Date: Fri, 6 Aug 1999 06:49:20 -0400
From: Mustafa Qadir <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: [BRC-NEWS] In Jamaica, Shades of an Identity Crisis
In Jamaica, Shades of an Identity Crisis
By Serge F. Kovaleski <email@example.com>, The Washington Post,
Thursday 5 August 1999; Page A15
KINGSTON, Jamaica -- Despite youthful good looks, Latoya Reid was bothered
by her dark skin. The 17-year-old felt it was a hindrance to attracting
boyfriends and finding opportunities for a better life away from the poor
Torrington Park section of Kingston.
So Reid recently set her mind on becoming a "brownin'," a term used on
this Caribbean island to refer to blacks who have light skin. She took up
"bleaching," coating her face with layers of illegally imported skin cream
containing steroids or using less expensive homemade concoctions that
produce the desired whitening effect.
Regardless of warnings that the practice could damage her skin, rarely a
day goes by when Reid does not bleach--and she is pleased with the
results. "When I walk on the streets you can hear people say, 'Hey, check
out the brownin'.' It is cool. It looks pretty," she said. "When you are
lighter, people pay more attention to you. It makes you more important."
Throughout Jamaica's vast underclass, and sometimes in upper classes as
well, women and an emerging segment of men are ignoring public health
warnings and resorting to skin bleaching in what government officials and
doctors describe as unprecedented numbers.
The controversial phenomenon, which has been on the rise for three years,
is largely rooted in a belief among Jamaica's poor that a lighter
complexion may be a ticket to upward mobility, socially and
professionally, as well as to greater sex appeal.
A number of social commentators and other intellectuals here have decried
skin bleaching as an affront to black dignity. Observers said it was for
that reason during the 1920s in the United States that Marcus Garvey
refused to carry advertisements in his publications for skin lighteners,
whose origins date to before the turn of the century.
More recently, bleaching became a particularly poignant topic here in
weeks leading up to Monday's 161st anniversary of Jamaicans' emancipation
"Shouldn't we think of emancipation as that glorious opportunity to open
our minds, freeing ourselves not just from physical servitude but also
from the deep self-contempt that has for too long enslaved us," attorney
Audley Foster wrote in an op-ed piece about skin bleaching in the Weekend
Observer newspaper last month.
"All this sounds like an identity crisis of major proportions. The only
thing any face needs to be pretty . . . is regular soap and water,"
columnist Dawn Ritch recently wrote in the Gleaner newspaper.
Bleaching has long been popular in such predominantly black nations as the
Bahamas and South Africa, where lighter skin has historically been a
symbol of privilege, as it has been in Jamaica and throughout the
Caribbean since colonial days. It also has been practiced for decades in
the United States. Today in many of Kingston's hard-bitten communities,
it is not unusual to see women passing time on the streets or doing chores
with their faces covered in cream.
"Skin bleaching has just become too popular. There have been days when the
creams would go like hot bread," said Kathryn Fischer, a sales clerk at a
Kingston beauty shop that has carried the illegal steroid products,
occasionally selling up to 60 tubes a day. "One girl would come in here
and buy three or four every other day because she used it all over her
Doctors, however, have recently reported an alarming increase in patients
seeking treatment for skin disorders, some of them irreversible, caused by
excessive use of the steroid products or abrasive homemade applications
that usually contain toothpaste mixed with a facial cream.
The skin creams typically contain hydroquinone, a chemical used in the
rubber industry that was found to lighten skin color. They also usually
contain steroids, which are hormones that can suppress certain bodily
functions. Both substances seem to work by stopping the formation of
pigment, according to J. Fletcher Robinson, a Washington dermatologist.
Numerous dermatologists here said people suffering the ill effects of
bleaching--which include severe acne, stretch marks, increased risk of
skin cancer and even darkening of the skin--now account for up to 20
percent of their patients. When used in high concentrations or for long
periods, steroids can produce adverse side effects by interfering with the
growth of skin cells, Robinson said.
Over the last several months, bleaching has sparked an intense public
debate about black identity and self-respect in this nation of 2.6 million
people, about 90 percent of whom are black, as well as the influence of
American and European models of success and glamour.
"With Jamaica so close to North America, we are bombarded with images of a
white culture. People have come to feel that lighter skin is a passport to
better relationships and making it in this world," said Kingston
dermatologist Clive Anderson. "The use of skin bleaching is spreading
rapidly, and unfortunately men are starting to use it as well."
A number of women also have started taking what has been nicknamed the
"fowl pill," an anti-infection drug approved only for veterinary use here.
It is given to chickens and other fowl to, among other things, enhance
their appetites. Although its label reads, "Poison . . . not for human
use," women have been using the pill to develop larger breasts and
buttocks, which they say Jamaican men prefer, along with whiter skin.
"This is a particularly unique phenomenon," said Grace Allen-Young,
director of the Pharmaceutical Services Division of the Ministry of
Health. "There seems to be an emerging need to change body features for
whatever reason. It has become part of the grass-roots culture."
Alarmed by the surge in medical cases stemming from bleaching,
Allen-Young's office last month launched a crackdown on sales of the nine
or so brands of steroid creams that are not licensed for use in Jamaica.
In one case, investigators seized more than 200 tubes from a Kingston
Efforts are also underway by customs officials to curb the smuggling of
the products onto the island. Most are made in Europe, where they are used
legally to treat a variety of skin conditions.
Nonetheless, the creams remain widely available--and in demand--in this
capital. "I know they can do bad to your skin, but I have nothing to lose
in wanting to be a brownin'. I am poor and bored, and being whiter would
make me happier," said Sheri Roth, 22, who had just bought a tube of cream
that promised "a brighter, cleaner, smoother complexion."
She added, "I want people to think I am more than a ghetto girl. . . . I
want to walk into dance halls and feel like a movie star, a white one."
Staff writer Rob Stein in Washington contributed to this report.
Copyright (c) 1999 The Washington Post Company
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