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.
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 [email protected].