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

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  • hey juicy fruit

    They say the darker the berry the sweeter the juice. With that said there are a lot of juciy people in the carribean. In fact, some extremely juicy ones! There are a few brownin as some would call themselves (silly) and then their is the occasional white meat. It is odd to me that when so many whites fled the island one may forget that just 40 yrs or so ago the isle had a great share of whites and asians. Hince quite a few jamaicans with asian last names and exotic features.

    It is weird that the island is predominately black and that they would have such levels of insecurities. Since, so many are into that blackism to africa stuff that many believe in. Excuse me if I call it blackism for lack of better name. Since, I am not sure what they call that movement.

    It is not naturally possible to change colors via cosmetic cream unless you get whatever sammy sosa (not knocking sammy either I dont know him personally but he doesnt seem to be a bad person for whatever issues or ideals he has) was using or go get some vitilgo cream and spritz it over you. When alot of people on that island suddenly start looking like Bob Marley then its time to say, “Hey Mon”. LOL

    You can turn from midnight to golden sunlight overnite nor can a over the counter toxin do it for you unless you want to have botched skin.

    • hey there juicy fruit

      You cant turn from midnight to golden sunlight overnite i meant to say.

  • shar

    These pics were gruesome.. I am Jamaican and Trinni. I am currently bleaching my skin. But, I know what I am doing…. I research what I am doing and I am careful as humanly possible. I don’t know if this was said but… Look around you <>. Who is praised more? Who gets treated better? Whooo I ask you? Let me let you think about it…. You know the answer very well and you didn’t need to think. Its lighter people and I just started bleaching late last month w/ no regrets. I just cant wait to be lighter and be treated fairly and live my life w/ less stereotypes…

    • britt

      i dont know how you can be happier being something you are not. demand respect and you shall get it. people take the easy way out. our ancestors would have no respect for us. this is truly sad. even sadder still that you don’t see the issue. if you are Black you are Black whether light or dark. I a have a light complexion and still get treated like crap., have even been called a niggar and a ditch baby. we will never be equal in their eyes and you kill your beautiful skin to assimilate.

  • ericka

    sigh to the comment above and how come we can get all up in a roar and see the damaging mental and physical effects of changing our skin color via skin bleaching, yet we do not see the similarity in the physical and mental effects of burning our scalps aka getting a perm? What is the difference?

    • Shar

      sigh for telling the truth u say…. well i will hopefully be one less nicca

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  • Nikki Green

    This issues is so deeply rooted in history. It started with “maser” preferring the lighter skinned slave to the darker one. I think society/the media has a lot to do with this, it perpetuates and celebrates lighter skinned african americans. Why? Because people are feed this image of what black beauty is. You are not beautiful if you don’t look like, Halle Berry, Tyra Banks or Jada Pinkett-Smith and that simply is not true!!!!!!