Taking Surprising Risks For The Ideal Body In Jamaica, like all over the world, there are deep conversations about the ideal body type. While there are competing norms of beauty, some women are using extreme methods to fit their vision of beautiful, like ingesting chicken pills for broader hips and butts, and bleaching their skin to be whiter. And they're taking health risks to do so.
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Taking Surprising Risks For The Ideal Body

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Taking Surprising Risks For The Ideal Body

Taking Surprising Risks For The Ideal Body

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.


And Im Melissa Block.

Today, we're launching a new series, "The Hidden World of Girls and the Women They Become." This series is a collaboration from NPR, independent producers the Kitchen Sisters and you, our listeners.

SIEGEL: Over the next few months, we'll bring you stories of women and girls from around the world - stories of coming of age, rituals and rites of passage, secret identities of women who crossed a line, blazed a trail, changed the tide.

Today, the Kitchen Sisters take us to Kingston, Jamaica, to explore notions of beauty and just how far some women are going to obtain it.

Ms. CAROL TURPIN (President, 4-H Club): Some girls, to be more attractive to the male, they get themselves into this use of chicken pills. I am Carol Turpin, St. Catherine, Jamaica.

Mr. JASON TURPIN (Student): Chicken pills are the same pills that you give to a chicken to make them grow faster. Some people use it if you want to get broader hips or a bigger bottom. My name is Jason Turpin. Im a college student from Kingston. In our Jamaican culture, you know, we love a girl that has one of the shape.

Ms. TURPIN: Most males, they love to see women with big bottoms, the old idea of a Coca-Cola bottle shape.

Mr. TURPIN: Yes. When they're talking about a Coca bottle shape, it's like more heavier down on the hips.

Ms. TURPIN: I dont want a magar(ph) woman. Thats how the men would speak. You say meager, we say magar. They're figuring that if you look magar, you look poor - and poor in the sense of, you're not being taken care of.

(Soundbite of a song)

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) I need a fat girl, fat girl...

Professor CAROLYN COOPER (Literary and Cultural Studies, University of the West Indies): If you have a big bottom, that means that you're sitting on a lot of power. I am Carolyn Cooper, professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica.

In our culture, you get competing norms of beauty. There's a kind of anorexic, Eurocentric model of beauty, also a much more Afrocentric body type that is valorized.

Professor SONJAH STANLEY-NILES (Culture Studies, University of the West Indies): If you have no meat on your bones, the society can't see your wealth, your progress, your being. My name is Sonjah Stanley-Niles. I am a lecturer in cultural studies at the University of the West Indies.

We have these conversations in the culture about conceptions of the ideal body. In music, the dance halls, there's a particular song about the woman whose derriļæ½re is of such quality, flexibility and panache that she can successfully, with vim and vigor, ride the motorbike back and be a visual spectacle.

(Soundbite of song, "Bike Back)

Mr. ROMANE ANDERSON (Singer): (Singing) It's a beautiful sight. Im a love to watch to see the young girl upon the bike back. Bike back...

Professor COOPER: What I find amazing is the degree to which women will put themselves at risk to fit an image that they consider to be ideal.

Unidentified Man #2: Action.

Ms. RAQUEL JONES (Actress): (Acting) Y'all got the chicken pill? (Foreign language spoken) Try and stop me.

My name is Raquel Jones. Im 21 years old, and Im from Kingston, Jamaica. I was casted to play a lead role in a short film, "Chicken Pill." It's about two teenage girls, one getting more attention from the boys in the class. The other character, Lisa, is having self-esteem problems, so she turns to the chicken pill.

Ms. JONES: (Acting) Oh, here's something to look forward to, Lisa: diarrhea, rashes. Oh, Im sure Ronnie will like rashes on those new breasts. And cancer, Lisa, cancer.

Dr. NEIL PERSADSINGH (Dermatologist): I am Dr. Neil Persadsingh, a dermatologist in Kingston, Jamaica. Chicken pills, the harmful ingredient is arsenic. Over the years, I've seen quite a few people who have taken the pill, mostly women. I think they're a little bit secretive about it, they dont want their friends, etc., to know. The government, theyve banned importation of chicken pill. However, the pill is freely available all over the island.

(Soundbite of a song)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) I am beautiful in every single way, words can't bring me down...

Professor DONNA HOPE-MARQUIS (International Reggae Studies Association, University of the West Indies): I am Donna Hope-Marquis, a lecturer in reggae studies at the University of the West Indies. Women are using other forms of artifice. And skin bleaching is fashionable - while it's damaging to the epidermis.

(Soundbite of a song)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing) I am a girl. Im a bleaching, Im a creamy dear. But now I go by my doctor...

Professor HOPE-MARQUIS: They have all these concoctions. People mix up toothpaste and bleach powder, rub it on. The skin starts to have a sort of reddish appearance, which means that your epidermis is being burned.

Unidentified Woman 2: It's a one-hour bleach...

Professor COOPER: You can get bleaching products on the streets of Kingston, downtown in the markets. The same place theyre buying the chicken pill.

Unidentified Woman #3: No bleach for two weeks now...

Professor HOPE-MARQUIS: This used to be only women who would bleach their skin but now, men are doing it.

GABREL(ph): Im Gabrel, and Im a prince of streets. I bleach to look good. If you're white, a lot of people won't find any fault about you. But if you're black, it's a big problem, right, all around the world.

Professor COOPER: What you're looking at in Jamaica is a society that has emerged out of the trauma of slavery. If you grow up as a black woman in a culture that says black is ugly, then it's going to be a constant fight to affirm your sense of value.

(Soundbite of song, "Bleach On")

CAPTAIN BARKEY (Singer): (Singing) If you are bleach and bleaching fits you -bleach on. Bleach on.

Professor HOPE-MARQUIS: Captain Barkey has a song called "Bleach On." 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 hide to out of the sunlight.

Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) In the day, it is all right. But in the night, thats when the monkeys come out. Oh, let those monkeys out...

Professor HOPE-MARQUIS: Queen Ifrica has song. She's a Rastafari artist, very popular, and she feels that bleaching is a negation of your African self.

(Soundbite of a song)

QUEEN IFRICA (Singer): (Singing) My complexion is better than ever - brown skin.

Professor STANLEY-NILES: I think that at the end of the day, these practices are not intended to diminish but to assert themselves as women.

(Soundbite of song, "Believe)

CHER (Singer): (Singing) Do you believe in life after love...

Unidentified Man #3: Beautiful young ladies, Ms. Jamaica World 2009.

Professor COOPER: Jamaican beauty contests have been fraught with social contestation. Nineteen fifty-five, they had this multiracial competition. The lighter-skinned women were named after flowers: Miss Lotus and Miss Apple Blossom and so on. And the darker women were named after hardwoods: Miss Mahogany, Miss Ebony. Immediately, you would know the flowers and the fruits would win much more readily than the hardwoods.

(Soundbite of a song)

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) Are you ready? Are you ready...

Professor COOPER: Over time, the aesthetic has changed. Two years ago, Zahra Redwood, Miss Universe, the Rastafari black woman with organic dreadlocks, she has brought within Jamaica, a broad nose and she has full lips. That kind of image, 50 years ago, would never be paraded on any stage as beautiful. So we have to see that we have come a long way in terms of the society's readiness to accept multiple models of beauty.

(Soundbite of a song)

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) Understanding color to face the darkest...

BLOCK: Our story "Chicken Pills was produced by the Kitchen Sisters and mixed by Jim McKee, as part of the new series "The Hidden World of Girls and the Women They Become."

SIEGEL: If youve got stories and ideas for the series, you can send photos, videos and diaries to The Kitchen Sisters. We'll tell you how to do that, at NPR.org.

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