seem to suggest that whitening one’s skin can return the body itself to its “pure” state before its exposure to the outside world, whether that’s physical exertion, manual labor, exposure to the sun, or exposure to other people.

Skin whitening constructs a particular way of understanding our own selfhood, viewing the world as a constant source of potential contaminants. This worldview posits a “self” against an “other,” an “inside” versus an “outside.” So in order to attain hygiene and health, one must be vigilant in striving to be whiter. It is this aspirational structure that too easily lends itself to a colorized capitalism, especially if whiteness promises to grant more socioeconomic opportunity. So when Unilever claims that, “Fair & Lovely has never been, and is not, a skin bleaching product” by clarifying that their products do not contain “hydroquinone or bleach” (two of the most commonly used ingredients in skin bleaching, and that can cause detrimental side effects), the clarification misses the point. In fact, Unilever is working from the playbook that emphasizes whitening as key to health and hygiene: “The [Fair & Lovely] product is designed to improve skin barrier function, improve skin firmness and smoothen skin texture—all of which help enhance radiance and glow […] The brand has been progressively changing its formulation, and includes other vitamins like B6, C & E, allantoin, known to improve skin health and protect the skin from external aggressors, UV rays and environmental pollution.”

In the global marketplace, companies like Unilever and L’Oréal are trying to have it both ways, seeking credit for removing the language of whitening without actually changing the products that drive their profits.

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In listing product ingredients that ostensibly protect you from external contaminants, Unilever defends its decision to keep selling Fair & Lovely (or, excuse me, Glow & Lovely). But it is precisely this promise of health and hygiene as an individual aspiration that perpetuates systemic capitalism and colorism wherein the “healthiest” are simply those who have the money and time to consume these products. The rebranding efforts of Unilever and L’Oréal seem to suggest that colorism can be extricated from its deep historical entanglements with colonialism and capitalism. And even when skin-whitening lotions are removed from the global market entirely—as Johnson & Johnson did with its Neutrogena Fine Fairness and Clear Fairness by Clean & Clear products—there’s still immense work required to undo internalized racism and colorism. Lately, as an Asian American, I have had to confront my own internalized racism and the perpetual anxiety that always seemed to accompany my skincare routine. It has been a painful reckoning.

I never really believed that the whitening products surrounding me in Korea actually worked, but my use of them nonetheless drove my everyday behavior: I diligently applied the numerous steps of Korean skincare day in and day out, and became stressed about being outside, exposed to the sun. And though growing up I was socially unaware of what colorism represented, part of me always knew that the aspiration atttached to such products was about power, access, and economic opportunity and standing. And it’s these socioeconomic stakes that continue to disturb me as I witness the ongoing colonial hauntings of colorism. Colorism, colonialism, and capitalism remain so deeply intertwined in countries like Korea that consumers and companies alike may not see how this aspirational whiteness perpetuates anti-Blackness and anti-brownness. But inherent in whitening products is an internalized racism that’s detrimental to our own sanity and health. And well-meaning, socially conscious branding can’t cover that up.

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Hannah Amaris Roh, a Korean American writer with glasses, smiles at the camera
by Hannah Amaris Roh
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Hannah Amaris Roh is a Korean American writer and academic. She grew up in Incheon, South Korea, and has lived in various places throughout United States, including Atlanta, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Chicago, and now Austin. She received her PhD in Philosophy of Religions from the University of Chicago, and a Master of Divinity from Yale University.