AP: Skin bleaching a growing problem in Jamaica

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KINGSTON, Jamaica (AP) -- Mikeisha Simpson covers her body in greasy white cream
and bundles up in a track suit to avoid the fierce sun of her native Jamaica,
but she's not worried about skin cancer.
The 23-year-old resident of a Kingston ghetto hopes to transform her dark
complexion to a cafe-au-lait-colour common among Jamaica's elite and favoured by
many men in her neighborhood. She believes a fairer skin could be her ticket to
a better life. So she spends her meager savings on cheap black-market
concoctions that promise to lighten her pigment.
Simpson and her friends ultimately shrug off public health campaigns and reggae
hits blasting the reckless practice.
"I hear the people that say bleaching is bad, but I'll still do it. I won't stop
'cause I like it and I know how to do it safe," said Simpson, her young daughter
bouncing on her hip.
People around the world often try to alter their skin color, using tanning
salons or dyes to darken it or other chemicals to lighten it. In the gritty
slums of Jamaica, doctors say the skin lightening phenomenon has reached
dangerous proportions.
"I know of one woman who started to bleach her baby. She got very annoyed with
me when I told her to stop immediately, and she left my office. I often wonder
what became of that baby," said Neil Persadsingh, a leading Jamaican
dermatologist.
Most Jamaican bleachers use over-the-counter creams, many of them knockoffs
imported from West Africa. Long-term use of one of the ingredients,
hydroquinone, has long been linked to a disfiguring condition called ochronosis
that causes a splotchy darkening of the skin. Doctors say abuse of bleaching
lotions has also left a web of stretch marks across some Jamaicans' faces.
In Japan, the European Union, and Australia, hydroquinone has been removed from
over-the-counter skin products and substituted with other chemicals due to
concerns about health risks. In the United States, over-the-counter creams
containing up to 2 per cent hydroquinone are recognised as safe and effective by
the US Food and Drug Administration. A proposed ban by the FDA in 2006 fizzled.
Lightening creams are not effectively regulated in Jamaica, where even roadside
vendors sell tubes and plastic bags of powders and ointments from cardboard
boxes stacked along sidewalks in market districts.
"Many of the tubes are unlabelled as to their actual ingredients," said Dr
Richard Desnoes, president of the Dermatology Association of Jamaica.
Hardcore bleachers use illegal ointments smuggled into the Caribbean country
that contain toxins like mercury, a metal that blocks production of melanin,
which give skin its colour, but can also be toxic.
Some impoverished people resort to homemade mixtures of toothpaste or curry
powder, which can stain skin with a yellowish tint.
The Jamaican Ministry of Health does not have data on damage caused by
skin-bleaching agents, though dermatologists and other health officials say they
have been seeing more cases.
Eva Lewis-Fuller, the ministry's director of health promotion and protection, is
redoubling education programs to combat bleaching in this predominantly black
island of 2.8 million people, where images of fair-skinned people predominate in
commercials for high-end products and in the social pages of newspapers.
"Bleaching has gotten far worse and widespread in recent years," she said.
"(Bleachers) want to be accepted within their circle of society. They want to be
attractive to the opposite sex. They want career opportunities. But we are
saying there are side effects and risks. It can disfigure your face."
Health officials are running warnings on local radio stations, putting up
posters in schools, holding talks and handing out literature about the dangers.
But a similar anti-bleaching campaign in 2007 called "Don't Kill the Skin" did
nothing to slow the craze.
The bleaching trend is sparking a growing public debate. Even dancehall reggae
hits celebrate the practice, or condemn it.
The most public proponent of bleaching is singing star Vybz Kartel, whose own
complexion has dramatically lightened in recent years. His 'Look Pon Me'
contains the lines: "Di girl dem love off mi brown cute face, di girl dem love
off mi bleach-out face."
Kartel, whose real name is Adijah Palmer, insists that skin bleaching is simply
a personal choice like tattooing.
Christopher AD Charles, an assistant professor at Monroe College in New York
City who has studied the psychology of bleaching, said many young Jamaicans
perceive it "as a modern thing, like Botox, to fashion their own body in a
unique way."
Others, however, say it raises awkward questions about identity and race.
"If we really want to control the spread of the skin-bleaching virus, we first
have to admit that there's an epidemic of colour prejudice in our society," said
Carolyn Cooper, a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University
of the West Indies, writing in The Jamaica Gleaner newspaper.
Felicia James, a 20-year-old resident of the Matthews Lane slum, said skin
bleaching just makes her feel special, like she's walking around in a spotlight.
She was taught to bleach by her older sister and her friends.
"It's just the fashionable thing to do. After I bleach, I'm cris," she said,
using a Jamaican term for cool. "Plus, a lot of the boys are doing it now, too."
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