Unilever Reportedly Attempted to Get a Cosmopolitan Editor Fired for Complaining About Its Skin Lightening Cream

Illustration for article titled Unilever Reportedly Attempted to Get a Cosmopolitan Editor Fired for Complaining About Its Skin Lightening Cream
Image: Khaled Desouki/AFP (Getty Images)

Skin lightening creams like Fair and Lovely have been on the market for decades, pushing bleaching and skin-whitening agents to women who live in societies where lighter skin is prized. For editor Kinita Shenoy, promoting these brands’ products in the pages of Cosmopolitan, where she worked, or on her own personal social media, was a non-negotiable part of her job. When she pushed back, Unilever, the consumer product giant that owns brands like Pond’s, wasn’t thrilled.


As Buzzfeed reports, Shenoy posted a thank you to the brand on Cosmopolitan’s Instagram story, fulfilling the unspoken contract between a brand and the editors it relies on to promote its products. But Shenoy also posted about the skin-lightening products on her personal Instagram story. “Aren’t we past the point where we tell wonderful, melanin-popping Asian women they need to make their skin look whiter?” she wrote. Shenoy’s caught the eye of Unilever executives, who contacted the publisher demanding that Shenoy be fired or that the magazine run two pages every six months promoting their skin lightening products. Shenoy refused to cave, and Unilever retaliated by pulling all advertising from the magazine for six months. It was only after Shenoy hired a lawyer and got the CEO of Unilever involved that the brand started advertising in the magazine again.

This incident is one of many others detailed in Buzzfeed’s report, which investigates the unusual control skin lighting brands attempt to exert over the influencers and editors who help them advertise in South Asia. Ornella Gunesekere, the winner of Miss Universe Sri Lanka in 2018, refused to endorse Facia, another skin-lightening brand, after sitting through a presentation by one of the brand’s representatives that included the use of the n-word and the assertion that “dark skin is ugly” and that to win Miss Universe, you must be white. Gunesekere was supposed to appear in a TV commercial to promote the products but eventually walked off the shoot. Facia, which was a sponsor of the Miss Universe Sri Lanka pageant, pulled out and has not advertised with them since.

Sadly, though, this is nothing new. Skin lightening creams are a byproduct of colonialism, lingering in spaces where white people existed as the ruling class for centuries. Change in this industry is particularly glacial; in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and increasing outside pressure, Unilever announced that they would remove language about “brightening” and “lightening” on some of their products—a small but necessary step that might just be lip service but could be the start of some real change.

Read the full story at Buzzfeed.

Senior Writer, Jezebel



Here me out. I wonder at the impact this will have on East Asian skin care as well, where paleness has long been prized, to the point of the super aggressive sun hats. Ihad a long term SO who was gen 1.5 Taiwanese American, who bought me those aggressive sun hats. Granted in my case, as a burner and freckler verses tanner, it was much appreciated, but his message was loud and clear, stay pasty.

But anyway, is the marketing messages about being whitening as in reducing melanin more important than the way that many people actually use them? I fell in love with a Korean product, skin 79 BB cream, which is a whitener. I mean, I don’t need my skin any lighter, if it was I’d glow under black light, but I do have acne scars, freckles, sun spots, hormone spots, etc that it does wonders for. Plus it’s a tinted moisturizer with sunblock that keeps me from using multiple products leading to more acne, and restarting the cycle,as well as being quite affordable.

Rather than a product overhaul, maybe we just need this marketing one? It as most things is complicated. No one actually needs their skin any whiter not just ghost tinted me, it’s a terrible societal message, that is rooted in both prestige and colonialism. Then there’s those of us who have these so-called blemishes and want them reduced. But I also suppose that as society rightfully marches on, those of us with blemishes will not be made to feel ugly as a result, much like our melanin enriched sisters have and are.