Every culture has its idealized woman, its standard of beauty that is valorized. Everywhere women are altering themselves in small and major ways to attempt the look that is celebrated. History is full of methods, home grown and scientific, used to attain these ideals— footbinding, corsetting, liposuction, emaciation, molding of the skull, face lifts, lip stretching…
In this story Hidden World of Girls travels to Jamaica — where cosmetic folk treatments and changing ideals of beauty are part of a the national debate going on in the music, the dancehalls and on the streets.
In Jamaica, especially in poorer areas, there is a saying among men, ” I don’t want a “maga” (meager) woman.” A maga woman, a slight or thin woman, says to the world that a man is poor and doesn’t have means to provide for her. A larger woman is a way of showing you have means and that you can afford to keep this woman fed.
“If you have no meat on your bones the society can’t see your wealth, your progress, your being,” said Professor Sonjah Stanley-Niaah. “This African standard of beauty, and it’s very much present in Jamaica. The body must be healthy and that health is expressed in some amount of fat. You musn’t just be able to slip through the arms of a man. The healthy body girl is anywhere from 160 to 210 pounds. So there’s a high level of interest and activity around modifying the body.”
In the 1990s, some women in Jamaica, longing to be large, started taking “Chicken Pills,” hormones sold to plump up the breasts and thighs of chickens.
In Jamaica we talked with twenty-one year old Raquel Jones who was cast in an independent film called “Chicken Pills,”by Jamaica born playwright, Storm. The film is about two teenage girls. One is getting more attention from the boys in the class. The other character, Lisa, is having self esteem problems so she turns to the chicken pills. “Here in Jamaica it’s pressure on teenage girls and women. We do stuff that increases these physical appearances, getting our bodies to look a certain way.”
According to Dr. Neil Persadsingh, a dermatologist in Kingston who has researched the pill and its side effects on humans, the pills contain arsenic. Arsenic stimulates the appetite of the chickens so they plump up faster. “Over the years I’ve seen quite a few girls who have been taken the pill,” Dr. Persadsingh told us, “Some of the side effects can be numbness, dermatitis, diarrhea. Arsenic is a cumulative poison and can become cancerous. The government has banned chicken pills here however the pills are sold illegally and can be obtained from the farm stores and on the streets.”
“This preoccupation with transforming the body is something that transcends cultures,” said Professor Carolyn Cooper. “Whether its under the surgeons knife or you freelance with a chicken pill it’s a whole discourse of dissatisfaction and anxiety about accepting the body as naturally beautiful.”
Another form of body modification taking place in many countries around the world is skin bleaching. You can buy bleaching products on the streets of Kingston in downtown markets. It’s often sold in little plastic bags with no labels.
“They have all these concoctions people mix up, toothpaste and bleach powder,” Professor Donna Hope-Marquis told us. “You rub it on keep it on for a period of time. You have to keep yourself out of the sun and cover your skin. The skin starts to get a reddish appearance which means your epidermis is being burned. The Ministry of the health has been seeing it as a medical challenge and have been trying to discourage high school children from engaging in the practice. This used to be just women bleaching their skin. Now men are doing it.”
“The politics of the body in Jamaica is really quite complicated,” said Professor Cooper. “What you’re looking at is a society that has emerged out of the trauma of slavery. Blackness was seen as something negative. Women have been socialized to be beautiful, that is part of your identity as woman. If you grow up in a culture that says “black is ugly” then its going to be a constant fight to affirm you sense of value. In the sixties we had this grand period of black power where black was beautiful. So you had the afro where people didn’t feel they had to change their natural hair. The eighties we had a political shift to a much more conservative politics. Looking good was now redefined as looking white or at least looking brown. Still in Jamaica a lot of positions of power are occupied by people who are light skinned. And the attitude is if light skin is in, I can get it too—I can get it chemically.”
In Jamaica there is a lively debate and open conversation in the culture— in the music, the dancehalls, on the streets and in the universities— about ideals of beauty and body modification. “Captain Barkey has a song it says Bleach on, girl, if the bleachin fits you right,” said Professor Donna Hope Marquis. “Basically, if it works for you continue doing it. Dance hall music also ridicules the bleachers and likens them to monkeys and people who are vampires and have to hide out of the sun in songs like “Let those Monkeys out” by Mr. Lex. And Queen Ifrica has a song. She’s a rastafari artist, very popular, and she feels that bleaching is a negation of your African self.”
“There are risks involved in bleaching, in taking the chicken pill, surgical implants, plastic surgery, these things are all over the place,” related Sonjah Stanley-Niaah. “But I think at the end of the day, these practices are not meant to diminish but to assert themselves as women.”
SCHOLARS AND ADVISORS
CAROLYN COOPER is a Jamaican Native whose original work in Jamaican culture has generated a tremendous renewed interest in the fields of Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Caribbean Studies, Languages and Literature. She is the current Head of the Department of Literature in English at the University of the West Indies, where she also co–ordinates the University’s Reggae Studies Unit. She co-hosted with psychologist Leachim Semaj the popular television talk show “Man and Woman Story” on Television Jamaica, which focused on sexuality, gender politics and popular culture. Dr. Cooper is the author of Noises in the Blood: Orality, Gender and the “Vulgar” Body of Jamaican Popular Culture (Duke University Press, 1995) and Sound Clash: Jamaican Dancehall Culture at Large (Palgrave Macmillan).
DR. DONNA HOPE-MARQUIS is Lecturer in Reggae Studies in the Institute of Caribbean Studies, at the University of the West Indies, Mona, and former host of the daytime radio talk show, Disclosure on Hot 102 FM. A Jamaican Fulbright Scholar for 2002-2004, Dr. Hope completed her Ph.D. in Cultural Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia in 2006. Her extensive research in Jamaican music and reggae and dancehall culture over the last fifteen (15) years has resulted in several publications, including her first book published by the University of the West Indies Press in 2006 titled, Inna di Dancehall: Popular Culture and the Politics of Identity in Jamaica. Her next single-authored book titled Man Vibes: Representations of Jamaican Masculinities in Dancehall Culture is forthcoming from Ian Randle Publishers in 2010.
DR. SONJAH STANLEY-NIAAH is a lecturer in cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus. She has written extensively on the history and philosophy of Jamaican dance hall culture.
DR. NEIL PERSADSINGH is a dermatologist and author in Kingston Jamaica. He did his medical training at the University of the West Indies, Mona and his post graduate training at the University of London, St. John’s Hospital for Diseases of the Skin. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology and a foundation member of the Dermatological Association. He has worked in Canada, Trinidad and Jamaica where he now has an extensive practice.
NORMAN STOLZOFF, PhD, cultural anthropologist focusing on the history, culture, and politics of Jamaica. Author of “Wake the Town and Tell the People: Dance Hall Culture in Jamaica, the first comprehensive look at Jamaican dance hall culture and music.
MUSIC FROM THE STORY
Lively Up Yourself by Bob Marley
Fatty Fatty by The Heptones
Answer Body Dub by Shakespeare and Brownie
The Bike Back by Johnny P
Rebel Music (Version) by Bob Marley
Proud a Mi Bleaching by Lisa Hype
Bleach On by Captain Barkey
Let Those Monkeys Out by Mr. Lex
Mi Na Rub by Queen Ifrica
Special Thanks: Joe Boyd, Chris Blackwell, Storm Saulter, Michelle Serieux, June Degia, Sean Mockyen, Carolyn Cooper, Sonjah Stanley Niaah, Carol and Jason Turpin, Richard Hylton, Donna Hope, Norman Stolzoff, Julia Plevin, Eloise Melzer, Sylvan Ladrick, Annie Paul, Erica Beverly, Marlin Sims, Garnette Cadogan, June Barbour, Dr. Pat Yap, Dr. Richard Desnoes, Dr. Neil Persadsingh