Sexuality & Culture

, Volume 15, Issue 4, pp 375–390

Skin Bleaching and the Prestige Complexion of Sexual Attraction

Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s12119-011-9107-0

Cite this article as:
Charles, C.A.D. Sexuality & Culture (2011) 15: 375. doi:10.1007/s12119-011-9107-0


This article focuses on the sexual attraction motive for skin bleaching in Jamaica. Some captive Africans on plantations in Jamaica altered their complexion. These Africans modeled the British in the colony who bleached their skin to protect the “superior,” “sexy,” and ideal white skin from the “impurities” of interracial sex and the tropical climate. The beauty and sexual attraction accorded to light skin was also evident in skin bleaching newspaper ads in the 1950s. The ads told women that acquiring light complexion through skin bleaching would make them sexually attractive to men. The persistence of colorism and its most blatant expression—skin bleaching—is also evident in contemporary Jamaica as expressed in some dancehall songs which praise skin bleachers, and the explanatory narratives of skin bleachers that bleaching makes them pretty and sexually attractive to potential spouses. Similar themes are reflected in the criticism that the browning Dancehall Queen Carlene was deemed sexually attractive and choreographically talented only because of her brown physicality. Some spouses request that their partner acquire the bleached physicality because they find it sexually attractive similar to many male clients in “massage parlors” who only request female sex workers who bleach their skin.


Skin bleaching Colorism Complexion Sexual attraction Jamaica 


Skin bleaching is a global phenomenon driven by colorism which is an offshoot of racism (Charles 2003b; Hall 1995a; Hunter 2002, 2007; Mire 2005). The practice of skin bleaching occurs in Jamaica and goes across age cohorts, gender, social class, race, and the rural–urban dichotomy (Charles 2003a, 2010b). However, the practice is very popular among Afro-Jamaicans. Although there are several reasons for skin bleaching (Charles 2006a, 2007, 2009; Hope 2009), this article focuses solely on the reason of sexual attraction. Light skin people in the Jamaican culture are deemed by some people to be beautiful and sexually attractive (Charles 2007; Hope 2009). The purpose of this article is to understand how the sexual attractiveness attributed to light skinned Jamaicans influence some darker skinned Jamaicans to bleach the melanin from their skin, because they want to be beautiful and sexually attractive. I use colorism and complexion consensus interchangeably as well as brown skin and light skin. This article commences with a brief outline of colorism in Jamaica. This outline is followed by a discussion of skin bleaching globally, and then a discussion of the practice in Jamaica. Next, I deal with the issue of sexual attraction. I then move on to discuss how colorism drives skin bleaching from the colonial period to the present because light skin people are deemed to be beautiful and sexually attractive.


The contemporary ethos of skin color and race in Jamaica are products of historical forces. Plantation slavery sets the background to understanding the issues concerning skin color in Jamaica. One of the legacies of the European colonization of the New World is colorism—a function of racism and social stratification. Hunter (2007, p. 237) defines colorism as “the process of discrimination that privileges light skin people of color over their dark skin counterparts. Colorism is concerned with actual skin tone, as opposed to racial and ethnic identity.” Colorim is related to race but different because racism discriminates based on race and colorism discriminates based on complexion.

During plantation slavery and British colonialism skin color became a physical marker for racial oppression in Jamaica. Colonialism in Jamaica began with the arrival of the Spaniards in 1494. The Spanish occupation exterminated the indigenous Arawaks through disease, starvation, and forced labor. The Indians were replaced by captive Africans. Spanish rule continued until 1655 when the British seized Jamaica. The British continued to import captive Africans. Large scale sugar plantations based on mono-crop agriculture were established during the 1700s. The development of commercial plantations fueled the growth of British industrial capitalism through the triangular trade. Slave traders left the British coast with supplies for the African coast where they purchased captured Africans. The Africans were transported across the Atlantic to the West Indies to work on plantations. Sugar and produce from other plantations were sold in Britain where they were manufactured into consumer products and resold to the colonies. The cheap produce and super profits of the plantation system accelerated the development of British seaport towns and the Industrial Revolution (Brathwaite 1978; Patterson 1969; Williams 1966).

Within the emerging local capitalist economy, there was the institutionalization of the complexion hierarchy of the White social structure which divided and oppressed the captive Africans. The social differentiation among plantation laborers was tied to the economic functions the captives served in relation to Whites. The social status of the captives was a function of their biological and spatial closeness to Whites. The living quarters of the head African were of better quality than the other captives, and in some cases these quarters were nearer to the “great house,” highlighting the status of the head African. Light skin color was the determining factor for working in the plantation “great house.” The majority of the household staff in the “great house” consisted of Mulattoes—the offspring of White men and captive African women. Since White women were scarce, many White men sexually exploited the African women. The captive Mulattoes were afforded the means by the planters to dress better than the captive Africans. The plantation institutions socialized the captive Africans to behave deferentially to the captive Mulattoes, and to address them formally (Brathwaite 1978; Patterson 1969; Williams 1966).

There was vertical differentiation and horizontal dichotomy within the captive groups that determined the status of the Africans in these task groups. Skin color was a pervasive marker of social power in the plantation system. The captive mulattoes formed the middle group and acted as a non-threatening social buffer between the “superior” White masters (and the general White population) and the “inferior” captive Africans. For the most part skin color as a social marker did not negatively affect the captive Africans’ sense of self (identity). The Africans rejected the negative message of the “savage African” in the racial hierarchy through passive and active resistance, and exercised preference for their own racial group in the colonial culture (Brathwaite 1978; Patterson 1969; Williams 1966). Skin color driven by race structured the socio-economic, political, and cultural relations of the color groups in the colony. The captive Africans were emancipated in 1838, which modified the White social structure because the Africans abandoned the plantations in droves to work as small farmers. This exodus led to tension between the Africans and the planters who needed their labor (Stewart 1992). Although emancipation modified the racial-skin color hierarchy, the potency of skin color persists and continues to influence relations in Jamaica in the contemporary era.

Gordon (1988) compared the 1984 Mobility Survey with the 1944 census based on the wage earning populations. In 1943, 65% of ethnic minority wage earners were in the middle class compared with 21% of colored wage earners, followed by 4% of the Indian wage earners with only 3% of Black wage earners in the middle class. By 1984, some 47% of Indian wage earners were in the middle class and 44% of the colored wage earners were in the middle class compared with 25% of Black wage earners. The ethnic minorities continued to be dominant because two out of three wage earners were in the middle class. All ethnic groups have been affected by the expansion of middle class occupations, but the socio-economic differential between the groups persists.

The Black middle class remains smaller than the middle class of the other ethnic groups in relative terms. Blacks are under-represented in the middle class in proportion to the size of the Black population, even though the majority of the middle class is Black. Moreover, Blacks are not the majority in the upper echelons of the middle class where there are higher professional and senior managerial jobs. Two of the largest changes in the mass professions like teaching and nursing occurred between 1943 and 1984. Black presence in nursing moved from 43% in 1943 to 67% in 1984. In 1943, some 16% of the secretarial and accounting clerks in the clerical professions were Black, but by 1984, Blacks accounted for 60% of this occupational group. The working class racial composition did not change significantly because Blacks continued to dominate the manual professions (Gordon 1988).

The 1984 Mobility Survey also revealed that Brown-skinned people were more likely to acquire middle class status and remain in this class compared with Blacks. Eighty-seven percent of light-skinned people were more likely to remain in the higher professional and managerial jobs of the upper middle class compared with three of every five Blacks with equivalent professional background. The trend was the same in the lower managerial and professional positions where 73% of light-skinned respondents with this qualification were more likely to move into the middle class compared with 48% of Blacks who had an equivalent professional background. Colorism is also prominent in the working class because 37% of light-skinned members compared with 21% of Blacks in the working class were likely to move into middle class occupations. These data suggest that social mobility, social status and prestige in Jamaica are influenced by the coercion of skin color (Gordon 1988) which started during plantation slavery.

Smith (1990) argues that the emphasis on skin color hides the underlying coercive power of race to which colorism is related. Jamaica is as a plural society in which the groups mix, but they do not combine. There are three separate and unique cultural sections: White, Brown, and Black, with their distinctive institutions. The three sections reflect and are guided by their racial and cultural ancestry. Jamaica is a colorized society at the symbolic level because skin color is a heuristic that points to the potency of race. The racial hierarchy dictates the rules that govern the behavior within and among the people in the three unique cultural sections.

Cooper (2004a) shows that the representation of race in Jamaica is still an emotional issue and influences complexion stratification. The statue selected from the entries in 1997 to commemorate emancipation triggered an emotional public debate. The statue which was created by a White sculptor, comprises naked male and female Black figures, which appear trapped because they are without feet. The statue is enslaved in (racist) stereotypes about the naked African savage which ignore the historical fact that the enslaved ancestors were always clothed because of the African adornment aesthetic. Cooper (2004a) argues further that the panel of judges that selected the winning statue is out of touch with the popular and positive cultural sentiments that the Black majority holds of the Black self. The panel of judges refused to select an entry that reflected the accomplishments of the enslaved ancestors.

The response of some young adults to the government’s decision to make Emancipation Day a national holiday highlights modern Blackness and the complexion schisms. The government’s decision, despite receiving popular support, was criticized by the young adults as empty symbolism, which swapped plantation slavery for Christian slavery and the slavery of political violence. Disregard for the African heritage occurs because structural inequalities, colorism, and its anchor—racism—have lingered since Independence. Despite the complexion hierarchy, young Black Jamaicans have developed a survivalist transnational worldview where the Black self benefits from globalization through local cultural innovations and migration. These young people argue vehemently that the music of Brown and White high society does not represent the culture and music of modern Blackness; rather, the culture of modern Blackness is represented by dancehall and Reggae music which dictate musical taste, language, and fashion, internationally. This new and positive image of Blackness that challenges colorism also reveals a phenomenon called “ghetto feminism” in which some lower class Black women in defiance of the neo-colonial myths about the ugly Black body confidently wear skimpy clothing, buttressed by the sexually explicit lyrics of the eroticized female dancehall DJs (Cooper 2004a, 2004b; Thomas 2002, 2005).

Modern Blackness developed from the cultural innovations and social interactions of the people on the margins of the urban milieu, and it undermines the multiracial nationalist project that commenced at Independence (Thomas 2005). The notion of modern Blackness challenges the status, privileges, and prestige associated with people of light skin color in Jamaica. Barnes (1997) highlights the genesis of colorism with the thesis that the contemporary Jamaican beauty contests that originated in the colonial period perpetuate the social significance of brown skin. Contemporary critics of these controversial beauty contests argue that these contests use the purportedly “high” European standard of beauty to evaluate the participants. These critics also argue that the majority of the winners in these contests over the years are light-skinned females who become the epitome of beauty and sex appeal in the society.

The public debate over modern Blackness and the effects of the complexion complex on Black identity development are not lost on some mental health professionals. Hickling and Hutchinson (2000), echoing Dubois (1994) argue that the lives of the post-emancipation Africans in the Diaspora manifest double consciousness because they are socialized in the culture to reference the self through the eyes of the White other. European culture became synonymous with civilization in the minds of some Blacks. These Blacks believe they will gain social acceptance by attaining whiteness. I would like say at this point that Blacks cannot attain Whiteness by skin bleaching or any other body modification procedures because Whiteness is socially constructed by Caucasians who police Whiteness, by determining who is white. The historical evidence outlined so far in this article points to the beauty and sex appeal of light complexion so some skin bleachers alter their aesthetic physicality to acquire these qualities among others.

Mohammed (2000) highlights the fact that light skin complexion is important in male–female relationships in Jamaica. Mulattoes, the product of miscegenation between Blacks and Whites in the colonial period, are called “browning” in the contemporary culture. In this culture any brown skinned person is called a “browning.” Brown-skinned women are still the objects of sexual desire and attention for some Black men. There is also a reported preference for light skin among children. Cramer and Anderson (2003) found that there is favoritism for white skin in older rural children (mean age 11.4 years) compared with younger rural children (mean age 5.6 years). However, the older Black children in the urban area (mean age 10.9 years) show favoritism for black skin. The urban kindergarten children equally selected the black and white dolls when they are asked about their ideal self. The rural fifth/sixth grade children show favoritism for white skin compared to the rural kindergarten cohort. Rural and urban boys, as compared with girls, see the White doll as “nice.” Goupal-McNicol (1995) also found that the majority of a cohort of Black Jamaican preschool children prefers to play with a White doll. The foregoing review suggests that colorism driven by racism is pervasive in Jamaica and that children learn the complexion consensus of societal institutions and groups from very early that people with light skin are “nice,” “decent,” “beautiful,” “sexy,” “intelligent” and they have “high social status” compared to people with dark skin.

I now move on to address the issue of skin bleaching which is one of the most blatant expressions of colorism. The practice of skin bleaching in Jamaica can be viewed as the contemporary behavioral outcome of a long series of social contestations about race and skin color from slavery to the present. Some people bleach their skin because they believe that light skin is beautiful and sexy.

Skin Bleaching

Skin bleaching is the use of home-made products, cosmetic creams, and dermatological creams to reduce the melanin in the skin. This chemical alteration of the physicality is a global phenomenon. Several studies have documented the occurrence of skin bleaching in Latin America (Winders et al. 2005), North America (Hall 1994, 1995a, 1995b), Europe (Mire 2005; Petit et al. 2006), Asia (Ashikari 2005; Easton 1998; Karan 2008), the Caribbean (Charles 2003a, 2003b; Hope 2009; Menke 2002), Africa (Blay 2007; de Souza 2008), and the Middle East (Al-saleh and Al-Doush 1997).

In the case of Jamaica, Hope (2009) debunking the self-hate explanation for skin bleaching, argues that the debates in the dancehall music culture suggest that skin bleaching is taken as the relevant modes and models of fashion over style, where varied constructed identities are positioned within the musical domain. This fashion over style in one position represents misplaced and degenerate ideas of beauty. However, in another position such as when skin bleaching is feminized by non-bleachers, it becomes the fashion of the gendered aesthetic physicality. Brown-Glaude (2007) finds that the public discourse on skin bleaching in Jamaica uses mental pathology or self-hatred to frame the altered physicality. The discourse reveals hegemonic representations of Blackness, which argues that the Black body should not be modified. The goal of the guardians of hegemonic Blackness is to push the purportedly self-hating skin bleachers towards Afrocentricism thereby disciplining the rebellious Black bodies.

Sheperd (2000) explains the practice of skin bleaching in terms of mental pathology or the self-hate thesis. She argues that there is an identity crisis among Blacks, which is manifested in the colorized beauty contests based on White standards and the occurrence of skin bleaching in Jamaica. Blacks, therefore, need to emancipate themselves from self-hatred which is mental slavery.

The self-hate thesis discussed above has been tested in several skin bleaching studies in Jamaica. Charles (2003a, 2006a) administered the Rosenberg self-esteem scale on convenience samples by comparing a group of skin bleachers with a comparison group of non-bleachers. In both studies Charles (2003a, 2006a) finds that the skin bleachers have comparable average self-esteem scores to the comparison group of non-bleachers. Skin bleachers, who are adherents of the dancehall culture, integrate in their sense of self, the contending Afrocentric and Eurocentric values projected in dancehall songs. The findings in Charles (2010b) contradict the earlier findings that the skin bleachers have a comparable average self-esteem score to the comparison group of non-bleachers. Charles (2010b) also administered the Luhtanen and Crocker racial self-esteem scale and found that the skin bleachers have higher racial self-esteem than the comparison group of non-bleachers.

Charles (2005) also compared a convenience sample of skin bleachers with a comparison group of non-bleachers on political party affiliation and preference for a Black prime minister. The author found that a majority of the skin bleachers argued that Jamaica should always have a Black prime minister, and integrated their Black racial identity with their political identity. Charles (2007) used social representation to do a textual analysis of the reasons skin bleachers report for altering their Black physicality. The results suggest that colorism is a hegemonic representation that is embedded in the culture.

Jamaican skin bleachers have reported several reasons for bleaching their skin. These are their skin is too dark; to remove facial pimples and blemishes; toning of the skin; to make the face cool; brown skin is beautiful; to attract intimate partners; some partner’s desire light skin; skin bleaching is popular; light skin is fashionable; friends are engaged in the practice; the skin bleachers want to get ahead in life (Charles 2003a, 2006a, 2007; Hope 2009). The assessment of the self-reports of skin bleachers within the complexion consensus has revealed miseducation about the Afrocentric conceptions of beauty (Charles 2003a). Some skin bleachers display high self-esteem (Charles 2003a) and others display low self-esteem (2010b). It is important to understand the skin bleachers’ evaluative sense of self within the colorized cultural institutions that guide their behavior. This complexion consensus which influences the behavior of the skin bleachers is persistent because it has its genesis in the societal institutions of the colonial period. The beauty and sexual attractiveness ratings accorded to light skin persons in Jamaica gives the skin bleachers aesthetic capital which makes them sexually attractive to some Jamaicans who embrace the values of the complexion consensus (Charles 2007).

Sexual Attraction

Attraction can be conceptualized as romantic attachment which involves a relationship, sexual attraction, and cognitive attraction (Corbley 2009). Relationship initiation is driven by the attraction motive which involves behaviors, feelings, and cognitions that are experienced in a mild form as regular social friendship, and in the intense form as romantic involvement (Sprecher and Femlee 2008). Some of the factors that lead to attraction are dominance, warmth, kindness, similarity to others and physical attractiveness (Graziano and Bruce 2008). This attractiveness is dynamic. Facial expression provides pertinent information for potential mates. This information varies based on the social context and the use of the information relevant to mating (Clark et al. 2009).

Sexual selection is related to the signals of attraction that have evolved such as voices and faces. The functional nature of these signals requires that they be integrated, and the traits in relation to their combined effects will improve our understanding of selection (Wells et al. 2009). Evolutionary adaptation suggests that the use of multiple signals provides advantages such as reducing the chance of mating with less than optimal partners, and avoiding the cost associated with mating an inferior progeny (Fisher and Cox 2009). There is also “fatal attraction,” which occurs when the qualities that attract a person are the same qualities that create conflict and may lead to the dissolution of the relationship (Sprecher and Femlee 2008). The importance of beauty which, drives sexual attraction, is not without its critics. The construction of beauty is a harmful practice because it influences women to dress and look sexually desirable to men which reinforce female subordination and control by men (Travis et al. 2000; Jeffreys 2005).

Sexual attraction or physical attraction which is different from romantic or relationship attraction and cognitive attraction occurs when one person finds another erotically appealing. An important part of sexual attraction is how we view faces. Women’s faces are more attractive when there is an increase in luminance which is the difference between the eyes and mouth that are darker than surrounding regions of the face. Women use cosmetics to darken the eyes and mouth relative to surrounding facial regions thereby making the face more sexually attractive (Russell 2003). This perceived attraction is subjective (Doens 1990). A study looking at the influence of women’s derogation of rival women on the evaluative judgment of a potential mate reveals that the attractiveness rating is influenced by the type of statement made, and the derogation of sexually attractive women are more likely to influence men’s evaluation of the facial attractiveness compared to the derogation of a sexually unattractive woman (Fisher and Cox 2009).

Some men are sexually attracted to heavy women (Swami and Furnham 2008). These fat admiration attractiveness ratings of the attractive physicality are culturally determined (Swami and Tovée 2009). People are more likely to have sex when a potential partner is highly attractive. There is gender difference in wanting to have sex with an attractive potential partner. Men report greater intention to have sex with an attractive potential partner compared to women. There is the critical view that the media portrays physical attractiveness to lure consumers through the construction of classical beauty (Lin and Yeh 2009). The high status and sexual attractiveness of brown skin influences relationships so some Jamaicans bleach their skin for beauty. The sexual attractiveness of brown skin (which has a long history in Jamaica) and its relationship to skin bleaching are dealt with in the next section.

The Complexion of Sexual Attraction

A documented but not well known expression of sexual attractiveness based on skin color was the use of caustic cashew oil by some captive African women on the plantations of colonial Jamaica to flay their skin. The White British physicality was the epitome of beauty and physical attractiveness, so the captive African women altered their physicality through skin bleaching in order to approximate the sexually attractive ideal. Their beautiful and sexually attractive role models were the White women who used whitening lotions to reverse the effects of interracial sex and the tropical climate on their skin. The skin bleaching practice was reinforced by the fact that the planters sent their children to England not only for a “superior” education, but also to regain their “superior” White complexion in the British climate (Coleman 2003).

Moving closer to the present, Henriques (1951) and Ellis (1957) find that many upper class men sought fair-skinned wives because of the socio-economic advantages of marrying women with this complexion. Many Black women were trapped in spinsterhood because Black men were sexually and romantically attracted to light-skinned women, who they took as marriage partners. The educated Black women refused to marry lower class, uneducated Black men. The foregoing was a part of the cultural context within which, in the last decade before Jamaica received independence from Britain, the Gleaner Newspaper carried numerous skin bleaching advertisements. The skin bleaching products were sold by several brands such as Rubenstein, Elizabeth Arden, Posner, Golden Peacock, Valmor, Nutrina, Skin Success and Nadinola, which accounted for the majority of the ads. The labels of some of the Nadinola products stated, “Nadinola Bleaching Cream brightens and freshens. Look how men flock around the girl with the clear, bright Nadinola complexion,” and “He never came until I discovered Nadinola skin color” (Charles 2010a, p.197). These labels suggest that light skin is sexy and attractive, so Black women who bleach their skin will be flocked by men who find them beautiful and sexually attractive. The advertised bleaching creams gave the Black women the opportunity to escape spinsterhood and enter romantic relationships with men who want light skin partners through the alteration of their black physicality.

The same interrelated themes in the 1950s of achieving light skin through skin bleaching which was sexually attractive continues today. Jamaican music, in particular the dancehall genre, is a conduit to understanding the contemporary culture. The DJs talk about issues that are salient in the society which guide people’s behavior (Charles 2006b; Hope 2006, 2010; Stanley-Niaah 2010). The social benefits of acquiring light skin through skin bleaching thereby enhancing mate selection via sexual attraction and ultimately romance, are captured in popular music.

The group Bonie M, in the chorus of the song Brown Girl in the Ring, states:

Brown girl in the ring

Tra la la la la

There’s a brown girl in the ring

Tra la la la la la

Brown girl in the ring

Tra la la la la

She looks like a sugar in a plum.

The brown girl is the center of attention in the ring because she resembles sugar in a plum which means she is sweet. This sweetness is ascribed to the girl because of her brown physicality. This popular reggae song from the 1970s is a popular Caribbean folk song. The movement of the song from the domain of folk music to the domain of popular music means that the prestige, social visibility, and sex appeal of the brown physicality pervade not only popular culture but also folk culture (Charles 2010a).
The romantic appeal of brown skin that drives mate selection is also evident in contemporary Dancehall music. Richie Spice, in the song Brown skin, says, in part:

Brown skin

Girl I want to wrap you and lock you in my arms and thing

Brown skin

Woman I love the vibes, I love the spice and I love the passion you bring

Brown skin

Spice repeatedly calls his lover brown skin. This repetition suggests that his partners’ complexion is of great appeal to Spice. He not only wants to have his brown girl in his arms, he also wants to rock her during their romantic embrace. After all, the essence of her brownness is that she is very romantic because she has a good vibe and is sweet like spice. Moreover, she is also a passionate lover, which is why she was selected as Spice’s mate (Charles 2010a).

The social importance of brown skin and the practice of skin bleaching are represented in popular songs. The songs that praise brown skin espouse the ethos of colorism which influences the songs that praise skin bleaching thereby supporting the practice, so these two types of songs are culturally interrelated (Charles 2010a). Brownings have very high status in dancehall music and culture. Captain Barkey, in the song Bleach On, encourages the Jamaican girls to bleach their skin. The chorus of Bleach On says:

If you a bleach and bleaching fit you

Bleach on, bleach on

If you a bleach and bleaching fit you

Bleach on, bleach on.

In one of the verses Barkey chants against the critics of the skin bleachers and highlights their sexual attractiveness. He says, in part:

Dem say yuh nuh look good but dat a lie….

Dat nah go stop yuh man from hug an kiss yuh…

yuh prittiah than a Mona Lisa.

Translation. They are saying you do not look good but it is a lie…

That will not stop your man from hugging and kissing you

You are prettier than Mona Lisa

These skin bleaching women are urged to continue bleaching and ignore their lying critics who argue that they are sexually unattractive. The male partners of these women know much better than what the critics are saying. The men will always romance these women who are sexually attractive and more beautiful than the acclaimed Mona Lisa painting (Charles 2010a). The Mona Lisa painting is depicted in the song as a Eurocentric symbol of sexual attractiveness and beauty, although there is no consensus among Europeans on this issue (Gharabegian personal communication, 2009).

The DJ Buju Banton, in the song Batty Rider, enthralls and praises the girls with classic Creole poetry for adorning their posterior with their sexy “batty” [bottom] rider shorts. Buju’s lyrical centering on the female posterior is in keeping with Jamaican men’s fat admiration for women who wear shorts that are sexy and skimpy, to the delight of these men (Charles 2006a). However, Buju had a caveat,

Nuff gal in a batty rider shorts feel seh dem hot

but dem flop, cause under dem batty jaw black

so yuh fi buy Nadinola [cream] and deal wid di case

Translation. Many girls are wearing bottom rider shorts because they feel they are sexually attractive but they are unattractive because the lower part of their bottom is black. Therefore, you should buy Nadinola [skin bleaching cream] and solve the problem.

The narrative suggests that a girl was not really sexually attractive in her skimpy shorts if her posterior was black. In this situation, the best thing for her to do to meet the standard of the sexy light skin ideal is to bleach the melanin from her posterior with Nadinola cream. The light skin posterior will be more sexually appealing to Jamaican men (Charles 2006a).

Dancehall Queen Carlene who hailed from the middle class neighborhood of Ravinia in St. Andrew was a natural browning so she did have to bleach her skin. Carlene became one of the most popular women in the arena of dancehall performance. She received a lot of media attention and buzz within dancehall circles that continued for several years. The media portrayed Carlene as a sexually attractive and excellent dancer. Her critics including many dancehall fans from the inner city said Carlene was not an excellent dancer and was not sexually attractive. These critics argued that Carlene’s perceived choreographic talents and sexual attractiveness was ascribed to her because she was a browning. This debate mirrors the angst driven-politics of complexion that normally surrounds the light skin winners of beauty contests in Jamaica. The dancehall DJ Beanie Man and Carlene had a romantic relationship much to the envy of many male dancehall DJs and high society men because the famous browning was the prized possession of another. The Carlene saga is a testament to the complexion narratives in song about the potent beauty and sexual attraction of the female browning discussed earlier (Howard personal communication, 2010).

Similar to contemporary popular Jamaican music and culture, the views of skin bleachers in Jamaica reflect the prestige, beauty, and sex appeal of brown skin. These are some of the main reasons why the skin bleachers alter their Black physicality. Recall the skin bleaching studies conducted by Charles (Charles 2003a, 2006a, b, 2007) reveal a range of colorized reasons why the participants bleach their skin. The potency of colorism is evident in the desire of the skin bleachers for light skin, which gives some of them a positive sense of self. Moreover, their friends are participating in the popular and fashionable practice, so they are influenced by the pressures of conformity to modify their complexion. People who participate in social practices that are popular and fashionable are more sexually attractive to others than people who do not participate in popular and fashionable social practices. The skin bleachers with their fashionable complexion are socially visible to Jamaicans who like this sexually attractive aesthetic physicality. Facial treatments to remove pimples and make the skin cool through skin bleaching are also beauty related reasons. Recall that the importance of facial attractiveness and the notion that the face gives information to a potential mate are based on the context and culture. One skin bleacher stated, “Some little bumps come up on my skin so when I use the bleaching cream it take out the bumps and lighten out my face” (Charles 2010a, p. 208). This preoccupation with facial attractiveness is underscored by the fact that some skin bleachers lighten their skin to be beautiful and hence sexually attract romantic partners.

In Charles (2010a, p. 208), three female skin bleachers declared:

Mi like fi bleach because it mek mi look pretty

Translation. I like to bleach because it makes me look pretty

Mi look good when mi brown,

Translation. I look pretty when I am brown;

Man love browning so dem run go bleach dem body.

Dem boyfren no want dem if dem black so dem bleach dem body

Translation. Men love brown-skinned women so they hastily bleach their bodies Their boyfriends do not want to be with them if they are dark skinned so they bleach their bodies

Di one dat bleach win di man

Translation. The one that bleaches her skin wins the competition to get the man

These female voices suggest that skin bleaching makes women physically attractive to some men in the Jamaican culture. The complexion of light skinned women is a very big advantage when they are competing with other women to find a male spouse. It should be borne in mind that men also bleach for the same reasons as women, although dancehall songs are generally silent about the men who bleach their skin, compared to what these songs say about women. There are consistent interrelated themes from slavery to the present where light skin is deemed sexually attractive and beautiful. These qualities of light skin enhance romantic attraction and mate selection. Light complexion confers sexual advantage when people are in competition with each other, so they evaluate and derogate rivals to get an intimate partner (Charles 2010a).

The physical attractiveness of brown bodies mentioned in songs and the conversations of skin bleachers is also expressed in spousal desires. Some skin bleachers point out that they started bleaching because their partner requested it. This kind of spousal desires not only occurs in Jamaica but also in Africa, Asia and the United States (Fokuo 2009; Mahe et al. 2004; Mohammed 2000; Prasetyaningsih 2007). More often than not the requesting spouse is a dark skinned Jamaican who is not bleaching. These spouses find light skin sexually attractive which validate the altered physicality of their partner (Charles 2010a). However, there are other Jamaicans who prefer to search for a natural browning rather than accept a “pharmacy browning” (a person who uses bleaching creams) as a spouse because they only enter romantic relationship with real brownings (Charles 2006b). These complexion-driven mate selection preferences confer perceived social advantages across generations because some of these people choose a browning partner to have light skin children. The dark skin partner now has a spouse and children with “high color” which he or she believes bring social benefits and advantages based on the values of the complexion consensus (Charles 2006b).

The pervasive complexion consensus which drives sexual attraction is also evident among some commercial sex workers and their clients in Jamaica. Many female commercial sex workers at “massage parlors” are skin bleachers who the male clients find sexually attractive. One dark skinned female sex worker was the only non-bleacher working at a “massage parlor” in St. Andrew and the conformity pressures of the complexion consensus influenced her to increase her sex appeal. As one newspaper columnist cogently noted:

Pressure eventually reached to Coffee [not her real name] not only by way of her colleague “massage therapists” but simply because the men who came in, after viewing the bevy of young women, would not request her “services”. In the space of three months, with the application of creams and lotions, Coffee added much milk to her cup and even though her name hasn’t changed, the beautiful ebony-skinned woman disappeared and eventually morphed into a browning (Wignall 2011).

Coffee’s dark skin made her sexually unattractive to many male clients to whom she was invisible when they entered the “massage parlor.” The browning sex workers are the preferred choices of the many male clients. The experience of Coffee corroborates the findings by Sanders (2008) that the commercial relationship between female sex workers and their male clients reflects the values and norms of the non-commercial relationships in society. The complexion consensus also colors the experience of sex workers in Africa and Asia where the light skinned ones are perceived as more sexually attractive and get more clients and so many sex workers bleach their skin (Canotal 2009; Oluminde et al. 2008).


Skin bleaching, which is driven by colorism, has a long history in Jamaica. Some captive Africans on the plantations in colonial Jamaica bleached to approximate the “sexual attractiveness” of the white skin ideal. The skin bleaching ads of the 1950s also stated that women who lightened their skin would be sexually attractive to men. The existence of skin bleaching in contemporary Jamaica suggests that colorism is an ideology on a historical continuum which links Jamaica’s past and present. Some of the dominant motivations within this continuum are the beauty and attraction accorded to light skin. Light-skinned Jamaicans in contemporary Jamaica, like the Whites of the colonial period, have high status and prestige and high sexual attractiveness and beauty based on the complexion consensus. This consensus influences the skin bleachers to alter their physicality which is praised in dancehall songs, heard in the skin bleachers’ narratives and revealed in the preference of male clients for female sex workers who bleach their skin. The social advantages of having light skin as evidenced by the criticisms surrounding Carlene the dancehall queen is mediated by social class, level of education, social networks and talent. Nevertheless, skin bleaching provides many people with the process to acquire the prestige complexion of sexual attraction.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.King Graduate SchoolMonroe CollegeBronxUSA

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