Colourism: How About We Put This Nonsense To Rest Once And For All? - Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka
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Colourism: How About We Put This Nonsense To Rest Once And For All?

An educational rant

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“Dont go in the sun, youre going to get dark!” is probably the chorus of every Sri Lankan girl’s childhood. It’s not, “Don’t go outside, the UV rays are bad for you” or “Don’t go out in the sun, you’ll get a sunstroke.” The fear is that you’ll end up outside and *oh, the horror* get a shade or two darker!

Colourist sentiments have been subtly ingrained in our society for generations. You see colourism rear its head everywhere, from billboards to TV spots, but it’s so commonplace that it often goes unnoticed. What we don’t realize is that it can, and has, influenced the way we act, the way we think and most importantly, the way we perceive beauty — in ourselves and others.

So where did Sri Lankans get this warped notion that tanned or darker skin is less desirable? Some trace it back to colonialism, when fairer skin was equated with superiority and privilege. It has been suggested that this came about due to dark skin being associated with labourers working in the fields all day and lighter skin with those wealthy enough to idly spend time indoors. It’s not hard to see how this perception has stuck and evolved, taking on a life of its own. I bet if you ask someone for a credible reason why fairer skin is more lauded, you won’t get a more satisfactory answer!

In addition to this potential colonial stigma, we are also faced with the influence of certain fashion and beauty giants. They have continuously endorsed unrealistic and sometimes unreachable standards of beauty. With the archetype of the ‘fair girl with just the right amount of tan’ being deemed the definition of attractiveness, it’s easy to see why most women and young girls suffer massive self-esteem issues and constantly brand themselves as either ‘too dark’ or ‘too pale.’

These latter groups rarely realize that the models and celebrities who appear on the covers of magazines, or in fashion spreads and advertisements don’t have quite the same skin tone in real life — the whitewashing of images is rampant.

Now, finally, the issue of whitewashing is making international headlines. In 2015, a host of magazines were criticized for lightening skin tones on their covers featuring prominent celebs such as Beyoncé, Rihanna and Kerry Washington. Thus, women everywhere began to realize the false reality of the ideal skin tone and the unattainable standards they set themselves.


When the importance of being ‘fair’ has been placed so deeply in our subconscious, you can bet your bottom dollar that it will have some sort of psychological impact.

Just look at the matrimonial section in any newspaper! Literally every prospectus starts with so and so looking for a ‘fair bride’ for their son, or parents looking for a husband for their ‘fair daughter.’ “It’s like ‘fair’ is synonymous with a girl being kind or having a good personality,” says designer Marlon Ravindu. “What if she’s fair, but a complete b*tch? You can’t judge someone’s morals by the colour of her skin.” Shehara* adds, “My mum was the darkest out of all her siblings, thereby she was nicknamed ‘Brownie.’ It’s obvious that on some level it affected her, because to this day she says she can’t wear certain colours or types of clothes because she feels she is ‘too dark.’”

Shehara’s mum isn’t alone in this. Thousands of Sri Lankan girls grow up with a degree of stigma attached to their darker skin, which have most believing they are less physically attractive because of it. It’s almost as if they view their darker skin as a handicap and quite frankly, with the beauty culture and every aunty in-between telling them not to get too dark, is it any wonder?

The damage of colourism goes far beyond the psychological realm and can turn dermatologically harmful, very quickly. Brands are notorious for taking our anxieties and making them into lucrative business prospects – *cough* anti-ageing everything – and self-doubt about the colour of our skin is no exception. If you scrutinize the aisles at any supermarket, one of the primary products in which you will have multiple choices is the brands of ‘whitening cream’ you can purchase. You want whitening night cream? No problem! Whitening BB cream? Take your pick!

Lets get one thing straight: ‘fairness’ or ‘whitening’ creams are bleaching creams. They are one and the same. If you are using a cream or treatment purely to make your entire complexion a shade or two lighter, then you are essentially bleaching your skin. (Please keep in mind that this is very different from cases of treating skin for scarring, blemishes or pigmentation, which are legitimate skin concerns).

What most people fail to realize is the disastrous effects that these types of creams and treatments can have on your skin. “Skin colour is genetic,” says Sareeta Don Carolis of Bernard Cassière Sri Lanka. “Darker skin has more melanocytes which gives skin natural protection from UV rays. Most skin bleaching products contain harmful active ingredients such as mercury, steroids and high levels of hydroquinone. A few contraindications are premature skin ageing, increased susceptibility to skin cancer, epidermal thinning and health risks resulting from absorption [of these chemicals] into our bodies.”

Hydroquinone is great for topical use, especially in cases of hyperpigmentation, acne marks or other skin discoloration problems. The issue arises when you use it on your whole face for extended periods of time. While the chemical inhibits melanin production in order to lighten discoloration, long term and improper use can lead to your pigment cells being damaged en masse. “Extended use can make your skin extremely sensitive to sunlight and UV radiation, as well as increase susceptibility to hyper or hypopigmentation or even severe acne,” explains Soraya De Soyza of Sothys Sri Lanka.

So what can we do about it? “These products and brands are simply catering to people’s demands and their insecurities. So you can’t really fault them,” says Development Economist, Ashan*. “It’s up to society to reshape the narrative around skin colour. Prominent personalities, magazines and the media – which command influence in society – can go a long way in doing that.”

“Any skin colour can be beautiful — if you want to improve your skin, sure go for it, but don’t change it!” says Soraya, who organized the campaign Bronzed and Beautiful through Sothys Sri Lanka to highlight exactly that.


As is always the case, the grass is truly greener on the other side. While some feel disadvantaged by their darker skin tones, I have friends who spend hours on the beach trying to “get just a bit more tan.” Personally, my ‘aha’ moment came along while

I was at university. Random girls would ask me “What self- tanner do you use?” because my skin colour was “to die for.” It got me thinking: why can’t we appreciate the skin colour we have? Isn’t it hiiiilarious that while there are so many people who covet our skin tone, we ourselves find it far  less desirable?

Obviously, awareness and increased knowledge on the subject has meant that people are taking a more responsible approach to colourist remarks and propaganda. More brown skinned models and actresses are taking centre stage, and there is far less tolerance for ignorant statements surrounding topics of ideal beauty and complexion. While this is a great step forward, in 2016 colourism should really be a non-issue. It’s sad to see that in this day and age of such massive advancements, we are still capable of judging someone by how fair or dark her skin is.


So, is it really a case of being damned if you do and damned if you don’t? Does one’s self worth have to be determined by the ability to be more than deathly pale but light enough that you don’t have to be told (by those oh-so-kind aunties) to stay away from the sun? And most importantly — why do we even care? It’s high time we embrace the skin we are in. It’s time to stop attaching our self-confidence to a tone of brown or cream…We are all so much more than that.


This story first appeared as “Colour Outside The Lines” in the June 2016 edition of Cosmopolitan Sri Lanka. Subscribe now to get a free issue and everything you need to know!

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