Every South Asian woman I know has a relationship with the skin-lightening cosmetic brand Fair & Lovely, whether they live in Khulna, Capetown, Cornwall or the US. Whether they were raised Hindu, Sikh, Catholic, Muslim, they’ve still all grown up using the cream. The likelihood is that as a child, they experienced the white lotion caked over their arms and faces.
And there lies the issue and legacy behind Fair & Lovely. It has become so indoctrinated in our deshi homes that like a bodna or a lota, it’s bought without any forethought. It is now a tube that is a part of the furniture, so much so that the smell is something many South Asian women would be able to recall, right now. It was in the background during moments when we all got ready. We grew up with it and for many of us, Fair & Lovely was our first beauty product.
Arguably, Fair & Lovely is an over-used example when highlighting colourism and anti-blackness in South Asian communities. But the cream gets the point across, meme material or not. The skin-lightening industry is a market estimated to be worth $31.2 billion by 2024, with the demand coming mainly from East and South Asia.
Now, due to the impact of the Black Lives Matters protests and the impact that racial injustice conversations have had on many brands, Fair & Lovely is subsequently quaking. Just like the dating website Shaadi which recently remove its skin tone preference filter, Unilever has now announced that Fair & Lovely will undergo a name change (and rebranding) and will instead be called Glow & Lovely.
The president of beauty and personal care at Unilever Sunny Jain has stated, “We recognise that the use of the words ‘fair’, ‘white’ and ‘light’ suggest a singular ideal of beauty that we don’t think is right and we want to address this.”
This statement would make sense only if Fair & Lovely wasn’t a skin-lightening cream—if the entire success behind the product wasn’t to give in to a singular ideal of beauty. Fair & Lovely may be normalised in South Asian households, but it comes with a purpose behind the purchase: the normalised thinking that to be fairer is to be better.
The journey behind Fair & Lovely is something conglomerates such as Unilever are proud of. As Unilever has previously stated, “In the 80s, when society expected women to marry mostly via arranged marriages, Fair & Lovely gave them hope that women could marry by choice. In the 90s, when women desired not just marriage but also an equal partnership, Fair & Lovely inspired them to believe that this was possible. In the 2000s, when society believed that a woman’s place was at home, Fair & Lovely encouraged her to choose her own career.”
What’s said from this pretence of empowerment for brown women everywhere, is that Fair & Lovely is the tool to help you break that glass ceiling, when in fact it makes women live in glass globes. It thrives on women comparing themselves to an ideal while making fairness appear attainable. What’s sad is that being fair does still enable social mobility. Fair & Lovely is not just a part of ‘the system’; it is the system.
It also accepts the still prevalent (although illegal) colonial imported caste system, that women, in particular, have to play against, as many women in the sub-continent still rely on a partner for financial ‘freedom’. Fair & Lovely has simply been saying, ‘Hey! We know white equals power, so put this on your face to widen your options’.
‘Glow & Lovely’ is more than a name change; it is an attempt to look progressive while also gaining diversity brownie points and doing nothing to change the formula, ingredients or intent-wise. There’s not even an apology for the turmoil the brand and what its cream represents to South Asian women. This is the epitome of surface inclusion under the guise that it’s for women and a step forward for both racial equality and beauty standards.
What’s worse is the name change itself. ‘Glow & Lovely’ is Unilever’s attempt to erase it’s murky past while kicking it with the kids. It goes along the line of trendy beauty terms, such as ‘dewy’, ‘glowy’, ‘flawless’, ‘luminous’ and now ‘glass skin’. With over 300 beauty products with the term ‘glow’ on Net-A-Porter alone and 200 and counting on Cult Beauty, the new name Glow & Lovely is whitewashing its past existence by sounding like it could sit next to brands like Glossier. We also know that ‘glow’ still holds the connotation of being bright (and light)—it’s not like it’s become ‘Bronzed & Lovely’.
Fair & Lovely has always nailed its marketing and branding. We remember the adverts, how sad a woman looks when she’s dark but how happy she then becomes when she’s lighter. Glow & Lovely’s rebranding isn’t going to fix these dangerously inherent problems that society unfortunately still faces today, it simply forces us to acknowledge that not all skin folk lookout for their kinfolk, and it begs us to figure out what can be done about it.
The wellness industry is thriving, for better or for worse, and with it, various vaginal products are appearing on the market. While some products are used to ease menstrual pain or increase sexual healing through pleasure, others are sold purely for the purpose of ‘finessing’ our genitals. Why is this trend happening now and how much of a problem is it?
Of course, this is not the first time that women are being targeted with false and unnecessary health advice. Gwyneth Paltrow, also known as the mastermind behind GOOP, recommended vagina steaming in order to balance hormone levels and cleanse the uterus, which gynaecologists strongly advise against.
A few years ago a new trend appeared that advised women to peel a full cucumber and penetrate themselves with it—not for the purpose of pleasure, but to ‘reduce odour’ and add ‘moisture’. Health professionals were quick to point out that this practice can actually lead to a number of diseases. In other words, your vagina does not need a ‘cleanse’, and unless a medical professional examined you and told you otherwise, basic hygiene should be enough.
Recently, there has been a worrying increase in various products being sold for the purpose of ‘beautifying’ the genitalia. There are now serums, charcoal masks, various scented perfumes and even highlighters to make your beautiful vagina even more… well beautiful, and this market keeps on growing despite medical professionals’ disapproval of it. Not only are these products unnecessary, but they also promote a false idea that our genitals need to appear a certain way, which can create insecurities for women while also capitalising on them.
TWO L(I)PS is a skincare company dedicated entirely to the vulva, which specialises in selling products such as activated charcoal masks for $28 and brightening serums for $150. While all products are dermatologically tested, their necessity should be put under question. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good charcoal mask, but only for my face—never have I considered applying one to my vulva.
The charcoal masks are said to “soothe, detoxify, brighten and moisturize the vulva,” and were in fact so popular that the company sold out of them two months after their initial launch (they are now back in stock). One of the brand’s serums, priced at $180, is made out of the skin whitening agent Palmitoyl Hexapeptide-36, and comes with the instruction to apply SPF 30 sunscreen the following days. Make your own judgement, but it sounds quite concerning to me that sunscreen would be needed in that area after using a serum.
Another company, The Perfect V, explains on its website that its products are “always for beauty’s sake. It is pure, indulgent pampering and love for your ‘V’. It is a multi-tasking luxury skincare formulated to rejuvenate, enhance and beautify the ‘V’.” Notice how the company never refers to the vulva or vagina by its name—instead, it is just the ‘V’, and if you buy their products, you can beautify your ‘V’ to become the perfect ‘V’!
It is certainly confusing that a company created by adults for adults won’t refer to genitalia by its real name, and should be taken as a warning sign. Perhaps it comes from the stigma surrounding women’s genitalia, but this only makes it all the more ironic that a brand entirely dedicated to selling products for our vulvas can’t even acknowledge that it is in fact called a vulva.
Among the products being sold by The Perfect V, which all claim to be both dermatologically and gynaecologically tested, there is a special $43 highlighting cream that promises to ‘illuminate’ your vulva and make it shimmer. This product can be compared to a highlighter you may apply to your face during your make up routine, only, in this case, it is meant for your vulva.
Everyone should be free to do whatever they want with their own bodies, so if you want to illuminate your vulva, please feel free to do so. My aim isn’t to judge customers, but more to highlight a bigger problem: the stigmatisation of the appearance of female genitalia. This is an increasing issue, and cosmetic surgeries, such as labiaplasty, have seen a 400 per cent increase in the last 15 years.
The stigma doesn’t just stop at the appearance of the vulva itself—it also touches upon other aspects, such as the vagina’s natural scent, its moisture or lack of such, or its pubic hair. One of The Perfect V’s best selling products is a beauty mist described as both “a natural skin conditioner and deodorizer,” that supposedly moisturises your skin and leaves your vulva smelling of roses. Another company called V Magic sells lipstick for your vagina, which moisturises and deodorises your vagina, too.
Similarly, the ‘Clit Spritz’ is a product sold by The Tonic, a wellness company specialising in CBD products. The ‘Clit Spritz’ is described as a “sexily-silky, gorgeously-scented oil designed to stimulate, lubricate and rejuvenate your lady bits.” Using the expression ‘lady bits’ once again stigmatises genitals. It is important to note that the company is selling the ‘Clit Spritz’ as a lubricant—a product that is both necessary and great—but the product’s description is vague and implies that your clitoris needs a ‘gorgeous scent’, which it doesn’t.
Not only are some of these products beyond ridiculous, but many medical professionals advise against applying and using them as they can affect a healthy PH balance and lead to infection. Vaginas can naturally clean and moisturise themselves, so unless your doctor told you to use a specific product, you don’t need one.
That is not to say all products are useless—the company Fur, for example, sells a concentrate to help eradicate ingrown hairs while soothing irritation. Many wellness companies do focus on creating products that help, while others focus on beautifying your genitals. It is up to you to decide which product suits you best, but perhaps try to do some research on each product before buying any.