A combination of misplaced vanity and a perception of inferiority that spawns prejudice and discrimination have many Barbadians seeking to change their skin colour, thus compromising their health and risking death in extreme cases.
Historians have addressed a slavery hangover among Blacks in which they continue to perceive the less dark within their race as somewhat superior. This perception stems from those days of forced servitude when the slave master favoured the person of lighter hue, mainly because such individuals were illegitimate offspring of the plantation owner or others within management in those forced labour camps.
It is believed that social misperception was inculcated into the minds of those who slaved and passed on to their descendants who populate the American South, the Caribbean, and north-eastern Brazil.
Today, this coached belief has manifested itself as one of the reasons for skin bleaching.
Barbadian Dermatologist Dr Andrew Forde has said, “the psychological aspects of it are . . . considerable because it can represent an inferiority complex, or feeling you’re not as good as someone who is lighter”.
Delivering a recent lecture, he spoke of people having “body image issues”. “You look in the mirror . . . you perceive yourself to be a lot less nice than you actually look.”
He spoke of colonial history with the dominant lighter coloured people and the dominated others trying to emulate them to “give us some improved social or economic or romantic advantage . . . give us a better chance”.
This, he said, happens among persons of the same race.
This prejudice is however not limited to dark skin people, as Dr Forde cited a 2002 published observation in the Annals of Biology, an international journal: “Men tend to prefer women who are lighter in colour than they are, and that happens within a certain social group.”
“The most attractive skin colour for most populations for both men and women is one to two shades lighter than the average within the race.”
Dr Forde explained that some of this discrimination “may be due to natural selection, adapting to your environment and getting yourself in a position that you can produce more offspring to ensure the survival of your genes”.
These complexes, developed in many societies, are taken to extremes in what late Professor George Beckford described as the black swath, stretching from the American South, through the Caribbean to Pernambuco, Brazil.
The comments from the skin care specialist, a practitioner of over 21 years with an interest in aesthetic dermatology, came while delivering a Barbados Drug Service-sponsored lecture titled, Love Your Skin: The Dangers of Bleaching, at the Lloyd Erskine Sandiford Centre last week.
Moderator of the event, Dr Renee Boyce, noted that examples of the skin prejudice to which young bleachers look, can be found in the way music stars are promoted in their industry. She referred to a comment by Matthew Knowles, father of American singer Beyonce.
The elder Knowles, a former music promotion manager, has said that his daughter might not have enjoyed her success if she was of a darker hue, and pointed to similar success stories of light skin black women.
“When it comes to black females, who are the people who get their music played on pop radio? Mariah Carey, Rihanna, the female rapper Nicki Minaj, my kids [Beyonce and Solange]. And what do they all have in common?” he asked, according to the British Independent newspaper.
Dr Forde explained that skin colour is dependent on the genetic information given from parents, and that in mixed race couples “this inter-mixing of genes leads to great variation in skin colour in the world and in our population”.
“There are six skin types ranging from the fair to the darkest and the difference in these skin types is the amount of melanin that is in the skin. This melanin gives us protection from ultra-violet rays which are beating down on us every day.”
He said that very light skin persons tend to burn more than they can tan “and that goes in sequence and variation to the darkest person who can tan very well and tends to burn very infrequently”.
But this protective melanin is precisely what the misguided in our society seek to destroy through bleaching.
Persons bleach by using an array of chemicals. “You can apply them, take them orally, or inject them . . . to make either a part of the skin or the entire skin lighter.”
Dr Forde said that the euphemistic terms used are “toning”, “freshening up”, “brightening”, or “lightening”.
“We all know that we’re talking about bleaching, which is something that may not be necessary.”
Hydroquinone is among the most common chemicals used in bleaching.
“By bleaching, understand that you’re making the sun affect your skin. So you are at greater risk for cancer indirectly, even if it doesn’t come from the hydroquinone itself,” Dr Forde said.
The National Drug Service states that mercury, another bleaching agent, can lead to serious psychiatric, neurological and kidney problems. Pregnant women can pass on this chemical to their unborn children.
Corticosteroids “narrow the blood vessels thus effectively reducing the flow of blood to an area and changing the skin tone to a lighter appearance.
“Popular lotions, gels and oils on the market for bleaching the skin contain ingredients . . . which may be harmful to the skin when used for long periods.”