Chathuri Dissanayake GPJ Sri Lanka

In Urban Sri Lanka, Women of All Income Levels Make Beauty Products and Treatments a Budgetary Priority

Originally from Ginigathnena, a rural area in the country’s Central Province, Sanjila Savithri was keen to shed her “village look,” she says.  
Sri Lanka

In recent decades, Sri Lankan women have come to value stylized beauty so highly that even those of modest means spend a sizable portion of their income on salon services and personal care products.

DEHIWALA, SRI LANKA – Seated at a large mirror in her bedroom, Sanjila Savithri is engrossed in putting on her makeup.

Savithri, 34, carefully applies foundation, powder and a dash of clear lip gloss. She always puts on makeup before leaving her neighborhood, Savithri says.

“When somebody sees you for the first time, your appearance should give a good impression,” she says.

Savithri, the mother of two sons, ages 10 and 5, is married to an office assistant at a software company. The family lives rent-free on the upper floor of her husband’s family home in Dehiwala, a suburb of Colombo, the commercial capital of Sri Lanka.

Looking good is now essential, Savithri says.

“Among the mothers in my child’s grade, if I dress well and look pretty by wearing makeup, then I stand out,” she says. “That means I get more attention from the teachers, who will then have to pay attention to my child. So we benefit.”

Savithri grew up in Ginigathhena, a rural village in the Central Province of Sri Lanka. Twelve years ago, she moved to Colombo in search of a job.

She is keen to dress like an urban woman rather than presenting herself as someone from a rural background, Savithri says. She finds that this ensures good service in shops – and even with street vendors – in Colombo.

“The way we talk and how we look is important when we go out,” she says. “If we don’t look a certain way, then we lose out.”

Over the past three decades, middle- and low-income Sri Lankan women have been spending a significant amount of money on personal grooming and appearance.

The number of beauty salons has also increased around the country. Women say they spend 10 percent or more of their personal or household income on beauty care each month.

The proliferation of beauty salons is rooted in the introduction of poverty alleviation programs in the 1980s, says Sepali Kottegoda, executive director of Women and Media Collective, an organization that advocates for women.

The blossoming of the beauty culture created employment opportunities for women from low-income backgrounds, thus expanding the market for beauty products and services, Kottegoda says. This gendered approach to employment and poverty alleviation continues today.

“It is a market responding to social change, which in turn responds to the market,” she says.

The early trendsetters of the beauty industry were the young women from rural villages who came to the free trade zones, 13 special areas in the country that gave tax concessions to garment makers and other manufacturers in a bid to increase foreign investment, Kottegoda says. These areas are now formally known as export processing zones.

The trend is linked to changes in fashion and clothing among young women in Sri Lanka, she says.

Young women in free trade zones enjoyed personal and economic independence for the first time, living away from their families and earning incomes of their own, she says. And they began to take a greater interest in their appearance.

“Factory rejects of major brands were available to them, and with that came the interest in beauty culture,” Kottegoda says.

Looking good is important to women in both rural and urban areas, Kottegoda says.

“For all of them, going to the salon and getting dressed by someone and getting their hair done is important for special occasions,” Kottegoda says. “Whether it is a village function or urban function, this is something you notice these days.”

Savithri spends about 10 percent of her husband’s monthly salary of 30,000 rupees ($230) on beauty treatments and products.

If his salary is not enough to cover her beauty needs, she cuts down on special food treats for her sons. She also saves money during school holidays, when travel and school expenses are low.

She spends about 2,000 rupees ($15) a month at the nearby salon, Savithri says. She regularly has her hair cut and her eyebrows shaped.

When preparing for a special social function, such as a wedding or a family party, she has her sari draped and her makeup done at the salon at a cost of 1,500 rupees ($11).

“I like to look pretty,” Savithri says.

Her husband encourages her to look attractive. He gives her extra money to prepare for social functions at his office, Savithri says.

In preparation for this month’s office Christmas party, he has promised to give her 6,000 rupees ($46) for a facial and hair-straightening treatment at the salon.

“My husband will even do overtime work at the office to get the extra money for these expenses,” Savithri says.

Sri Lanka’s 3.5 million millennials have the highest consumer confidence among all age groups and are more likely to spend on themselves, according to a study by the Nielsen Co.

Millennials, also known as Generation Y, are people born in the 1980s and 1990s.

This trend is also seen among export processing zone workers.

Shriyani Herath, 35, has been working in a garment factory in the export processing zone in Katunayake, an area about 30 kilometers (19 miles) north of Colombo, since 2003. She is single and lives in a small rented room close to the zone.

She had never visited a salon before she came to work in the zone, but now a monthly salon visit is essential, Herath says. She usually visits the salon as soon as she receives her pay, around the 10th of the month.

Peer pressure prompted her first visit to a salon, Herath says.

“If you are to fit in and survive, you have to look like everyone else and do the same things,” she says.

Each month she gets her eyebrows shaped. She also applies henna, an herbal dye, to her hair, and sometimes gets a haircut, Herath says. Before a party or wedding, she goes to the salon to have her hair styled and her makeup done.

These salon visits, as well as day-to-day beauty care products such as face wash, face cream and compact powder, cost her 2,000 rupees ($15) to 3,000 rupees ($23) a month – more than 10 percent of her income.

Lifestyle and personal care products make up the nation’s fastest-growing consumer product category, according to the Nielsen Co. report.

The top-selling personal care products are those priced 45 rupees (34 cents) to 50 rupees (38 cents), according to the report. Products in that range, which come in small sachets or bottles, are targeted to lower-income consumers.

Herath’s monthly wages, including incentives and overtime pay, amount to about 22,000 rupees ($168), she says.

She sends 5,000 rupees ($38) a month to her family in Kurunegala, a rural district in the North Western Province. She pays 2,000 rupees ($15) for rent. She spends the balance on food, travel, telephone service and electricity.

The average female worker in an export processing zone spends more on fashion than on food, says Chamila Thushari, the coordinator of Dabindu Collective, an alliance of nongovernmental organizations working on women’s issues in the zones.

Thushari bases that assertion on information the collective gathered in 2014.

On average, women working in export processing zones earn 20,000 rupees ($153) to 22,000 rupees ($168) a month, including allowances and overtime pay, according to the Dabindu Collective.

They spend about 9 percent of their income – 1,500 rupees ($11) to 2,000 rupees ($15) – on food, according to the collective. They spend more than 11 percent of their income – about 2,000 rupees ($15) to 2,500 rupees ($19) – on clothes, beauty care and personal hygiene products.

By contrast, the average Sri Lankan household spends 38 percent of its income on food, according to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2012/13 of the Department of Census and Statistics. It spends 13 percent of its income on clothes, shoes and health and personal care products.

The beauty culture has become so popular that many women who start out working in export processing zones wind up leaving factory jobs to enter the beauty industry, Thushari says.

Selvy Thiruchandran, executive director of the Women’s Education and Research Centre in Colombo, which researches women’s issues in Sri Lanka, is concerned about young working women’s interest in the beauty industry because the industry emphasizes beauty alone.

“We find that not only are women increasingly drawn to get these services, but there’s an increasing number of women also who want to get into the industry,” she says.

Thiruchandran says films and other forms of mass media create a high expectation of beauty.

“There is a visible and an invisible pull, and a demand for women to look a certain way,” she says. “That is coming from so many sources, like films and media. So then the women want to live up to that image and expectation.”

Women often are impelled to live up to the popular image of beauty even if they don’t have the resources to do so, she says.

The annual year-end party thrown by the management of the garment factory where Herath works is a big event. Herath and her friends at the factory are saving up to buy new clothes, accessories and salon treatments for the event, to be held Dec. 13.

“We all get dressed in the salons for the year-end party,” Herath says, excitedly. “I get my hair and makeup done. I always look forward to it."


Chathuri Dissanayake worked at Women and Media Collective for four months in 2010.

GPJ translated some interviews from Sinhala.