Glossy is proud to present Unfair, a podcast about the global skin-lightening industry and everything it touches, from the demand for lighter skin to the beauty companies selling to it.
In four episodes, Unfair will explore the industry’s origins, history, systems of regulation and its future.
Unfair is hosted by Priya Rao, executive editor at Glossy, and produced by Digiday senior producer Pierre Bienaimé.
Subscribe to the Glossy Beauty Podcast now on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Below is a lightly edited transcript of the podcast’s first episode.
COMMERCIAL: I love white. White is clean, white is pure. White is beautiful.
This is a commercial for a Japanese skin-whitening cream. Apply it for a few weeks, and…
COMMERCIAL: Mosbeau. Whiter skin in 14 days.
There’s a lot more where that came from. Here’s an ad for Palmolive’s skin-whitening soap, “White Plus Papaya,” which is sold in the Philippines.
Forget 14 days…
COMMERCIAL: White plus papaya! Only takes a week! Helps make my skin so white…
And how about this one, from Olay, another American company? This commercial is from Olay Arabia’s YouTube channel.
COMMERCIAL 3: I want fairer skin in seconds, not days. And I want it to last. Olay Natural White all in one instant glowing fairness cream, with twice the instant fairness ingredient.
Pretty shocking, right? The corny music doesn’t help. But here’s the thing: these commercials cater to a massive market. The global skin-lightening industry is worth $8.3 billion, according to one industry report. Another says it’s about twice that big. And either way, it’s projected to grow.
For the most part, as those commercials suggested, it’s women who are using these products — all around the world. But one of the biggest markets for them is India.
DAVULURI: Yeah, so I grew up in a South Asian family and growing up, you hear very common comments, like ‘Don’t go out in the sun,’ ‘You’re going to get too dark’ or, ‘Oh, you’d be so much more beautiful if you were a few shades lighter.’
That’s Nina Davuluri. She’s American, like me, and her parents are from the southern part of India, like my own. We both grew up speaking Telugu, as kids. Unlike me, she was dubbed Miss America 2014.
SOUND: From ABC’s Miss America winner announcement.
The day after she won that award, Nina read how it was being covered in India. A lot of writers were asking a loaded question: She may have won Miss America. But if she had competed for Miss India, would she have been too dark to make it past the first round?
She’s since become a vocal critic of the products — and the culture — that encourage skin lightening. I had my own question for her.
RAO: You’ve dealt with this since you were a child, did you ever imagine kind of becoming this face of this movement, of this path forward?
DAVULURI: No. And it’s been such a journey because it’s something that I believed in so deeply. Like, I knew that this conversation needed to happen just from my time from winning Miss America. I have spoken to almost 50 colleges and universities around the country and every single time it would always come up: ‘How did you feel when people were asking a question? Oh, is Miss America too dark to be Miss India?’ Or people asking ‘My parents are telling me that I’m not going to get married because I’m too dark’ or, you know, it kind of turned into always like a sub-conversation into a broader conversation of my talks. And I realized that this is so pervasive and people are hungry to speak about this, like we need to be talking about this and addressing this in our own homes and how we experience it.
Nina toured college campuses with this message, like she mentioned. She also worked with the State Department on a trip to India during the Obama administration, and is working on a short documentary series on the subject. And this past summer, she joined an Indian news network to talk about the cause she’s taken up.
NDTV ANCHOR: Hello, and welcome to We the People. It has been a momentous week; on Thursday, Hindustan Unilever, the Indian and Bangladeshi unit of the Anglo-Dutch firm Unilever…
DAVULURI to PRIYA: And there’s a person who’s on the opposition side of me, and he’s saying, ‘Oh, you know, this is just a preference towards white skin. It’s not affecting our culture, it’s just what people want. It’s not really a socioeconomic status thing.’
VIKRAM BAIDYANATH: Well, first, I want to tell you that the Indian fairness cream market was worth 450 million in 2019. So if it is very much a part of our psyche and our way of thinking; there’s nothing wrong in it. There are more pressing issues that one can bring to the forefront.
DAVULURI to PRIYA: And he was on the other side, saying that essentially this is just a preference that people have towards white skin. It’s not colorism and it’s not racism — which I inherently disagreed with.
Colorism is a word we’ll get back to. It means discrimination within an ethnic group, based on skin tone.
DAVULURI to PRIYA: … the ideology that white is better, you know, use this product and you’ll become more fair skinned. So I think that still exists. And so I think this the fact that really was upsetting to me is that there are people who are reaching millions of households who probably agree with him, who probably agree with his standpoint. And of course, he put it in his own words of ‘this is just a preference. It’s like being tan,’ you know, things like that. And I said, it’s actually really not the same ideology. I think when we talk about tanning here — and the tanning industry is of course another billion dollar industry here — people aren’t necessarily buying into it because they believe it’s their golden ticket to a successful life. It’s their golden ticket to a better job or a better marriage. That’s not why people aren’t necessarily buying it here. In India, that’s very deep-seated and that’s the issue. It’s not a preference. It’s not about ‘Oh, I just prefer like when I have a nice like sun glow.’ No, it is not that, it’s not a beauty thing. It’s so much more than that.
RAO: What did he say?
DAVULURI: Well, I got the last word so he didn’t get a chance to rebuttal.
DAVULURI on NDTV: How we break this cycle of colorism is not only companies, it is the Bollywood industry, having more skin tones reflected in campaigns. And of course media as well. This is a piece of a much larger conversation that needs to happen within India and it is not to be ignored.
NDTV ANCHOR: Nina Davuluri, thank you so much for joining us and raising some very important points. This is an issue that’s been affecting many Indian women, young girls and now increasingly we’re seeing men increasingly become the new market for these skin-whitening products…
This podcast is about the skin-lightening industry. It’s about what makes that industry possible: a demand for lighter skin. A perception, perhaps correct, that life may be a little bit easier, or better, if you weren’t as dark. It’s about the companies that are willing to play up that perception, and to sell to it. And it’s about the beauty industry’s history and some of its dangerous consequences.
Nina Davuluri may have gotten the last word in that TV interview. But the conversation around skin-lightening and colorism is in some ways just beginning. This is Unfair, a podcast brought to you by Glossy. I’m Priya Rao.
Nina’s interview on Indian television, and with me, didn’t happen in a vacuum. On Memorial Day this year, Minneapolis police killed a man who was in custody. The video of George Floyd’s death did what images of police brutality often do, sparking protests across the United States — like actually, in all 50 states — and even abroad. The Black Lives Matter movement was reinvigorated, and this time the demands made by its members and supporters went far. It wasn’t just about police violence and America’s terrible ability to generate gruesome bystander videos. It was about racism’s hold in all parts of society, including who we promote to the C-suite, the faces we see on bottles of maple syrup and the flags we fly at the racetrack.
Polls showed public support for Black Lives Matter surging, and big companies noticed. Nine days after Floyd’s death, Unilever — which makes and sells so-called “fairness creams” — shared an image on Instagram. It declared “we have a responsibility for racial justice.” They hashtagged #BlackLivesMatter. They pledged to donate more than $1 million to organizations including Black Lives Matter.
But — one of the most visible comments on Unilever’s post? It read: “Please stop selling skin-lightening products!”
KOUL: If you have an Instagram account, if you’re a beauty brand, and your comments are throttled with people being like, ‘This is bullshit.’ You have to answer it! You have to answer it.
That’s Scaachi Koul. She’s an editor at BuzzFeed News, where she wrote an article in 2017 about how skin-care companies sell one line of products in the U.S., and another around the world.
KOUL: They get to say that they are a diverse company and that they care about people of color and they want to protect brown and black skin. And then out of the other side of their mouth, maybe in the Philippines, they sell a product called like pearly white, that shows you like the gradient of a woman, like an Animorph cover, going from darker skin to very fair.
It’s true that if you look today on Nivea’s Filipino website, you’ll find a bunch of products billed as quote unquote whitening. L’Oréal’s Filipino website has a whole subsection for whitening, selling a line of products called “White Perfect”.
Beyond the flood of criticism on social media, thousands of people signed a petition asking Unilever to stop selling “Fair & Lovely,” the cream it has sold in India since 1975. And like Koul said, companies have to act when public outcry gets loud enough. That’s kind of the cost of doing business when you’re a massive company with a huge profile and millions of customers around the world. To some degree, CPG companies — that’s “consumer packaged goods” companies — have acted.
Unilever announced it would change “Fair & Lovely” to “Glow & Lovely.” And those “before and after” images showing how much lighter your skin could be? Unilever said it dropped that imagery from its packaging last year. Johnson & Johnson said it would no longer sell two of its Neutrogena fairness products in Asia; they were a small part of their business, anyway. L’Oréal, too, said it would pivot to the world “glow.” Here’s Jean-Paul Agon, the company’s chairman and CEO, speaking at a conference with stakeholders.
AGON: In Asia, these products have been called ‘whiteners’ or ‘fairness,’ and these names are increasingly challenged by our local consumers, and therefore we decided to adapt the wording, to adapt to the change in mindset. And we have decided, gradually in the months ahead, to change for words such as ‘glow’ which are considered to be more appropriate, like any cosmetic business. Other cosmetic businesses are doing this. I don’t think there’s any reason for all the concern in the media, but I think we should have indeed better explained this.
But critics of the skin-lightening industry will tell you that this is too little, too late. The word “glow” was already out there on some packaging, and that creates a kind of code that says, “Hey, this is all the same kind of stuff.”
KOUL: You know, like there’s a lot of imagery around milk and pearls and ‘fresh’ and ‘cucumber,’ it’s these very antiseptic words. And I think they realized people were starting to see through that and they thought, ‘Okay, well, we’ll just change the name and we’ll repackage a few bottles and then we’re good to go.’
It remains to be seen just how much these companies will change their branding. If it stays much the same, you can imagine that consumers will keep coming to those products in the hopes of getting fairer skin. Especially if, you know, they slap a sticker on there that says, “New name, same great product!” or something. And if we’re being real, it goes against every rule in the branding book to completely change a product that’s selling so well.
Johnson & Johnson didn’t find it too hard to cut and run. The company told us that those Neutrogena fairness products made up less than 1% of their total beauty sales last year.
But Fair & Lovely is big business. It reportedly has a 70% market share in India. And according to Bloomberg, it brings in more than half a billion dollars a year for Unilever. The company declined to share specifics about revenue. But that could be a decent chunk of the over $12 billion it made in the “Beauty & Personal Care” category in the first half of this year.
At fairandlovely.ae (that’s the “dot com” for the United Arab Emirates), you’ll find a website inviting you to see how the product has, quote, “transformed the lives of women through the years.”
Nina Davuluri, for one, has her eyes on whether the company can transform, too.
DAVULURI: I think that how they roll out their marketing campaign is going to be very telling of what their true intentions are — do they really care about their consumers? Are they really thinking about this thoughtfully from all perspectives? Are they really trying to dismantle this belief? So all of these questions people are asking… I think they’re going to be held accountable for it. I don’t think a name change is enough.
Even taking products off the shelf entirely would only be a start, Nina says.
DAVULURI: So it’s not about necessarily taking them off the shelf. I don’t think that solves the problem. But how we market it, I think has so much more power or how these companies market it has so much more power and can have so much more influence and I think this is really a point in time where they can use this to their advantage because they have left out an entire demographic of people, myself included.
It isn’t just activists who are taking this line. Dipanjan Chatterjee is an analyst at Forrester Research.
CHATTERJEE: Brands are a product of their times.
Companies are obviously going to make and sell products for which there’s demand, he says. But they would be smart, from a business perspective, to consider moving with the times.
CHATTERJEE: You know, big brands historically have been guilty of sort of falling into this trap of going with what’s prevailing rather than sort of thinking through what the right thing to do is. And you see that in a particularly glaring way in the wake of the recent racial justice movement, right? So in some sense brands have been kind of complicit in perpetuating existing stereotypes. But I think what’s happening now for all of these brands like J&J and Unilever is that the the voice of activism is strong enough that they cannot turn a deaf ear.
None of these conglomerates — Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, Procter & Gamble, L’Oréal or the Estée Lauder Companies — agreed to any interviews for this podcast. But these western CPG companies aren’t the only players in the market. Companies from all around the world make skin-lightening products, especially in Asia, where they find a huge domestic market. You can even buy them here: We’ve found these products on eBay, Amazon, and other online marketplaces. A study by the UN found that 40% of Chinese women regularly use skin-lightening creams, and that percentage is even higher in India and Nigeria, where most women use them.
We connected with someone who actually used these products… here in the U.S.
FLORES: Hi, okay, yeah, um, I’m Madele Flores. I am from San Diego. I’m 21 years old and I identify as Filipino-American.
Madele is an aspiring beauty blogger, on YouTube.
SOUND: Clip from Flores’ YouTube channel.
By day, she works at Ulta, the beauty store. And she’s always looked to her own culture when it comes to ideas about beauty.
FLORES: I grew up watching a lot of Filipino dramas on the Filipino channel, and they have a lot of ads that just promote skin-lightening in general. And I did notice that a lot of the actresses… every actress in the Philippines is like half-white for some reason, and I always was like, ‘Mom, how come nobody’s my skin color or darker? Like, why do they all have specific noses and why do they all look like that? And not, you know, like me and my cousins?’ And my mom would be like, ‘Oh, because, you know, they like the whiter look’ … at the time, she would say ‘Oh, it looks like more diverse’ or whatever. But now that I’m thinking about it, if everybody looks the same, does that make it more diverse?
Madele started using a Filipino soap bar — Likas Papaya — sometime around middle school. She was at a Filipino supermarket with her parents…
FLORES: I saw a box of soap. It’s called Likas. That’s a really popular one. It’s like a papaya soap basically, and it says ‘skin whitening’ on it. And I basically was like, ‘Hey, can I get this?’ And they got it for me.
Madele says she started using it on her knees and elbows to make them match her overall skin tone. But then…
FLORES: I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. If this makes my knees and like my elbows lighter and things like that, it would make the rest of my body lighter.’ So then, yeah.
She also started looking up skin-lightening videos on YouTube. YouTube, for the record, pointed us to a policy against videos that promote “dangerous remedies or cures.” But it seems that a lot of skin-lightening tutorials don’t count as dangerous. In any event, Madele says the change in her complexion was gradual, but pretty drastic.
FLORES: I remember my sixth grade school ID was like my normal skin color. And then my seventh grade one was significantly paler and I didn’t even notice anything until I want to say, like, last week. I was looking at my yearbook photos, and I showed it to my brother and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, look at this.’
I should also note that it isn’t exactly clear whether a lot of these skin-lightening products actually work. Some of them contain ingredients, like steroids or even mercury, that can definitely whiten skin — and those can be really harmful, too. We’ll get to that in a future episode. But in Madele’s telling, her skin was getting lighter. One of the things that kept her going was the positive reinforcement she got from her family.
FLORES: My grandma was like, ‘Oh my god, you got so light, like, you look so pretty.’ And whenever she went to the Philippines, she would come back and bring boxes of skin-whitening soap. And I remember around that time I went to a wedding. And I had seen family members that I hadn’t seen in a minute. And they’d be like, ‘Oh my gosh, Madele, you got so pretty, like, you look really good’ and whatever. And I remember asking my mom, ‘hey, why did you say I look really good? Like, I don’t understand, I didn’t really do anything.’ And she was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know, maybe you just shocked them because you know, you’re so much lighter now’ and things like that. So, yeah, I would say in general, it was a more positive reaction from my family.
Madele says she stopped using skin-lighteners in high school. She started playing field hockey, an outdoor sport in sunny San Diego. Keeping a tan off? It wasn’t going to happen.
FLORES: You know, like, I can’t really do anything about it, like what’s the point if I’m going to be whitening my skin just to get like dark again?
More importantly, she says, she started appreciating her natural skin tone from seeing positive depictions of darker skin in the media. Except this time, that wasn’t in the form of Filipino TV shows. It was social media.
FLORES: I think like around my junior year I started like following a lot more influencers of color. Like Bretman Rock, I remember following him, Nabela [Noor] I would follow very closely… Jackie Aina… like a lot of brown to dark-skin influencers and they kind of just made me appreciate my skin color more. So, I was like you know what, like ‘I’m cool with it.’ Like after that I became like very anti-skin-whitening. And I also stopped watching a lot of those Filipino shows just because it just like made me upset after that.
I should mention that I have my own memories of colorism. I didn’t call it by that name back then, but from the way people in my life spoke, it was clear that lighter skin was something you’d be lucky to have.
So, I decided to talk to my mom about it.
CHEKURI RAO: OK, I’m Raj Chekuri Rao and I’m from Laredo, Texas, and an English professor, but recently retired just a couple of months ago. And I’m looking forward to this interview.
She might sound formal, but she’s cool, I swear. And my mom lives an examined life, including on this topic.
CHEKURI RAO: Shakespeare had 157 sonnets and some of them were addressed specifically to the Dark Lady.
Oh yeah, my mom can go off on Shakespeare and the verse he dedicated to the Dark Lady.
CHEKURI RAO: Who was supposedly his mistress.
And on depictions of fairness in the Bible, too (she was an English professor, after all). But as much as I would have loved to hear more about literature, what I really wanted was for her to talk about her own perceptions.
CHEKURI RAO: I wanted my children to look fairer rather than darker, and if they’re dark, I don’t want that darkness becoming even more by exposure to the sun. So I used to tell them to put the sunscreen on and then also not to go out, not to play in the sun because of that idea which was ingrained in me.
My mom was born in Guntur, India, but came to the U.S. as a graduate student in 1973. When it comes to the subject of skin tone today, my mom contains multitudes. Here’s us talking about me and my three brothers.
CHEKURI RAO: Of my four children one is of very dark complexion, but he is the most handsome. Isn’t that right? You know, Chinnababi [Raj’s nickname for Priya’s brother Rajeev].
PRIYA to RAJ: Thanks, Mom! Yes, Thar [Priya’s nickname for her brother Rajeev] is very dark, but I also think that that you put more pressure, I think, and I don’t know if it’s because he’s a boy, but you didn’t want Burri or myself, who were fairer to be darker, because of the sun. Is it because we were already fairer?
For what it’s worth, my mom is extremely fair.
RAJ: Yeah, because you know, when you’re blessed with a beautiful complexion, why do you want to expose it to sun and lose it and become dark, and don’t you think it is good to preserve it? See that is the only notion here, it is not because I’m thinking you two because you’re fairer are more beautiful than the other two who are not as fair. But you know, I put pressure because I wanted you to maintain that color and not lose it.
But on the other hand, she’ll say this.
RAJ: My perception today is that color doesn’t really matter.
But when she said “maintain that color; don’t lose it…” that stuck with me. The reason I’m sharing this mother-daughter conversation with you is to back up what so many people we spoke to for this podcast have said. Colorism is deeply-ingrained. Even though my mom doesn’t mean any harm, and didn’t, this stuff can be insidious — especially in families or groups or cultures or countries that might obsess over light skin.
When Nina Davuluri went on Indian television to denounce colorism and the skin-lightening industry, she shared a story from her time touring India in 2016.
DAVULURI on NDTV: And I remember we had stopped at one of the side street stands and I see all of these packets of Fair and Lovely.
Historically, Unilever has sold Fair & Lovely — now Glow & Lovely — in small packages, which are really affordable.
DAVULURI on NDTV: And there was a mother who had been working in the fields all day, very clearly, by the sari that she was dressed in. And she had her seven-year-old daughter with her. And I see her at the end of the day spending the five rupees on this packet of Fair and Lovely and handing it to her daughter and telling her in Telugu, ‘so you don’t have the life that I have.’ And I sincerely believe that this mother loved her daughter. I think any mother wants the best for their children and wants to see them succeed and have opportunities that they don’t have. The problem with this is that she genuinely believed that fair skin will lead to her daughter’s success, that fair skin is ideal, that fair skin is more worthy.
Unfair is brought to you by Glossy. Our producer is Pierre Bienaimé, who also produced the music. Next week, on Unfair, we look at how the skin-lightening industry is regulated… and how it isn’t.
VOICE 1: In California, there was a woman who was in a coma from having used an adulterated cream that was purchased.
VOICE 2: And I think this is the sort of thing that society should object to, and we should do it through activism or through government policy.
VOICE 3: Unfortunately, mercury has been known to be toxic for decades, and even more unfortunately, it’s still not fully addressed.
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