Ain't no doubt, she's versatile and dynamic!
Kalpanee Gunawardana can work the camera so effortlessly and, to me, is the epitome of self-assurance. But, she has dealt with body shaming from the time she was little.
In Sri Lankan society, being tall, fair with long straight hair is the standard for women. And, anyone who looks remotely dissimilar to this is treated differently, and, often, subject to negative comments. This happened to Kalpanee from the time she was a toddler all through to school.
When it came to school plays, Kalpanee was always cast in more masculine roles like the boy or even a tree. “I was never the princess or the fairy, but my brother always was because he was so pretty!” she says. “And, I’ve never gone through an experience like that. It was very much in my head that ‘oh it’s ‘cause I’m dark and not pretty’. It was the only explanation that made sense to me.”
As Kalpanee grew older, things didn’t get better. From being called ‘muru’ (from Nigeria) by boys on her way home in the school van to feeling unattractive in huge plastic round glasses that her mom made her wear, Kalpanee endured teasing that was more hurtful than funny. “I was 12-years-old and this was the time when the girls are flirting and the boys would throw little notes into the van. And I was being compared to a dude and considered unattractive,” she says.
It wasn’t until Kalpanee left for England that things began to improve. She was considered beautiful and it was all rather shocking to her especially when an agency approached her. But, her experiences in Sri Lanka and the positive ones in England, helped her develop a thicker skin for when she returned home after university. Society’s beauty standards had barely changed, and Kalpanee felt the sting, even more, when she began working as a model.
Kalpanee was cast for a show by a leading brand and when she went for rehearsals (sans make-up with her glasses on), and proceeded down the catwalk, she was unceremoniously pulled off in front of her peers with no explanation. “An employee of the hotel came to me and said I’d been asked to leave,” she recounts. “Another staff member took me to the lobby while they discussed the issue. Then, the agency who booked me came to me and said, ‘Kalpanee, we’ll sort this out, but you’ve been asked to leave. We’re so sorry.’ I was humiliated, and what was worse, here was a brand that was portraying women as beautiful despite their appearance at this show.”
Kalpanee eventually learned through other sources that the director in charge hadn’t checked the brief, and when she saw Kalpanee at rehearsals decided she wasn’t the right fit for the brand based on her features and expressions, and this was after going for multiple fit-ons etc. “It was so bad. It really affected me, because for a while I couldn’t even shoot,” says Kalpanee. “I would get into the clothes and just stare into the mirror. It really knocks your confidence.”
Irrespective of skin colour, height, hair and size, people will always have something to say. “I’ve noticed that when someone gains weight, people don’t think twice about what they’re about to say — ‘Here’s my opinion that you didn’t ask me for, but I think you’ve put on weight’,” says Kalpanee. “But, really, who asked you and why are you telling me this? It’s not even being candid, because if you want to be honest, why would you say something that you know would make another person feel bad?”
As she rightly points out, it happens all the time. The conversation is uncalled-for and people think it’s okay to have this type of dialogue. But, it’s not. “If, as a society, we are going to move forward, all of this needs to change,” Kalpanee exclaims. “If it’s ingrained in you to not think about what you say to another human being, there’s a lot more work to do beneath the layers.”
“I find that our country, in particular, is very preoccupied with what you do and how you live your life,” she says. “You can’t tell somebody else, ‘You have to find dark skin as attractive as you find white skin’. It’s complicated. The conversation that should happen is ‘You don’t find her attractive and that’s okay. You can have your preference, but don’t hold it against her and call her ugly just because your perception of attractive is different.’ Think about what you say. It’s the little things, but if we focus on these, we can be a lot better as a community,” says Kalpanee.
Despite having supportive individuals in her life to negate the bad she’s withstood, she still has moments when she questions herself. “It’s a process that I’m still working through. I’m very confident when I’ve got make-up on because it’s almost like a mask to hide behind. But, when I don’t, it’s a struggle for me in terms of how I feel. I don’t know if I’m still okay with the way I look, but when I go out I try to go with the bare minimum or no make-up unless it is work related,” she reveals.
Kalpanee, being the fantastic role-model for young women she is, firmly believes that the first step to helping you deal with it all, is learning to love yourself, and like her, surrounding yourself with a support system. “Your journey is your own, so try not to let what other people say affect you,” she implores. “If you think you need to look a certain way to be accepted, then you’re not in the right environment. So, change it, because that power is within you. Plus, there are so many beautiful and wonderful human beings who will love you and accept you exactly the way you are. These individuals will never make you feel anything less than your glorious self.”
As I bid Kalpanee good-bye, I’m left with the resounding hope that we can all push through even if it’s with just one person who thinks you’re one heck of a lady. It’s true when you’re surrounded by people who love and support you, the haters fall away. But, ultimately, working on loving yourself is just as important, because you really are unique and fascinating in your own way.
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