Editorial | Bleaching beauties
Mounting concern about students’ use of products to lighten their skin pitched the bleaching debate at a high level recently after a copy of a year-old letter from a St James high school made the rounds on social media.
The letters signed by principal Hugh Newsome of Irwin High school to parents were loaded with sarcasm, as they referred to changes in the “tone” and “complexion” of the students and asked for a medical report from a doctor stating whether the condition was “contagious”. The letter advised that in the absence of such medical report, the students should remain at home until their complexion returned to normal and it was safe for them to be reintegrated into the school population.
By the letters issued more than a year ago, Irwin was able to hold frank discussions with parents and their guidance counsellors. The prevalence has declined.
As the Jamaican school system grapples with the growing bleaching phenomenon, several school principals had previously signalled zero tolerance, and in the case of student athletes, they were warned that they would not be allowed to represent their school if they lightened their skin. Interestingly, research has found that skin bleaching tends to be more common among children who were weaker in their academic performance.
Some people are convinced that lighter-skinned people have a better chance of getting ahead in life. There are deep historical, cultural and sociological considerations that have led to Jamaica’s conflicted view of race, colour and class, many of which are rooted in the legacy of the plantocracy and post-slavery structure and philosophy of the colonial era.
We believe the genetic argument that skin tone, in and of itself, determines success is flawed. Children should instead be made to see the link between education and training and lifelong success. However, that narrative will be difficult to propagate if colour prejudice continues to deny opportunity to people on the basis of colour rather than merit, a view that informs the practice of even Jamaica’s majority black population. There was a time when Jamaicans talked passionately about ‘black pride’ and black beauty. That was a long time ago. Marcus Garvey’s voice exhorting black pride and self-confidence has largely been muted for the current generation who exhibit deep insecurities about their complexion. Our national hero travelled around the world preaching about black pride and inspiring millions along the way to embrace their skin colour as a glorious symbol of their national greatness.
What then has changed a century later? Children today don’t hear Garvey’s message. Instead, they see their parents, relatives and friends bleaching and they follow suit. Women complain that their men are attracted to lighter-skinned women and put them under pressure to do something to lighten up.
We are not sure that suspending children from school will cause a change of attitude. If children understood the dire consequences to their health, they would have had a change of heart.
But the Ministry of Health and Wellness has been trying to warn about dangerous ingredients such as mercury, steroids, hydroquinone and retinoic acid, which are commonly found in bleaching creams and gels.
The ministry and its agents have warned against the toxic agent mercury, saying it can cause serious psychiatric, neurological and kidney problems. Alas, such warnings have been ignored by a significant portion of the population.
As we focus on some of these potentially harmful substances, we feel some responsibility should fall on Bureau of Standards Jamaica to ensure that the dozens of products being sold here meet international standards and those requiring prescriptions are not be readily available over the counter.
There is a lot of money to be made in the beauty industry, from various grades and shades of fake hair, to nails and eyelashes. The consumer should be protected from unscrupulous people, and products should carry warnings if they have the potential to damage the user.
It is patently obvious that another type of intervention is needed. Starting now, there needs to be a national movement to change our thinking. Schools must ensure that teaching of racial pride is high on their curriculum.