Skin-lightening is now considered an epidemic in Jamaica, reaching disturbing levels within recent months.
Even with the ubiquity of public health campaigns listing the risks and damages of the process, an alarming number of Jamaican residents still insist on bleaching their skin for what they perceive to be a more attractive appearance. While some Jamaicans believe that lighter skin will lead to a better life, others consider it a modern fashion statement and a way to appear attractive and favorable to the opposite sex.
The island’s obsession with skin-lightening gained national attention when reggae artist, Vybz Kartel debuted a startling and unsettling image of his new lighter look. His pride in the face of critics underscored the mindset of color prejudice within the Jamaican community that says that lighter is better.
That endless pursuit of lighter skin is causing Jamaicans to put themselves and even their family members at risk. In one particularly disturbing incident, a dermatologist in Jamaica encountered a patient who was bleaching her baby’s skin. Once the dermatologist told her to stop immediately, she became irritated and walked out of his office.
The effects of skin-bleaching are indeed highly dangerous. Harmful chemicals like hydroquinone and toxins like mercury can cause serious damage to the skin which cannot be reversed. The former is linked to ochronosis, a condition that leads to unsightly dark splotching. Doctors also blame skin bleaching for bunches of stretch marks across several Jamaicans’ faces.
Yet the threat of damage has not deterred many from bleaching their skin. In fact, some of the poorer people on the island have even resorted to using toothpaste or curry powder to give their skin a more yellow tint.
Health officials and some reggae artists are taking a public stand against skin-bleaching with radio advertisements, posters in schools and literature warning about the dangers of this process. In 2007, there was a similar anti-bleaching campaign called “Don’t Kill The Skin” which obviously wasn’t successful.
To be sure, the skin-bleaching obsession and color prejudice is not specific to Jamaica. Studies show that skin-lightening is prominent in India and Africa, where Jamaicans are said to get bleaching products on the black market.
In an allegedly post-racial society, it’s telling that light skin is still put on a pedestal in darker-skinned communities. This phenomenon shows that the roots of self-hate and idolization of whiter skin still run deep.
As a Brooklyn-born American with a Jamaican father, I was always taught to celebrate Jamaica’s rich culture and to honor our African ancestry. This cultural sense of pride clashes so violently with a desire to embrace European standards of beauty that it makes you wonder: are we prideful when compared to other blacks and islanders while still harboring an inferiority complex when it comes to whites?
No matter the underlying cause, the only way to tackle this problem is to address the color prejudice that’s alive and well in the black community. From rappers in pop culture who rap about preferring a “redbone” to even the exclusive usage of light-skinned models in videos and advertisements, there needs to be a collective dismantling of limited notions of beauty and a universal, renewed appreciation for darker skin tones.
With Jamaica’s new aggressive campaign to warn of the hazards of skin-bleaching, I can only hope this time around more people get the message on why skin-bleaching is dangerous—and the deeper message that they’re beautiful as they are.
-Tunisia Z. Wilson