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#223: !*In Jamaica, Shades of an Identity Crisis (fwd)

From: P D Bellegarde-Smith <pbs@csd.uwm.edu>
>In Jamaica, Shades of an Identity Crisis
>By Serge F. Kovaleski
>Washington Post Foreign Service
>Thursday, August 5, 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 from 
>"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 body."
>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 wholesaler.
>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.
>© 1999 The Washington Post Company