A Glimpse at Skin Bleaching in Jamaica

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With the exception of possible terrorist threats, race and privilege been the main issue dominating social media discussions during the past few months. However, a specific joint subcategory of those problems has recently returned to the forefront of conversation: Colourism.

Kerry Washington’s cover of the latest edition InStyle magazine sparked controversy amongst her fans as many people accused editors of lightening her skin. Although representatives of the publication have since denied editing the Scandal star’s appearance, she has welcomed the backlash as it attracted interest in a problem that has long affected people of colour.

Yet, beyond the digital alterations, makeup and other temporary cosmetic “enhancements” that are often taboo in the North American media is the booming industry of skin bleaching around the world.

Creams, gels, oils and ointments are in high demand across China, India and several African nations. Even in my home country of Trinidad and Tobago, products like Fair & White are easily purchased at pharmacies to help lighten skin.

The people of Jamaica, on the other hand, have taken skin bleaching to greater extremes.

As depicted in this All Angles special, bleachers – as they are commonly called – use a wide array of chemicals to strip layers of skin so they can look “brighter.”

By mixing household bleach with hydrogen peroxide, Nadinola, Wow, Derma Plus, Omni Gel and several other agents to create a cocktail, bleachers transform from “black” to “brown.” The latter is the Jamaican term for having a lighter complexion.

This practice is considered very dangerous, and Tieca Harris of the Jamaica-Gleaner states it can lead to various chronic health issues as toxic chemicals are introduced into the skin and blood.

Colourism stems from colonialism, and is separates people of colour into various classes based on their complexions. Skin bleachers attempt to become upwardly mobile into those social structures by altering their appearances, quite similar to those people in America who wear blonde wigs and contact lenses to fit Eurocentric standards of beauty.

Ironically, those Jamaicans who bleach their skin are often denied jobs and the social advancement they seek because their alterations are easily detected. In fact, bleachers, despite often proudly avowing their status in their community circles, also try to hide their red or yellow hues with makeup as a way to avoid being penalised.

The strangest twist in this story is what All Angles did not cover. While bleachers in Jamaica struggle to attain and maintain lighter skin tones, many white people, whose ancestors helped to create the social stratification in the West Indies, are doing the opposite.

North American and European stars often tan or use bronzers on their skin to look darker. They even travel to Caribbean destinations so they can achieve just a hint of the golden complexions bleachers are eager to abandon.

As a person who was raised in a society with skin bleaching was not as prominent as Jamaica, I am fascinated by the existing colourism affecting that country. It is even more interesting that local dancehall artists, such as Vybz Kartel, proudly flaunt their altered skin and boast of the changes in their music.

Kartel claims there is no underlying social issue that encourages skin bleaching. Instead, he suggests it is simply a fashion trend similar to ear-piercing and tattoos.

A trend that could possibly lead to an explosion of skin cancer among the Jamaican population. A trend that causes the growth of funguses and bacteria, spurred by the steroids in the bleaching products.

Truly fascinating.