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Written for BGLH by Tessa Smith
It seems there are endless discussions surrounding the complexion issues that Black people have wrestled with for decades. These discussions often erupt into arguments about access, privilege and beauty ideals. Many believe that dark skin is undesirable, while light skin is a mark of beauty. But, what about those who have little or no pigment in their hair, eyes or skin?
Albinism is a genetic condition marked by the absence of normal amounts of melanin (not to be confused with vitaligo, which is a gradual loss of pigment usually causing patches of pigment loss in skin). According to the National Organization for Albinism and Hypopigmentation, "NOAH" website, one in 17,000 people in the United States has some form of albinism and albinism affects people from all races. I thought it would be interesting to explore connections between albinism and the beauty standards held by many in the black community. I interviewed two Black women, both in their early 30s, about their experiences living with albinism and their take on complexion issues among Black women.
This past summer, I met with Jasmine Jarvis at her home in St. Johns, Antigua, West Indies on a humid, summer afternoon. A self-described fashionista, Jasmine's personality is as fiery as the Antiguan heat. "If I was born again, I wouldn't change it," Jasmine said of albinism. "I would just want longer hair," she said with a huge smile.
A supportive family instilled such an unshakable confidence that as a child she never isolated herself from others. As a teenager she was involved with a few local fashion shows. And, she recently celebrated 2 years of marriage. Albinism has not stopped her from enjoying life, but she has her daily regime down to a science. "I wear Neutrogena sunblock with an SPF of 76%. I avoid going in to the direct sun light between 9:00am- 4:00pm and if I go out [between that time] it's 15 minutes the most." Albinism causes skin to burn easily resulting in freckles on the burned area. Despite the challenges, her resolve and zest for life remains strong although it seems to her that some people in her community believe she should be less outgoing because she's albino. "I love life. I'm not handicapped," she said.
I corresponded with Monique Young, a graphic designer from Chicago via email. Monique shares a similar supportive upbringing and sees herself as an advocate for those who cannot or will not defend themselves. "I believe that being different has given me more compassion for others," Monique wrote. "I was raised not to allow anyone to make me question my self worth. I was, however, very defensive in new surroundings because I had grown accustomed to aggressive attitudes to my being "a white girl," Monique said of the negative attitudes she encountered in her childhood.
In addition to the negative attitudes many people with albinism encounter, Jasmine also spoke of the myths some believe about albinos. "If you're albino some people think that you were conceived on a full moon night or all albinos are related," she said as she recounted the theories she's heard over the years. Unfortunately, outside of the United States the myths and attitudes result in more than insensitive comments and long, uncomfortable stares.
According to ABC News and 20/20 reports aired this past summer, in Tanzania people with albinism were being brutally attacked and in some cases murdered and their limbs sold and used in potions because some believe that their body parts have power to conjure success and wealth.
The threat of physical harm may not be as salient in the U.S. as in Tanzania, but tackling issues of self esteem is universal. "I think all young girls have some insecurities, mine were not due to how people treated me," said Monique. But, experiencing negative attitudes from dark-skinned women and hearing similar stories from light-skinned women who don't have albinism has helped to form her opinions about why certain beauty standards have remained lodged in Black women's psyche. "I hate the "light-skinned standard" of beauty because it's a major divider between alot of Black women. However, I do believe that [the standard] can be changed if Black women stop accepting the "light- skinned/good hair policy" that the media has created for OUR community."
Likewise, Jasmine believes that the "light-skinned standard" is still in place and that the use of skin bleaching products is a glaring sign. "It's even confusing the kids!," she said. She explained that her niece's classmate commented about Jasmine's complexion believing that she uses skin bleaching cream to lighten her skin. "There should be more education about albinism."
Beauty standards and concepts of self esteem are as varied as the people who live them out and pass them on everyday. Perhaps more and consistent education and community-based support systems are the means to fueling discussions about these issues and eradicating negative attitudes.