Outside her ground-floor apartment in Kingston, hairstylist Jody Cooper sits on the bright blue bench that serves as her makeshift salon. The 22-year-old native Jamaican is flipping through photographs of herself—there she is a few years ago in a studded monokini, with strawberry blonde hair and blue eyeshadow, her skin several shades lighter than it is now.
Cooper doesn‘t remember making a conscious choice to bleach her skin. Growing up, everyone around her was doing it—her school friends, her mom, her aunt. So she did it too. For nine years, she rubbed creams on her face and body, covering up with tights and long sleeves that she believed would make the bleach work better. Her goal was to transform into what Jamaicans call a “browning”: a lighter-skinned black person.
As a browning, Cooper turned heads. “It‘s nice when the guys call after you saying, ‘Browning!’ and you know you born black,” she says, laughing. She loved the attention; she loved fooling people into thinking she was someone a little bit different.
Payne Land—where Cooper grew up and still lives to this day—is one of the lower-income neighborhoods in the city, a collection of mid-rise cinder-block apartment buildings at Kingston’s southern edge, bordered by the industrial and manufacturing district near the port. Black cultural icons Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey called this neighborhood home, too, but even still, it’s light skin that’s perceived by many here to be the ideal.
“When you black in Jamaica, nobody see you,” Cooper explains.
A few months ago she became a born-again Christian and, as part of that conversion, gave up bleaching. Her skin is back to what she calls “black“—a deep brown.
Being fairer may have made her feel pretty for a while, but Cooper says her body has yet to recover from years of exposure to the harsh chemicals found in bleaching creams. She says the habit left her with a rash and blames skin bleaching for the discoloration around her eyes, which she describes as, “black like somebody sock me in the head.” She’s wiser to it now: “The bleaching, I don‘t get nothing from it,” she says, looking back, “and it damage my body.”
As Cooper speaks about her time as a “bleacher,” neighbors and friends gather to weigh in. “Bleaching cut nature, it kill nature,” argues Sauna Boyd. Nadia Lounds pipes up to say she “loves” the bleaching creams that have made her skin “clear.”
The debate happening in this Payne Land courtyard is playing out across the country among subcultures and communities of women who, on both sides of the issue, are grappling with what beauty really means—and what sacrifices are worth making for it.
The desire for a lighter complexion is not a new phenomenon in Jamaica. It’s deeply rooted in a history of slavery and colonialism, says Christopher Charles, Ph.D., a senior lecturer in political psychology at University of the West Indies who has conducted extensive research on the subject. “It‘s about following standards that are dictated by Eurocentrism,” he says. “It‘s a response to hundreds of years of colonial indoctrination that has been passed down through socialization since independence.”
Historically, “brown” Jamaicans were the product of relationships between black Jamaicans and white slave-owners or colonial rulers, and often received greater access to land and resources as a result of their white ancestry. Today, lighter brown skin is still read as a marker of privilege and access—class is often divided among racial lines, with wealthier and more powerful Jamaicans generally being white and brown, while poor Jamaicans are mostly black. In this context, Charles says, skin bleaching becomes a strategic choice.
“If you look at most of our advertisements, most of the things that people that would aspire towards, you see them depicted with a lighter complexioned person,” says Donna Braham, M.D., a dermatologist who sees patients in Kingston and in the coastal tourist city of Ocho Rios. “That’s the reality.”
As recently as 2011, that Jamaica‘s premier hospitality training agency, the Human Employment and Resource Training Trust, was receiving requests from clients for candidates who were “brownings”—particularly when looking to fill front-of-house roles. (The Trust .) “It‘s something that‘s there from childhood,” Dr. Braham says of the implicit connection between skin tone and success. “You see that for you to be able to be anybody in life, you need to have a certain skin tone.”