Sri Lankan influencer claims Unilever bullied her over objections to whitening product

A Colombo-based editor has spoken up about how the brand ‘made her life miserable’ after she denounced a whitening product on Instagram.

Sri Lankan influencer claims Unilever bullied her over objections to whitening product

Kinita Shenoy, the former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan in Sri Lanka, says she was effectively bullied by one of the biggest conglomerates in the world: Unilever.

In a recent report by Buzzfeed, Shenoy said that she received a 'freebie' in the form of a whitening product from Pond's, a cosmetics brand owned by Unilever. Staff who sent the product pressured her to promote the product on Cosmopolitan's social media, which she succumbed to.

But her personal Instagram displayed a different message. She said: "I appreciate the lovely packaging but I'm not really on board with the concept of 'White Beauty'. Aren't we past the point where we tell wonderful, melanin-popping Asian women they need to make their skin look whiter?"

Shenoy told Buzzfeed that after she wrote the post, in 2018, Unilever representatives "unleashed a pressure campaign on her employer" to demand positive coverage of the products.

Unilever was a major advertiser for the publication, and Shenoy's posts led to threats from the brand to pull ads. This eventually resulted in Shenoy leaving the industry altogether, she told Buzzfeed, adding that she lived in a "state of fear".

The report added that Shenoy and others in Sri Lanka's fashion industry described "intense pressure" on journalists, models, influencers, and beauty pageant competitors to use and endorse skin-lightening products.

Earlier this month, India's Hindustan Unilever (HUL) and Unilever Sri Lanka announced that the company's popular whitening line, Fair & Lovely, was to be rebranded to Glow & Lovely against the backdrop of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The Fair & Lovely brand has existed in India since 1975 and last year garnered US$500 million in sales there.

Hajar Alafifi-Laadel, chairperson and managing director of Unilever Sri Lanka said, "We are making our skin care portfolio more inclusive, celebrating the true diversity of beauty. The brand's communication has progressed from fairness to the skin's natural glow, which is a more holistic measure of healthy skin. This change has been very well received by our consumers."

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Shenoy told Campaign Asia-Pacific: "Unilever says that the rebrand has been in the works for years and is unrelated to the recent outrage over BLM and colourism."

She added that at no point has the company denounced colourism, but that it has started to gently shift its narrative to "healthy glowing skin" over "whitening", despite continuing to sell whitening creams.

"Colourism is a deeply ingrained problem, rooted in a toxic mix of history, colonialism, and decades of harmful marketing practices," Shenoy said. "It's not going to be fixed by a surface-level name change."

The Unilever product in question, Pond's "White Beauty", is still on Sri Lankan shelves.

"There are plenty of local copycat brands that openly support colourism and the advertising narrative that dark skin is ugly and makes women unemployable, undesirable or unworthy," said Shenoy.

Another instance in the country—and also highlighted in the Buzzfeed report—involved Ornella Gunesekere, former Miss Universe Sri Lanka, who said that her crown was nearly snatched when she refused to endorse a local whitening brand called Facia, a major sponsor of the beauty pageant.

During the beauty competition in 2018, a Facia representative reportedly told contestants that "dark skin is ugly" and "to win Miss Universe you have to be white". The representative also used the N-word.

Another local brand that promotes fairness creams and tablets is Lia, which produced an ad in 2018 showcasing a dark-skinned woman who turned many shades fairer upon using its product.

Johnson & Johnson, meanwhile, announced last month that it would halt sales of whitening products in Asia and the Middle East, including its Clean & Clear Fairness and Neutrogena Fine Fairness lines.

A Reuters report said that 6,277 tonnes of skin lightener products were sold worldwide last year, according to data from Euromonitor International.

A version of this story first appeared on Campaign Asia-Pacific

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