After experiencing prejudice from the beauty industry through the years, I’ve learnt the importance of having a community that celebrates the authentic you.
It’s 2021 and inclusivity is a buzz-worthy word in the beauty scene right now. But it wasn’t always rainbows and butterflies growing up as a brown-skinned girl in Singapore. But first, a little background on myself. I’m a 30-year-old Singaporean Tamil Indian who’s born and raised in Singapore. I write stories about beauty and beyond at Honeycombers. Here, I share my experiences with colourism that extend beyond colour…
The root of the problem? Hair woes
The first incident occurred when I was eight. My math teacher came up to me and said, “Your hair is so messy, you either keep it neat or you have to cut it.” At the time, I had unruly, curly, frizzy hair with stubborn flyaways peeking out. At home, my mum tried all she could to put it into a neat ponytail. It obviously didn’t last long. That teacher gave me an ultimatum (I’d be sent to the principal’s office or spend the rest of class outside) that left my mum no choice but to bring me to the salon.
I had no idea what was in store. After struggling to tie my hair into a tidy ponytail, the stylist came back with a giant pair of yellow scissors. She snipped a large chunk of hair – and life – off me. That was the first time I hated my reflection. I maintained that short cut throughout my primary school days. It was hell. I even remember purchasing a wig attached to a beanie from This Fashion, a now defunct fashion retailer in Singapore (major #throwback). It’s affected me so much that I’ve never cut my hair short since. In fact, my hair’s like a security blanket now and you’ll rarely see it up.
That wasn’t the end of the story. In the past, having sleek pin straight hair was the trend. So my messy god-given curls stuck out like a sore thumb. I can’t count the number of times hair stylists would openly let out a sigh when I walked into the salon, whispering to their colleagues about my messy mane.
Their solution? Straightening and rebonding. Oh, the amount of money and hours I devoted to various treatments and root touch-ups. I spent most of my teenage years with chemically treated hair. I won’t say I hated it but I’ve only just started embracing my natural hair – and saving tons of $$$.
I’m sorry, what did you just say to me?
“You’re a heavy smoker, right?”
“Why are your toes so black?”
“OMG, you look like a werewolf from the back!”
Believe it or not, these were the beginning of three separate convos with people I barely knew. Needless to say, I was taken aback. It’s one thing to feel self-conscious about your flaws in your head but it gets real when people point it out. In public. In front of other people.
The worst part? These remarks came from my own blood, too. You leave the house feeling great until aunty Kamala (not her real name) points out that “your eyeshadow is too bright for you” or “your makeup is too heavy and doesn’t suit you”.
Of course, as an adolescent, you obsess over these things. I’ve tried every home recipe to brighten my dark lips (not a smoker BTW, and even if I was, shut up). Same goes for hair removal techniques – I once left hair removal cream on for too long and it burnt the top of my lip (ok, that one’s on me). I’ve also gone home with rashes all over my arms after a bad waxing incident. It’s only recently that I started to experiment with nail colours outside the usual nudes, burgundy and darker shades ‘cos someone said “that neon colour won’t suit your skin tone”.
The beginning of my love affair with makeup
Ah, the glory years. Where do I start? This was waayyy before the golden age of Kim K’s contouring trend or the Fenty Beauty phenomena; back when the darkest shade on the counter at Watsons made me look like a clown. No kidding. It was more than a decade ago, but the fugly white cast (especially below the eyes, you know what I mean) from old photographs still haunts me like Pennywise from IT.
Aside from smudgy eyeliner and powder that was at least a shade lighter than my skin tone, my choices were scarce. My only source of inspiration was YouTube. I vividly remember turning to beauty influencer Kaushal for tips. But we aren’t exactly the same shade and wider shades just weren’t accessible in Singapore. Shipping from the US was too expensive for my bank account.
The bigger issue: Identifying underlying racism
“You’re really fair for an Indian.” I still get iffy when people sprout these remarks. Am I supposed to give you an award for your backhanded compliment? I suggest you zip it. Also, what’s that supposed to mean? I can’t speak for everyone but we can all agree that the issue is more than just about colourism in Singapore.
It’s about the underlying racism when you diss someone for staying true to their natural hair or sticking to their hairy arms. Or when you give them a one-size-fits-all solution so they can blend in with the crowd. I’ve definitely grown a thick skin over the years. But it’s time we sniff out the prejudice and speak up.
The representation of inclusive beauty: Past vs present
I appreciate how the beauty industry has paved the way for inclusivity in the market but I shudder to think that it might be a strategy to keep up with the “trends”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for change. But it baffles me that things I was once ostracised for are now “cool”. Sure, I’m glad that applying coconut oil on your hair and turmeric on your face, switching from straight hair to bouncy curls, or using makeup techniques to create the illusion of exaggerated features are norms today. They’re made popular by the mass market (a topic for another day), but there’s still room for improvement.
As an American beauty influencer and the founder of Huda Beauty, Huda Kattan aptly sums it up. “I feel like society, perpetuated by brands, still offers very unrealistic beauty standards. I think we need to take a larger responsibility as brands to disclose what consumers are looking at, […] to protect confidence and self-worth in our communities.”
Being a beauty writer, the cracks are pretty obvious. Now that social campaigns such as #UnfairandLovely have come to light, products with words like “fair” and “whitening” are swapped out for “brightening” and “glowy”. Defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? Beauty campaigns use the inclusivity tag but only bring in “popular” shades to Singapore. I still receive press drops with the lightest shade. I was legitimately confused when a product launch of a popular makeup brand didn’t carry my shade even though it was marketed as an inclusive brand for years.
A silver lining
It’s not all gloom and doom. Save for the bad apples, I’ve seen a tremendous shift in the industry. Of course, we’ve got to give it to Fenty Beauty, as well as retail giants like Sephora for bringing indie brands by founders from all backgrounds and skin tones to Singapore. I was pleasantly surprised that the hair stylist at my recent trip to the salon told me to embrace my curls. I’ve also got a great platform that allows me to write honest reviews, keeping my brown skin concerns in mind. Having thousands of people read my work and identify with me has been pretty exhilarating.
It warms my heart that the brown community is speaking up against colourism and unrealistic beauty standards. Young kids are rocking their features and there are multiple social media pages that create a community, a safe space to strut what momma gave them. Brown-skinned influencers and creators like @Browngirlgang, @dosacolors, @thelifeofasocialbutterfly and @livetinted immediately put me in a better mood. Breakout star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan from the Netflix series Never Have I Ever was a breath of fresh air strutting her authentic self on the silver screen.
Though we’ve still got a long way to go, I’m glad we’re working towards changing the narrative and diversifying beauty standards. If I could go back in time, the one thing I’d tell myself is to be my authentic self. Do anything you want, but do it for yourself and not for the people around you. Speak up when you encounter issues like these, kick off positive conversations and surround yourself with people who love you for who you are.
I still struggle with being comfortable in my own skin. But you know what? It’s all about the journey and taking it one step at a time.
Note: All experiences and views expressed are my own. Everyone has their unique journey and I can’t claim to speak for anyone. But if you’d like to share yours, slide into our DMs and we can have a convo!