The Skin Bleaching Phenomenon - Commentary (Jamaica)

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The Skin Bleaching Phenomenon - Commentary

Published Sep 1, 2002

Pretty Tamara Richards is convinced that white people have all the advantages in the world. She believes that white people get jobs easier, earn the highest salaries and attract handsome and wealthy men. But there’s one little problem: Tamara is just about four shades darker than the typical white woman and just barely graces the ‘browning’ category among her black people.

Her perception is that the fairer you are, the more likely one is to become successful socially, economically and romantically.

The 18-year-old Jamaican has always wished she had a lighter colour. So to solve her ‘problem’, Tamara is using skin-lightening creams. “White people get the better things in life, yes,” she says. “You have a lot of advantages when you are white.”

In this Caribbean island of 2.6 million people, health authorities say hundreds are skin bleaching and the problem is that many people misuse by overuse skin lightening creams, which are prescribed at low doses to correct uneven pigmentation.

However, the products, many of them manufactured in North America and Europe are sold over the counter throughout the island, the Caribbean and the world.

Dr. Neil Persadsingh, a leading Jamaican dermatologist and author of the book “Acne in Black Women”, says some of these creams work by killing melanin, the substance that lends skin its pigmentation and protects the skin from the cancer-causing ultraviolet rays of the sun. All people have melanin in their skin; the more melanin present, the darker the skin.

In addition, he says, the preparations contain large amounts of hydroquinone – a white crystalline de-pigmenting agent that is fatal in large concentrations. Victims will suffer from nausea, shortness of breath, convulsions and delirium. Damage to the skin – wrinkles, severe acne, marks – may be irreversible after prolonged use. Sheena-Kay Morris, 16, who also lives in McIntyre Villa, a ‘ghetto’ or garrison community in the volatile capital, Kingston, hasn’t used the creams for almost a year now.

However, her complexion has gone unusually pitch black with bumps on her face and shoulders.

Dr. Persadsingh says some of the products contain steroids and hydroquinone, which are mutagenic. This means they can cause changes in the body that can lead to cancer. Many users, he notes, find their skin gradually becoming darker when they quit using the chemicals, and some develop a scaly layer on their skin. Few return to their original skin color once they have used skin lighteners.

“The prolonged and continued use of these creams will lead to a face looking like a grater,” warns Dr. Persadsingh.

“When we are faced with this type of damage there is nothing that we can do except to advise the patient to live with their condition,” the dermatologist says.

For Tamara, who also lives in McIntyre Villa, skin bleaching is just as popular as keeping afloat with a popular fashion trend. Like many youngsters her age, the older women influenced Tamara in her community. She got hooked last year when she bought a steroid cream named “Movate” at a wholesale store in downtown Kingston. The results from bleaching her skin evoked mixed reactions from her male colleagues. “Some of the men say I look pretty and I should continue. Some will make fun at me, say you look like a monkey and call you ‘black-white’,” says Tamara.

“It’s the in thing. It makes you look cool and pretty, it takes out the black heads. It makes it smooth,” she says. “But it tones down your skin and makes it light and cool,” adds Tamara, a high school graduate who wants to pursue a career in computer technology.

Tamara lives with her stepmother and father, who don’t seem to care about what she’s doing. “They don’t say anything,” she says.

Household bleaching

If you happen to take a walk into any inner-city community on an early morning don’t be surprised to find several girls with powdery or painted-looking faces. They are bleaching.

Apart from the traditional skin lightening creams, some Jamaicans use toothpaste, curry powder, milk powder, household bleach and cornmeal. These products are cheap and effectively cool, users say. “The toothpaste and the bleach lighten your complexion,” explains Tamara. “The curry powder brings out the beauty and the cornmeal and milk powder makes your face cool.”

Dr. Persadsingh says: “Jamaicans perceive that when a product burns it can clear the skin. That’s why they use toothpaste, curry and household bleach as a base for lightening the skin.”

Why people bleach

Health care professionals and social commentators in Jamaica view the trend with dismay, for example numerous reggae songs censure the practice, such as the early 1990’s hit “Dem a Bleach” by Nardo Ranks. Health officials say skin bleaching in Jamaica dates back over decades. Over the last 5 to 10 years the practice has been increasing significantly, says Dr. Clive Anderson, dermatologist and an executive member of the Jamaica Dermatologists Association.

“There’s a large segment of our population who are convinced that being lighter in complexion is to their advantage, socially, in terms of their relationships and economically, in terms of getting ahead,” he said. Dr. Persadsingh shares the same sentiments. He said some women don’t know why they are doing it. “Some girls feel that with a lighter complexion, their prospects in life would improve. Some are bleaching their faces and when they are asked why, they have no answer. “I have been told that men are responsible for the girls bleaching their faces, as all men only want ‘browning’ (light skinned women) and do not like black girls. This is rather nonsense of course. Some people even claim that the girls are bleaching now because of slavery and that the white people are to be blamed. Again, what utter nonsense,” Dr. Persadsingh scoffed.

Media advertising worldwide greatly enhance the stereotypes that light skinned people are advantaged socially and romantically. In Jamaica, advertisements like these are not broadcast, printed or aired often, but the few depict light skinned women saying for example that “Vanishing Cream fades dark spots and freckles, lightens and brightens skin to a smooth radiant glow.”

An article on the web site www.africana.com said: “One Kenyan TV ad features a young woman staring lovingly at her boyfriend in a college cafeteria. Another pretty woman with slightly lighter skin walks by, upon which the man jokingly asks the girlfriend how he can tell the woman that she is the “most beautiful girl I have ever seen.” Devastated, the young woman responds to a voiceover advising her to use “Fair and Lovely,” a skin cream promising “special fairness vitamins” and guaranteed to lighten her complexion in just six weeks. The young woman uses the cream and, sure enough, keeps her man.” Health authorities

The Ministry of Health (MOH) in Jamaica has released a list of banned beauty products that have been in circulation for many years. A MOH spokesperson says that it’s hard to clamp down on the culprits, because they continue to change the name of the products and distribute to street vendors.

The authorities have so far seized creams such as Movate, Reggae Lemon Gel, Top Gel Plus, Omic Gel Plus, Lemonvate Cream, Tropesone Gel, Tropesone Gel Plus, Neoprosone and Pro-Beta-Zone. Some of these products cost as much as US$9.

“The Association of Dermatologists has no empirical data on the problem, but it is certainly hundreds and thousands of people who are doing this,” says dermatologist Dr. Anderson.

He adds: “This is something we (dermatologists) are seeing daily. I would say a good 10 to 15 per cent of the patients we have been seeing have been doing this.”

The MHO has appealed to citizens to stop misusing these drugs as they were putting themselves at serious risk and overburdening the health system as they sought to treat the damage done to their skin by the creams.

However, this psychology for social acceptance, more opportunities, and improved self-image, is already epidemic. From as young as 10 to as old as 40, many are still using it. “Why? It’s your face, it’s your body, and you can do anything with it. I will stop bleaching when I want to stop. I know what I am doing,” says 36-year-old Trisha Smith, a veteran skin bleacher, whose face is distinctively clearer than the rest of her body.

Merrick A. Andrews is a Jamaican journalist currently based in Montserrat at “The Montserrat Reporter’ as a Sub Editor/Reporter. He is a former sports reporter, lifestyle reporter and Youth Link magazine coordinator at the daily Gleaner newspaper in Jamaica. He is the chief coordinator of the Caribbean Media Network, a communications point for Caribbean journalists. Link Merrick at merrickandrews@hotmail.com.

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Comments

16 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.

Benjamin Burch
Dec 10, 2010 11:10pm [ 1 ]

I am a black american, age 48 and brown skin. When I was younger I could not get a date with any black american females simply because I wasn't dark enough. I had light skin, dark black and brown skin females tell me the same thing over and over. I wasn t dark enough. I hated my self for years, I allowed my skin to get scarred up and damaged just so it would get darker. I would find love from jamican woman, west indians, hatians and hispanic woman. But never black american woman. I am shocked that the most proudest country is using this shit. We need strong black people, we need to start using the word black again and we need to love each other regardless of color. I have never met a true black man who has turned down a pretty woman because she was dark or light. As long as she was packing we were interested.

abbigale coke
Mar 1, 2011 1:37pm [ 2 ]

i think that u must be very proud of your colour because people who bleech don`t like their colour

Jai
Mar 10, 2011 2:05pm [ 3 ]

I am a dark skinned black woman and I don't bleach my skin however I cannot blame the young girls and the older women. I've been to JA two times and I noticed the blatant difference in treatment between dark skinned black women and fair skinned black women. The fair skinned women are definitely treated a bit better. All of the commercials on TV used fair skinned women and if there were any dark skinned women, they were at the back of the scene. Some families give the darker girls more work. The posters, advertisements and billboards do exactly the same thing. They use fairer skinned females. Tell me, which young impressionable girl wouldn't want to look like one of those beautiful fair skinned models. I can't remember when Miss America and Miss World pagents had dark skinned winners... Please don't get me wrong, I think the bleaching is definitely hazardous to anyone's health but the media and people of other cultures especially our race make being a darker shade a bad thing. Which would women prefer "Hi Browning" or "Hi Blackker". Personally, if the name callers said, "Hello young lady" in the first place, we wouldn't be in this mess. Don't fool yourselves, we are ALL to blame.

k
Mar 10, 2011 6:43pm [ 4 ]

well in the us every body want a white or light skin or red bone so bleaching my skin seems like the answer

Katie Perry
Mar 29, 2011 3:26am [ 5 ]

I am a white female of 16 doing a research paper on racism. I think darker colored women are beautiful, and there's no reason to be ashamed of who you are. Don't listen to the media or anything, just be you. :)

gida mitchell
Mar 29, 2011 8:23am [ 6 ]

people who bleach themselves dontg like themselves at all if god wanted to make everyone white he would have so love the colour of your skin

Stacey
Apr 15, 2011 5:34pm [ 7 ]

I think it is really sad that women feel the need to bleach its crazy! They say men will find them more attractive, if you need to bleach your skin for some stupid no good man to like you how is it worth it? And now Jamaican men are bleaching it kind of makes me just feel sick. I find dark skin just as attractive as light skin I find Jamaican people to be terribly vain and for that vanity they kind of deserve any side effects of the bleaching! (sorry to be blunt) but saying that the media don't make it easy I watch programmes and hardly ever see a black person on tv only people you would call mixed which indicates that people find black skin unacceptable to be shown on tv as something beautiful. TBH the whole world is messed. I miss seeing black people on tv :(

Francine
Apr 22, 2011 7:03am [ 8 ]

WOW. This is awful. I live in the UK and am white as a sheet. Britain is so obseessed with being brown we use bucket loads of fake tan which looks orange! Pressure from the media to look a certain way is universal and particularly bad for women. We all want what we dont have dont we? Time to start loving ourselves and each other for who we are not how we look i think!

simone
Jun 4, 2011 5:03pm [ 9 ]

I am 22 year old female I was born and raise in the United States of America. Both my parents are Jamaican i was born light skin and grow up to have a light brown complexion due to my grandmother who is mixed with white. i am encouraged by my mother to use skin lighteners to smooth out my complexion when i get break outs and scars on my skin. i have never used it to lighten my skin but at the same time i am not considered dark. i understand why Jamaican woman lighten there skin. its mostly due to the upbringing and the men. i also believe slavery has a lot to do with black people having low self esteem but also our most successful black men tend to be with white woman or light skin bi racial woman. i am considered very attractive by many men that look my way and many woman hate me for it. but i feel like the hate woman have towards me is mainly due to self hate which is caused by what there men see as beautiful. My younger sister is dark skin but is equally beautiful but my family favors me over her due to the difference in our skin. when she was born my grand mother called her a monkey due to her dark pigment. Although her skin is dark she is the only model in the family and the white photographer loves her skin color and he encourages her to continue to model. The point I'm trying to get across is we are all born different for a reason variation is necessary for the human race to continue if we all look the same and had the same genetic traits then why even both reproducing. Love the skin your in cause that's what makes you different and if your man cant love it just move on to the next. One Love!!!!!

Staceyanne
Jun 15, 2011 3:28am [ 10 ]

Men are not to blame for this epidemic in African American society, nor Caucasians. . How can you put someone at fault for what they are attracted to? I am a dark skinned girl and people always tell me I have a cute face, but when a lighter-skinned female walks by they are completely 'beautiful'. I do not take it personal when I hear that because I can not change the way that my mother made me. I get so upset sometimes because all the celebrities get to change everything about them because they have money. When reading this article, It definitely opens my eyes when reading the side effects but sadly some people are willing to even risk death to become beautiful, because why is life worth living if you are unhappy? I never considered myself pretty because sadly people joke about how dark I am more than complementing me on beauty. I think that dark skinned man will always look better than any dark skinned female any day. That's just the way it is. A lighter face is a softer face, and a man can have a darker face because it isn't feminine.

Staceyanne
Jun 15, 2011 3:31am [ 11 ]

Men are not to blame for this epidemic in African American society, nor Caucasians. . How can you put someone at fault for what they are attracted to? I am a dark skinned girl and people always tell me I have a cute face, but when a lighter-skinned female walks by they are completely 'beautiful'. I do not take it personal when I hear that because I can not change the way that my mother made me. I get so upset sometimes because all the celebrities get to change everything about them because they have money. When reading this article, It definitely opens my eyes when reading the side effects but sadly some people are willing to even risk death to become beautiful, because why is life worth living if you are unhappy? I never considered myself pretty because sadly people joke about how dark I am more than complementing me on beauty. I think that dark skinned man will always look better than any dark skinned female any day. That's just the way it is. A lighter face is a softer face, and a man can have a darker face because it isn't feminine.

Momo
Jun 30, 2011 1:26pm [ 12 ]
teamlightskin :)
Tenneile
Sep 9, 2011 3:06pm [ 13 ]

all this is sh*t !!!! i am fair skinned but it doesn't mean that we are liked more than others ;majority of the time we are hated. if everyone bleach themselves to white,then what will we celebrate in black history month??? ??? our forefathers fought for equality, our right to be black and proud,to gain an education and strive forward so why throw that away.some of the greatest persons in history were black people and some of the greatest things created were by black women and men.no matter how hard you try to change your skin colour ......on the inside you'll forever be black because we are a unique set of people. my favorite quoting..... "I AM BLACK AND I AM PROUD".

V
Sep 16, 2011 10:02am [ 14 ]

This is CRAP!!! Dark skinned women need to embrace their natural beauty and stop trying to be someone or something you are not. Instead of buying bleaching cream buy your self a book on Self Esteem and try and fix that. Have you seen the side effects of using these crap. Go get yourself some motivational books and work on your self the right way and don't put your good health at risk all for the sake of skin color. Get real people. Geeeeez!!!!!

Elisa
Mar 20, 2012 3:32pm [ 15 ]

I am dark skin women from the Islands living in America most people say am beautiful never had problem finding a light skin brother that that is attracted to me I never was attracted to my color my skin tone was never even the middle of my face light or the sides of my face dark Multi-Color I call it. I was never please always have an complex with me, if my skin get burn or cut my skin in that area gets so much darker and takes years to fade sometimes never go away its almost there for life. So I never dated dark skin men. I've been bleaching my face from a teenager and now 41 yrs. old and the over the counter stuff is not working for me so am going to my doctor just to get the 4% hydroquinone cream, bleaching kind of make me see who I am underneath that darkness. I do notice a little change in the texture of my skin always had oily skin now it’s looking a little dry but I am using Shea butter to moisturize my skin and it works. I am on this site today because am searching for the Jamaican Bleaching Cream can some one tell me a good one to use.... Where can I find it? Maybe a website.

sharmy
Mar 23, 2012 8:16am [ 16 ]

I am Australian Aboriginal in our recent past the Aust Gov would catagorise my people by their skin tone/colouring to fullblood,Halfcast,Quadroon & Octroon. This would control what laws you would have to live under, the darker you were, the more control to where you could live, if you could work etc. Some very light skinned people could even be given an exemption certificate to null and void their Aboriginality as long as they removed themselves from their people family and culture. This practise only stopped in the 1960,s. I know this sort of stuff has happened in alot of countries, who are too focused about whats on the outside a person and not about how we treat each other.

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