In June 2020, Hindustan Unilever (HUL) announced that it will rebrand its ‘Fair & Lovely’ range of skin-lightening creams in India, to ‘Glow & Lovely’’, in order “to embrace a more inclusive vision of beauty."
Following the #BlackLivesMatter movement that year, there was a massive internet backlash against skin-whitening products as well as the celebrities who sponsored them. Several online petitions, like , 'Ban Fair & Lovely' and 'Discontinue Fair & Lovely', which collected over 18,000 signatures were filed on Change.org, urging Unilever to stop the manufacture of its product benefitting from “internalised racism”.
One such online petition, started during the same period, still continues and has garnered around 20,000 signatures. This petition was not against a beauty brand but Amazon. The petition goes by the name of ‘Amazon India: STOP the sale of all fairness products’.
This petition was filed by Nguvu Change leader, Santa Sylvia, a 33 year old resident of Bengaluru, who currently teaches sociology in Bishop Cotton Girls’ School. Nguvu is a collective working towards social change. Sylvia believes that this superficial change of name, executed by HUL, is not nearly enough to address the cultural repercussions its brands have contributed to.
Sylvia further spoke to Decode as she elaborated on her endeavours behind this online petition against Amazon India and what led her to taking this step. Here are the edited excerpts from her interview.
Why have you filed this petition specifically against Amazon and not Flipkart or Nykaa, who indulge in the same business?
So this was during the Covid lockdown when everything had taken a virtual mode. Every time I turned on YouTube, Instagram or Facebook, it would just be about advertisements talking about how to become fair now that you're at home. That is when I decided I need to work on something like this.
I did my research and found that Amazon, being the top e-commerce company in India, sold over 4000+ fairness creams on its portal. This is definitely not a small number. Also if a leading company like Amazon sets an example in the right direction, I am sure other companies like Flipkart would follow.
It’s also very ironic that in their recent series on Amazon Prime Video called ‘Made in Heaven season 2’, there is a talk about this issue. The first episode is completely dedicated to equality and colourism, where they are saying that it's okay for you to be in your own skin colour. They have highlighted the tradition of Indian Brides going through skin lightening treatments which is so true as it happened during my wedding as well. But at the same time selling 4000+ creams on its own platform, is a huge disservice.
How have your personal experiences contributed to this decision of yours?
It took me 33 years to accept my skin color and to say this is how I am, no matter what happens to my skin. I grew up with a very low self-esteem. Even when people compliment me, I can't understand if they are being genuine or sarcastic.
Since I am a social worker also, a lot of people come to me talking about these issues. There is one girl who is a lawyer by profession but her parents are not able to find a right match for her because all her life people kept saying save extra money for dowry because you have to give the boy marrying her extra money because she's dark-skinned.
I have also gone through all this where people come up to me and say that I am very lucky because my husband is fair. How does that make me lucky? I don’t understand. So I don't want more youngsters to go through the same thing because it does happen even now in my experience.
Some might argue that the sale of fairness creams is a matter of consumer choice. How do you respond to that perspective?
It's a matter of consumer choice right, but aren't we a part of it by promoting it! Shouldn’t a platform, as big as Amazon, take a stand for equality by not just catering to its ‘fair-skinned’ customers. Secondly, these fairness creams have a high content of mercury in them which is not very safe for the skin, but they are also not addressing that.
Lastly, we all know that these advertisements are just dolling out fake promises. We know people do not get fairer on that fairness scale which these ads brandish. And this is also illegal as per the Consumer Protection Act of India. The Act prohibits misleading advertisements which falsely describe the nature, substance, quantity or quality of product or services.
What kind of impact do you think this petition could have on addressing the concerns you've raised about fairness creams and their potential effects?
I'm 33 years old now, but all my life from childhood till now, I've always been discriminated against for my dark skin. Inadvertently I find people giving me suggestions on how to become fair. In school I was always made to play the role of a Satan because I was dark skin or I was always given a negative role like pain and suffering just because I was dark skin and dark is apparently associated with poverty.
If you look at these advertisements it would portray a girl who's probably a college student and has probably failed in all the subjects. But after someone introduces her to a fairness cream and she becomes ‘fair’, she becomes the topper of the college. What is the logic?
Unfortunately, it is always when something as harsh as George Floyd's case happens, that our society turns around and looks at the issue. Otherwise we are all sleeping over it and no one is even talking about it, but people like us are going through this every day.
So I think we need to put an end to it. I am not just standing up for myself but also for the other fellow humans who have been going through the same thing. Although it may not change things at the grass root level, it definitely counts as something.
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