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Why are some Jamaicans bleaching their skin to get lighter?

‘Snow White Complex’ has slowly penetrated the psyche of young people, even within the island’s national soccer teams

I’m not proud to admit it, but as a kid growing up in Jamaica, I was a sore loser. Doesn’t matter the game — kickball, a foot race, a spelling competition or Monopoly. If I lost, I would summon the meanest words in my 9-year-old vocabulary and level them at my “enemies.”

My older sister, Fiona, often caught my wrath, and I remember saying the absolute worst things to her. One of them was: “Yuh black like a tar pot!”

My beautiful sister has a chocolate brown complexion; I am just a shade lighter, but the boy in me saw something completely different. In my feeble, crybaby, ignorant mind, dark was bad and light was good.

Fast-forward three-plus decades and I’ve arrived in Jamaica in early June to visit family. Small talk with my taxi driver, Kevin, quickly goes from the torrential rains that soak parts of the island this time of year to Jamaicans — men and women — bleaching their skin to be as light as possible. Kevin is agitated as he tells me what’s going on, disappointed and frustrated that skin bleaching is part of the Jamaican narrative right now.

“As if this country don’t have enough problems already,” he muttered. “People don’t even understand the implications of this.”

Skin bleaching (also called skin lightening, skin whitening and skin toning) is the practice of using chemical substances to lighten skin tone or provide an even skin complexion by presumably lessening the concentration of melanin. Homemade concoctions, cosmetic products and dermatological products are purportedly used to decrease the melanin, and Jamaicans have been dabbling in it since the early 2000s.

Influencers on the island have been grappling with how to contain this brush fire before it spreads.

“We had to send a strong message to our players, our senior players, who were bleaching,” said Roy Simpson, manager of national teams for the Jamaica Football Federation, which oversees and manages all Reggae Boyz and Reggae Girlz teams. “We know that bleaching is an issue in schools, an issue that penetrates below middle-class society. It’s become a norm in these inner cities with young boys and girls bleaching. The boys tell us that they [bleach] because, ‘Me too black. The girls like it when you light.’ ”

The country’s national soccer program is one of the island’s most treasured, and influential, sports organizations. What players say and how they dress matters more than even wins and losses. Getting a “chrome” complexion, which Simpson says is the ideal plateau of bleaching, is hardly what this program should be focusing on.

“Even when we travel [as a team], we have to be extra vigilant to check their [toiletries] bags. You’d be amazed to see their [skin lightening] products. We see it at the high school and Premier League levels, and it’s something we as a federation want to get a handle on,” said Simpson, who lost a friend to complications from bleaching.

THE BUSINESS OF BLEACHING

Skin bleaching — also referred to as “Snow White complex” — is far from just a fad in Jamaica, glorified at dance halls. It’s also big business, and not just on the island that gave the world Bob Marley, jerk chicken and Usain Bolt.

In West Africa, the heart of the multibillion-dollar industry of skin whitening, users are being told that it is wrong, and even illegal, to bleach. As recently as August 2016, Ghana’s Food and Drug Authority instituted a ban on certain skin-whitening products that include hydroquinone, a topical ingredient that disrupts the synthesis and production of the melanin that can protect skin from the intense West African sun, according to an article in The New York Times.

In this photo taken Feb. 15, 2011, a woman applies skin lightening cream to her legs in downtown Kingston, Jamaica.

AP Photo/Caterina Werner

Why is bleaching even considered cool anyway? For the same reason I ignorantly threw the words “black like a tar pot” to my sister as a kid, I suppose. Clearly I was influenced by the messages I saw in media; by the mostly “fair-skinned” models in those “Welcome to Jamaica” TV ads; by conversations heard at church and on the playgrounds at school.

YouTube is littered with videos and documentaries of Jamaican bleachers — or toners, as some prefer to call themselves — mixing potentially toxic ingredients, singing its praises as a new way of life. Some people are actually using household bleach by mixing it with hydrogen peroxide, which can burn or scar skin as well as lead to various health problems from chemicals being absorbed into the bloodstream.

“On all levels, whether it be economical, social, political or cultural, the belief is that lighter is better,” said Biko Sankofa, a developmental psychologist who was born in Trinidad, came to America at a young age and received his doctorate from Howard University. “It’s a worldview: a cultural belief that this is what’s necessary to be more successful, upwardly mobile and more attractive. But what we’re doing is defining ourselves based on a reaction to white culture, to Western beliefs, and not developing a worldview based on your historical legacy. You’re actually using someone else’s measuring stick to measure yourself.”

Efforts to educate islanders of the dangers of bleaching have been ongoing in Jamaica since the mid-2000s for this predominantly black island nation of 2.8 million people.

But even government-subsidized efforts to educate the public can’t compete with messages from the likes of dancehall reggae artist Vybz Kartel, whose own complexion dramatically lightened over the past few years. The now-imprisoned dancehall bad boy’s 2011 hit “Look Pon Me” contained the lines Di girl dem love off mi brown cute face/di girl dem love off mi bleach-out face.

Though complex, it’s really quite simple, Sankofa said: It comes down to an understanding of one’s history and a love of self. “That top layer of the skin that black people have, unlike other ethnicities with lighter skin, is a blessing from God. And by us taking that protection away, we make ourselves more susceptible to the hazards of the sun, which will morph into skin problems and skin cancer and a lack of resiliency. So [bleaching] is not long-lasting. Whatever kind of mobility bleaching brings, whatever access it brings, it will be short-lived, not sustainable and therefore not logical.”

Long-term health at risk

Back in 2009, pictures surfaced on the internet of retired Dominican baseball slugger Sammy Sosa looking almost white. I remember laughing it off — chalking it up to fake news and clicking on the next story. Sosa would later reveal that his new look was due to a longtime use of a cosmetic “skin cream.” Social media went crazy — and called Sosa crazy, too.

But Sosa’s story isn’t an outlier. Black and brown people around the world are doing it, unknowingly (and perhaps knowingly) putting their long-term health in jeopardy, all for the need to liken their skin to lighter, whiter people.

“From a medical perspective, there are a number of issues and concerns to be mindful of,” said Dr. Derrick McDowell, the Jamaica Football Federation’s team physician. “The lightening of the skin leads to a thinning of the skin, which makes the skin more breakable and more susceptible to trauma. The homemade products tend to be more caustic — it does work, because I’ve seen it — but it also causes scarring of the skin and often burns the skin.”

Over time, McDowell fears, “toning, bleaching or whatever you want to call it, will lead to an increase in skin cancer in the long run.”

How big of an issue is bleaching or toning? It’s to be determined. There is no data on islandwide participation.

“Those who do it call it toning,” McDowell said. “I’ve seen people who do it, and don’t come at them in a judgmental way. People do it with some secondary gains specific to them. But informing and educating people of the short- and long-term effects of bleaching or toning is where I think we should put our efforts.”

Which is why Simpson and the entire Jamaican Football Federation are addressing this within their walls before it festers.

“We are Jamaicans; we are a proud people,” said Simpson, who is part of an effort to revitalize the national soccer program, getting it back to the days of 1998, when the senior men’s team reached the FIFA World Cup, becoming the first English-speaking Caribbean nation to do so. “We know the Reggae Boyz and Reggae Girlz can be key influencers to our people. Bleaching isn’t good for anybody, and we want to lead the conversation so people understand that.”

Born in the UK and raised in Jamaica, Mark W. Wright is a writer and director of special projects at The Undefeated. A quick glance at his work and it’s safe to assume that soccer – and coverage of Historically Black Colleges and Universities – are among his passions.