I Was Excluded From Beauty Because Of My Skin Tone. Here’s How I’m Fighting Colorism In The Industry
“You’re really pretty for a dark-skinned girl.” “Who turned off the lights? Where is Illekkiya?” “You’d be so much prettier if you were light-skinned.” Six years ago, I made a YouTube video called “Dark Skin Ruined My Life,” where I talked about the racism and discrimination I’ve faced due to my dark skin. As of today, it has over 260,000 views. I knew a lot of people have experienced colorism — prejudice against those with darker skin tones — but I didn’t realize just how prevalent it is. And it's because of colorism (and by extension, Eurocentric beauty standards) that there's a stigma of being less attractive or less beautiful if you have darker skin.
The responses I received after I posted the video was overwhelming. And to this day, people still reach out and say, “You made me feel more confident. You made me want to wear hot pink lipstick.” As a beauty and lifestyle vlogger, that's the best kind of feedback — to know that I’ve inspired someone.
I was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka — I’m of South Asian and Thamil heritage — but moved to Toronto, Canada when I was 3 years old. Growing up, it was hard for me to find even a single makeup product that matched my skin tone. In high school, between 2007 and 2011, I remember getting ready for parties or semi-formals with my friends and struggling to find a foundation that worked for me. There were definitely products out there that were supposedly “meant for darker skin tones,'' but the undertones were completely off — I either looked really gray or really red.
I also found that there weren't testers for deeper skin tones available at stores, which made it even more difficult. I just had to guess my shade and hope it worked for me. And back then, I wasn’t as experienced in makeup as I am now, so it was extremely hard. If the product didn’t match my skin, a lot of places wouldn’t allow returns once the product was opened, so I’d end up stuck with what I bought. I grew up wearing shades that didn’t match my skin tone at all, and I just had to accept it for what it was. It was really discouraging, as both a consumer and a beauty-lover. It made me wonder, Am I not beautiful? Why aren’t there products for people like me? Why aren’t there people who look like me in campaigns?
I grew up loving beauty. I used to watch makeup-related videos on YouTube a lot, but when I tried to recreate some of the beauty looks I saw, I realized they didn't work for me. The people I watched would use eyeshadow shades, like taupe, on their crease, and when I would apply the same color, it wouldn’t even show up on my skin. It was incredibly frustrating. Certain lipsticks also didn’t work. Back then, “nude” shades were never truly nude on people of color, so I just wore clear lip gloss for a long time.
Still. None of that deterred me from pursuing beauty — I studied cosmetic techniques and management at Seneca College. When I realized how underrepresented people of color were in the beauty space, I decided to be a content creator to share my knowledge of beauty with people who looked like me. I began regularly posting videos in 2018. Viewers from all around the world started telling me that they were so happy to finally see someone who looked like them. They told me that they learned to wear makeup that works for their skin tone, and that I made them feel beautiful and confident — finally.
I definitely feel that racism is part of why BIPOC weren’t included or represented in the beauty industry for so long. And colorism still very much exists today — I constantly get hate comments about the color of my skin. My friends and family also vent to me about the struggles they face. I've heard way too many stories about women being rejected by men because of their skin tone. In the Thamil film industry, they even hire Caucasian actresses instead of darker-skinned Thamil women. The standard of beauty is still centered around Caucasian women.
I’ve heard about content creators from the BIPOC community who have been paid significantly less than their Caucasian counterparts, which is an example of colorism in the industry. And brands with shade ranges that only work for lighter skin tones is also a form of colorism. In 2022, that should not be acceptable for any brand — big or small.
The beauty industry has progressed over the last five years. Fenty Beauty by Rihanna is a genuinely inclusive brand. When Rihanna launched it in 2017, she included 40 different shades of foundation, complete with different undertones. So many people felt heard. MAC was always pretty inclusive, but the brand recently added more shades to its complexion products, like Studio Fix. Anastasia Beverly Hills and NYX Professional Makeup are brands that I feel have improved in terms of inclusivity. Over the last few years, they’ve not only expanded their range of foundations and concealers, but they’ve grown in other categories like eyeshadow, brow products, and bronzers. Retailers like Ulta Beauty also carry Live Tinted — a South Asian-owned brand whose core values make people like me feel represented. I can't wait to see the brand grow.
The industry still has a long way to go, though. For example, instead of just some brands including products fit for a variety of skin tones, all brands should be doing that. Inclusivity is such a big topic now, so it shouldn’t just be a handful of companies. As a dark-skinned woman in the beauty industry, I feel like I’m sometimes used for my skin tone. I’ve been approached by certain brands to be the “token brown girl,” and it was obvious because they’d want me to promote their foundation to show that they cater to many different skin tones, but they’d never ask me to promote an eyeshadow.
More importantly, though, it’s not enough for brands to simply release products with extensive shade ranges or feature BIPOC people in their campaigns. It’s essential that people from the BIPOC community are actually working at the company. True inclusivity has to start from within. People of color just want to be treated equally and be given equal representation and opportunities — in the beauty space and beyond.
As told to Hilary Shepherd.