2020 Jun 15
Colourism pervades Sri Lankan society in the most subliminal ways, as beauty continues to be equated with fairer skin. From billboards advertising the ultimate ‘fairness solution’ to snide remarks by opinionated aunts, prejudiced standards of beauty and rampant colourist sentiments have become a self-destructive problem for Sri Lanka’s youth. It is worth noting that colourism does not emerge or exist in isolation. It persists through the intersections of colonial legacies, deep-rooted social norms, and corporate culture. Here, we take a look at Sri Lanka’s obsession with lighter skin, signs of progress and what you can do to encourage spaces that value people for who they are – regardless of their skin colour.
The politics of beauty: a colonial legacy?
As a country that was under the British Rule for over a century, colonialism seems to have significantly influenced Sri Lankan society in many ways, including exacerbating colourism. With labourers working out in the sun all day while the elite pass time indoors, colonial rule certainly helped legitimize rigid social hierarchies and stratified people according to skin colour. Needless to say, the European noble class also had lighter skin than the locals they ruled over, thereby perpetuating norms that associated light skin with privilege and superiority. Along with other cultural and social influences, Sri Lanka’s bias towards fairer skin likely stems from this tousled part of our colonial history.
Sri Lanka’s fashion industry: representation or tokenism?
Sri Lankan model and businesswoman, Kalpanee Gunawardana, has been quite outspoken about the issue of colourism in the local fashion industry. Commenting on the matter, Kalpanee observes beauty ideals, tokenism, exoticisation and faddism as primary influences that continue to fail women of darker complexions in Sri Lanka.
“When the accepted forms of beauty ideals are largely euro-centric, models that do not conform are discouraged from even entering the industry. With low prospects for work and opportunities, many of them are not able to make a career out of it” said Kalpanee, who also pointed to the mental toll borne by models who have had to face rejection and lesser opportunities.
Does the local fashion industry have a genuine drive for diversity? Or are we still failing to distinguish between genuine representation and mere tokenism?
“When a model is used as a performative device to appear inclusive, the root problems of colourism do not get addressed,” says Kalpanee. Commenting on the issue of exoticisation, she pointed out that “Sri Lanka is a land of many tones; when skin colours that do not fit into the accepted narrative are seen under this lens there is a process of othering. It tells the consumer that the beauty of the model is rare. Phrases like ‘she has exotic, beautiful features’ or ‘he is an ethnically beautiful man’ come to mind.”
According to Kalpanee, models who do not conform to conventional standards of beauty are also constrained by issues such as faddism. With trends like #BrownGirlMagic propping up in the Western world, Kalpanee emphasizes that despite “the agency we have in engaging in those conversations from our side of the hemisphere, there is no systemic change and models then find themselves out of work once a new trend comes into play.”
Skin-whitening cosmetics: a main culprit
Makeup and beauty products are great forms of individuality and self-expression. However, the ‘face’ of many cosmetic brands in Sri Lanka tend to be failing women of darker complexions. Women of fairer skin have been given a bigger platform in being brand ambassadors for beauty products. In Sri Lanka, just like most of South Asia, women with darker skin are often excluded or treated less favourably in the field.
Inquiring on the matter, we spoke to Dr. Sahan Mendis, a Cosmetic and Aesthetic Physician practicing in Sri Lanka. “We get clients who inquire about lightening skin treatments quite regularly,” said Dr. Mendis, who also pointed to influences such as the lack of representation in the Bollywood industry that has led many, especially women and girls in Sri Lanka, to assume that fair skin is more desirable.
Dr. Mendis pointed out that the National Medicines Regulatory Authority mandates that beauty clinics are generally not allowed to promote whitening injections or procedures of a similar nature. A common substance used for treatments is “glutathione” – an antioxidant that prevents and reverses the effects of free radicals in the body. This antioxidant is usually reserved for severe lung disorders and other serious conditions but due to a lack of oversight, the product is also used intravenously for skin lightening and anti-ageing purposes. However, reports of several side effects (i.e. such as rashes, thyroid issues and even cancer if used in the long-term) following the use of glutathione injections for skin lightening surfaced, the use of this product has been banned in several countries. In Sri Lanka too, the glutathione injection is not registered as a safe drug.
Additionally, “bleaching products have so many side effects,” stressed Dr. Mendis, “they can cause severe acne and irreversible damage to your skin. Overall, it can be extremely damaging, and using them is not recommended.” Interestingly, Dr. Sahan Mendis also expressed that a person’s wish to become fairer or have lighter skin eventually boils down to a matter of personal choice. “If the opportunity is available to a person, it is up to them to make a choice and have the freedom to choose. Such decisions must be respected.”
Signs of progress
With increased awareness and advocacy efforts, ideals of beauty have shifted and facilitated inclusive spaces where people feel valued and confident in their skin. However, Kalpanee Gunawardana cautions that “though there have been many a stride over the past years, whether most of these actions fall into performative or behavioural in response to a trend is yet to be seen.” Nonetheless, she added that “What [she] can say confidently is that conversations are taking place every day; from the new generation questioning established practices to apologies from those who have been complicit or ignorant. I believe in the power of forgiveness, I believe in the power of education: teaching all of us to do better.”’
Interestingly, several ventures aimed at challenging colourism have emerged in the past few years. A campaign that began in 2016, named #UnfairAndLovely, is a case in point. Four years on, the photo series and hashtag #UnfairAndLovely continues to garner popularity over social media. Two South Asian sisters Mirusha and Yanusha Yogarajah became both the poster children and spearheads of the campaign. #UnfairAndLovely generates conversations on colourism and fair skin bias in South Asian communities. The fact that South Asians experience colourism at every turn, from matrimonial notices looking for ‘fair-skinned brides” to being able to get better jobs if one has lighter skin has become so normalised that it often goes unnoticed.
Closer to home, efforts to challenge colourism have made headway in the recent past. Sothys, a popular skincare brand, launched a campaign named “Bronzed in Beautiful” in 2014 aimed at encouraging Sri Lankans to celebrate our identities and skin tone. Commenting on the issue of colourism and what the campaign hopes to achieve, Soraya De Soyza, the Director of the Esthèti Centre noted that “Sri Lankans are blessed with beautiful caramel and mocha complexions which are very much sought after.” She advises Sri Lankans to “[not] let family, friends and commercials bully you into thinking otherwise. I hope this campaign will help people all over to love the skin they’re in.” Learn more about the “Bronzed is Beautiful” campaign here .
What can I do to challenge colourism?
1. Embrace who you are
“It is so important to embrace who you and be confident in your skin,” says Dr. Sahan Mendis. He recommended having an honest conversation with anyone who makes you ‘less than’ and to let them know how their remarks make you feel. “Make it a point to surround yourself with positive people.”
2. Re-think your beauty routine
Create your definition of what it means to be ‘beautiful.’ Banish the idea that fairness products and whitening creams are the only way to feeling and looking beautiful. Adjust your makeup routine in a way that compliments your complexion and features. Embrace your look and consider resisting products that require radical changes to your body.
3. Be accountable.
As a concluding remark, Kalpanee encourages the reader – the friend, the employer, the lawmaker- to do better. “Learn and educate yourselves, dismantle and question existing structures. No human being deserves to feel less than, have social, economic, or political repercussion because of the colour of their skin.” She encourages readers to join her IG sessions on Unpacking Colourism. Follow her on Instagram via @kalpanee.gunawardana to learn more.
4. Speak out
Don’t choose to remain silent or passively accept snide remarks made on yours or someone else’s complexion. You would be surprised to know that many people are willing to learn from their mistakes. Point them out and help others understand why colourism is an issue in Sri Lanka and what they can do to actively challenge such norms.
5. If you are fair-skinned, acknowledge your privilege and use it for good
It is not too surprising to state that fair-skinned people get far more compliments on their complexion than others. So when someone jumps in to pay you are a narrow-minded compliment, consider pushing back and educating them that beauty is not synonymous with fair skin. If you are in the fashion, modelling or show biz industries, make sure that women and girls of varied complexions are represented.
Support beauty brands and outlets that make an effort to challenge colourism and celebrate all skin colours, but most importantly, learn to be comfortable with yourself and love the skin you are in!