As a westerner travelling to South Asia, one assumes an immediate status of privilege; whether desired or not. As a (black) American woman, living in London as an ‘expat’, I entered the beautiful country of Sri Lanka curious about the roles race and ethnicity might play within Sri Lankan society. I wondered what lessons I might take away, and if being brown in a sea of other brown faces would grant me some sense of invisibility.  

Interestingly enough it was not about me, or the I lessons learned. It was what I noticed, or rather the act of noticing a type of beauty propaganda that is deeply ingrained within Sri Lankan culture.

 
Driving through Sri Lanka
 

Peering out the window into the ‘light’

We spent our first day travelling by car from Colombo to Kandy. The journey by car can take up to three hours. Although we made a few stops to visit places of interest along the way, the majority of time was actually spent looking out the car window at the lush landscapes, people living their day to day lives, and a few random elephants that strolled along the roads. It wasn’t until we got closer to our hotel in Kandy, that I began to see an array of small shops breaking up the sea of green.

 
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Sri Lankan business near Kandy
 

It must be the business woman in me or the fact that I grew up in a family of small business owners, but I loved looking at the various shops, and how commerce fuelled daily living. It was quite normal to see stall after stall of fruit vendors, and shops with sweets, grocery goods, and various nic-nacks. Most stalls and shops were plastered with adverts promoting SIM cards, and photos of very stunning women advertising beauty products.

After driving for several hours, and seeing more billboards as we got closer to Kandy, I noticed a recurring trend. Practically every single beauty advert featured very fair skinned women. I was very curious about this discovery because outside of our female flight attendants, the majority of Sri Lankan women I’d come across often had a darker complexion than I.  After seeing one advert that was obviously promoting skin lightening cream, I asked our driver Jai, if skin lightening creams were very popular in Sri Lanka? He laughed, and said, “Ohh you see? You see all the ads around here?” 

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Sri Lankan business near Kandy
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Sri Lanka skin whitening
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He went on to explain how women think lighter skin makes them look and feel more attractive. He described how pharmacy products have been most popular amongst the current generation, but women have been using more “natural” methods of skin lightening for decades.  In Nakinti Nofuru’s article on the effects of skin bleaching amongst African and Asian women, she mentions how a Sri Lankan woman at the ripe age of 72, religiously covers her skin with her ‘miracle’ concoction of ground turmeric paste. She attributes her clear, unlined face to this daily anecdote.  

The article didn’t share a photo of the woman, but as we drove through the busier cities, I imagined that any young woman could easily be influenced to adopt a similar regimen throughout her life.  The adverts were everywhere; even in some of the more remote villages, where one might think that the Euro-centric value of fairer skin could not rear its’ ugly head. I probed a bit deeper, and asked Jai if his wife ever felt pressure to lighten her skin? He paused for what seemed like thirty seconds. He didn’t answer right away. He answered quietly, with an uncomfortable laugh in his voice….“Sometimes.” Ok, perhaps I had probed enough for the day.

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Sri Lanka driving 

‘Pale’ is its own global currency 

Despite the prevalence of the adverts, Sri Lanka is not leading the trend towards paler skin. In 2012 the World Health Organization (WHO) reported some startling global statistics. Their research showed that the highest rate of skin bleaching creams come from Nigeria, at 77%. The second (61%) comes from India (Sri Lanka’s neighbour, and arguably sister country). Current research by Global Industry Analysts (GIA), a market research publisher, predicts that the skin lightening cream industry is expected to reach $23 billion by 2020. Jai told us that the industry is “big business” in Sri Lanka. Although some brands in Sri Lanka are more popular than others, I honestly lost track of

Jai told us that the industry is “big business” in Sri Lanka. Although some brands in Sri Lanka are more popular than others, I honestly lost track of the amounts of brands during the 4 days we were there. At one point, I went inside a local pharmacy to pick up some kleenex, and the wall behind the till attendant was filled with dozens of varying brands, plus large adverts featuring before and after photos. Big business indeed!

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Embracing the brown

My experience of Sri Lanka was not defined by my act of noticing such a prevalent issue.  I often wondered what the perception was of myself?  I was a black American tourist; sporting a complexion that easily blended into the beautiful array of brown shades. I was hardly invisible. I had nothing but ever curious stares, questions, and compliments about my hair. I was often asked where I was from, and before I could answer, they would excitedly start gesturing towards my hair, and in some cases, wanting to entwine me in a hug. 

In a country that I entered as a tourist, I felt a bit like the local attraction (read about how my hair stopped tea production at a factory in Nuwara Eliya).  It was a really curious experience for me. Did my obvious embrace of non-European attributes inspire some type of nationalistic “brown” pride? I won’t sit here and continue to add my own self-projected layers of complexities to an issue that is covered in centuries of colonial influence, and media propaganda.

 

Sri-Lanka-Sigiriya | HDYTI

 

I can’t forget that this is a blog post about me “noticing,” and not an academic discussion to delve into all the particularities the subject deserves.  I honestly struggled with the way I wanted to approach the subject; journalistic vs. personal experience. Ohhhhh the never ending stream of thoughts that entered my head….”It’s our blog. I can write in any style I choose,” or the self-critical banter, “there are other articles that will address this issue way better than I ever could.”  In the end, it was a topic that interested me, and I felt it best to utilise both styles of approach so that the facts could speak for themselves, and that I could share some of my own thoughts and experiences whilst exploring the beautiful country of Sri Lanka.

Ohhhhh the never ending stream of thoughts that entered my head….”It’s our blog. I can write in any style I choose,” or the self-critical banter, “there are other articles that will address this issue way better than I ever could.”  In the end, it was a topic that interested me, and I felt it best to utilise both styles of approach so that the facts could speak for themselves, and that I could share some of my own thoughts and experiences whilst exploring the beautiful country of Sri Lanka.

 HDYTI Tip:  I did discover a campaign called Dark is Beautiful, spearheaded by  Women of Worth (WOW). The initiative “challenges the belief that the value and beauty of people, is determined by the fairness of their skin.”  Although WOW is based in India, their focus is not limited to their geographic headquarters.  Check them out, and follow them for campaign updates!

Do you notice any particular trends in adverts when you travel? What kind of messages are you noticing? Have you travelled to other countries where skin lightening cream adverts are pervasive? Feel free to share your thoughts below! We’d love to hear from you!