The Localist

What makes a Sri Lankan beautiful?

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So, moving on from our obvious obsession with tea, I’d like to focus on another craze prevalent in Sri Lanka: the ‘fairness’ preoccupation. Fair skin is highly desirable, and it’s often a topic addressed blatantly with zero political correctness. My holidays in Sri Lanka usually coincide with the Aussie summer and winter vacations. It’s not uncommon, therefore, for random aunties to complement me on how ‘white’ I’ve become over the winter, or remark on what a shame it is that the summer sun has turned me ‘black’. For a country where the majority of its citizens come in varying shades of brown, it’s funny how we define people using such binary oppositions.

The roots of this infatuation with fairness probably lie in Sri Lanka’s colonial past, which is reinforced by contemporary notions of beauty portrayed via the Western media. Flip through a local newspaper and you will find matrimonial ads that request ‘absolutely fair’ brides. Switch on a local TV channel and you will find commercials for ‘Fair and Lovely’ (the advertisement is picture above) or ‘Fair and Handsome’ cosmetics. Head to the beach and you will see locals covered from head to toe in order to avoid getting a tan. Explore the outdoors on a sunny day and you will find Sri Lankans walking around with umbrellas to avoid the sun. Bronzing cream you ask? Ha! Never heard of it! A tall, dark and handsome Prince Charming? Ah how lovely! But wait a minute! Why dark? Why not a tall, fair and handsome prince?

In 1955, there was a full lunar eclipse in Sri Lanka, prior to which an astrologer predicted that any dark complexioned person who drank blended Wada Kaha, an indigenous plant, during the eclipse hours would become fair overnight. During the following days, hundreds of women were admitted to hospitals island-wide with severe vomiting. Alas, there was no miracle fairness potion! This incident did gave rise, however, to several songs with very catchy lyrics – the Baila song Wada Kaha Sudiya is popular even today!

All this got me thinking: What makes a Sri Lankan attractive? For me, no matter what the skin colour, it’s that unique Sri Lankan smile coupled with a happy-go-lucky attitude that’s really appealing. It’s the way in which a Sri Lankan can turn any serious issue around using lighthearted witticism. In Sri Lankan, we say that ‘even if the ship is sinking, we are partying’, and this is exactly how we are!

MEET THE LOCAL: VIRANDI WETTEWA

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