Sammy Sosa’s Changing Looks are Skin Deep

Sammy Sosa's pinkish skin tone raises deeper questions.

Sammy Sosa's new lighter appearance raises deeper questions about skin color.

It’s been 10 years since Sammy Sosa suited up for a big league game, and 13 years since he played with the Chicago Cubs on Wringley Field, yet the former slugger has still found himself landing in the press — and these days it has less to do with the athletic skills and more to do with his physical appearance.

Before last week’s MLB All-Star Game, the former baseball player, who once had healthy-looking brown skin, appeared on ESPN looking much paler than he had previously — almost an unnatural gray and pink hue.

Sosa, who was born in the Dominican Republic, has been open about altering his appearance since retiring from baseball in 2007. But his most recent change caused quite a stir on social media.

Some took a comedic approach to his lighter appearance:

While others found it to be troublesome:

However, the bigger question that has yet to be answered by the former right-fielder is why a player with accolades and achievements such as Sosa would alter the color of his skin — and so drastically at that?

In 2009, Sosa appeared at a music awards show sporting a much lighter complexion than he had just months earlier. The puzzlement and concerns caused such a commotion that Sosa went on Spanish-language television to deny that he was ill, and that his new skin tone also wasn’t the result of steroid use (something he tested positive for in 2003, according to a report published by the New York Times.)

“It’s a bleaching cream that I apply before going to bed and whitens my skin some,” Sosa said on Univision’s “Primer Impacto” program. “It’s a cream that I have, that I use to soften [my skin], but has bleached me some. I’m not a racist. I live my life happily.

“What happened was that I had been using the cream for a long time and that, combined with the bright TV lights, made my face look whiter than it really is. I don’t think I look like Michael Jackson,” he further explained.

Time magazine spoke with Dr. Jonith Breadon, a dermatologist based in Chicago who speculated that some of the stark differences in the lightened color occurred because Sosa was overcompensating.

Health website WebMD cautions potential lightening cream users that an overcompensation of changes to skin pigmentation can result in mercury poisoning and permanent “liver” spots.

Although risky, the practice of skin bleaching isn’t uncommon. According to a report by BBC, the skin-whitening practice is worth $13 billion in places such as Asia where fair skin has historically been a symbol of wealth and affluence.

The billion-dollar business is also common in places such as both West and South Africa, as well as in the Caribbean in places like Jamaica. According to Newsweek, Ghana placed a ban on the product but has faced issues removing skin bleaching products from local retail shops. However, it hasn’t put an end to those interested in bleaching their skin.

While it could simply have been an attempt to even out his complexion related to acne scars and similar face marks, Sosa’s vague explanation for his lighter skin suggests that other, “possible self-esteem or social pressures could be at play,” according to Breadon’s analysis of the transformation.

“Patients, who for whatever reason feel that the world is more receptive to lighter skin, have asked me to prescribe the bleaching creams so that they can get lighter,” said Beadon, who is a member of the American Academy of Dermatology.

She even recalled several fashion models who told her that lighter skin would enable them to get more work.

“I’d never give that treatment to someone who didn’t have a disease or condition [such as vitiligo],” she said, and for those whom she does prescribe treatment or prescription for, she always recommends counseling as well because, according to Beadon, adjusting to a new skin color is not only a physical process, but can also be an emotional one.

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18 comments


  • Recently, I was just talking to a student from China about my theory related to this phenomenon. It’s an observation that is consistent around the globe, due in part to the effect of Western cultural empire expansion. Those who are darker complexion are associated with agrarian work (i.e., lower class); those with lighter skin are associated with more intellectual/professional work (e.g., bourgeois); by comparison, in the European culture, however, that flips because the lighter skin is associated with factory work, and the darker skin (except in Mediterranean countries) is associated with having the leisure time to sunbathe. Both issues, defining a shorthand way to convey our preferred class (whether real or aspired) create a huge profitable market. Many people around the globe want to change their appearance and in some cases, to deny (or hide) their actual culture. It goes beyond just the changing of complexion, which is a radical change, to replacing the type of hair, changing eye color (through contacts), and changing shape of nose by plastic surgery. In the early part of the 20th century, these differences were infused in the valuation of homes to the degree that if someone was of southern Italian ancestry (darker complexion) would have a lower valuation of their home compared to someone from northern Italy (lighter complexion). This institutionalized racism is so subtle, that we make judgements quickly without thinking about the consequences of our actions. Many of us don’t even recognize that we have biases. This article helps us to begin the mindfulness exercise to realize that we cannot judge a book by its cover.

    • David Andersen

      The obsession people have with skin color absolutely fascinates me. It has gone on for centuries. It goes both ways thought. Especially here in the U.S. People with light skin bake in the sun all day trying to look “darker”, and those with “dark” skin avoid the sun like it’s the plague. My home is of mixed ethnicity and I see it every day! I don’t think you are “ashamed” of your culture if you want to change your skin tone…to an extent. My partner is proudly Indian but is always dodging the sun and uses skin lightener on his face. Makes his complexion look much better. I personally think some skin color looks healthy, so I use bronzer (no sun!). I am also proud to be of Norwegian decent. Sammy does not look healthy, and I think he has gone too far. I love all the colors of skin and complexions we have.

    • Charity Dell

      JAMES PARKS–Thanks for your insightful analysis into these colorism/racism issues.
      Here are a few titles that explain racism and color issues of the Dominican Republic:

      1. THE DOMINICAN RACIAL IMAGINARY:Surveying the Landscape of Race and Nation in Hispaniola.
      (Critical Caribbean Studies). Milagros Ricourt. Rutgers University Press, Reprint edition, 2016.

      2. THE MULATTO REPUBLIC: Class, Race and Dominican National Identity.
      April J. Mayes. University Press of Florida, Reprint edition, 2015.

      3. BLACK BEHIND THE EARS: Dominican Racial Identity from Museums to Beauty Shops.
      Ginetta E. B. Candelario. Duke University Press, 2007.

      4. THE BORDERS OF DOMINICANIDAD: Race, Nation and Archives of Contradiction.
      Lorgia Garcia-Pena. Duke University Press, 2016.

      5. RECONSTRUCTING RACIAL IDENTITY AND THE AFRICAN PAST IN THE
      DOMINICAN REPUBLIC. (New World Diasporas.) Kimberly Eisen Simmons.
      University Press of Florida, 2011.

      • Thank you for the list of reference, Charity. I actually conduct research on the impact of colorism on the career aspirations and job opportunities for women globally and will be exploring the impact on men.

  • I’m sorry, I don’t buy his “soften” argument. If you want softer skin, you use moisturizer, not bleaching cream. This is just his version of the paperbag test that so many darker people still uncontiously try to pass.

    Colorism is real…

    • Charity Dell

      TRISH–Years ago, an Afro-Dominican social worker informed me how he attempted to
      put NEGRO (Black) on his internal passport, and the government officials kept trying
      to persuade him to change it to “indio.” The social worker also schooled me on
      some of the shameful, racist history of Dominican government and social policies
      toward dark-skinned Dominicans, including the horrid treatment of Dominicans of
      Haitian descent. He also informed me of the dictator Trujillo’s “whitening policy”,
      which consisted of sending hordes of young white men out into small towns
      and rural areas so that they could fornicate with all the women of color they
      could find, in order to “improve the race.” This “blanqueamiento/brancamento”
      obsession was implemented–with numerous variations–throughout various
      Latin American and Caribbean countries.

      One brave activist–Solange Pierre–worked all her life to get fair and equitable
      treatment for Haitian-descended Dominicans, who were denied birthright
      citizenship even to the third generation. These people were trapped as
      sugar-cane workers in the numerous bateys, and their children and grandchildren
      were DENIED citizenship documents, despite BEING BORN IN THE
      DOMINICAN REPUBLIC. There are many excellent articles about
      this important activist on the internet, whose short life was ended with a heart attack
      in 2011, at the age of 48.

      Just recently, the Dominican government decided to ethnically cleanse many Dominicans
      of Haitian descent. Thousands were simply “dumped into Haiti”, despite their birth
      status. One book that explains the centuries-long feud between Haitians and
      Dominicans is:

      WHY THE COCKS FIGHT: Haitians, Dominicans and the Struggle for Hispaniola.
      Michele Wucker. Hill and Wang, 2000. ISBN 978-0809097135

  • He looks unhealthy in his new skin tone. Clearly, he’s lightening and whitening his skin. He’s not happy and/or he no longer wants to be a person of color. Crazy what some people will do to “fit in” with the so-called majority culture. However, he is and always will be Dominican – that fact he cannot bleach out.

    • EMM–Sammy looks weird with this over-bleached look. Now he’s in danger of melanoma and other
      skin disorders, such as ochronosis; ochronosis occurs as damaged skin reacts to the bleaching chemicals.
      Skin permanently damaged from harsh bleaching chemicals–such as hydroquinone–does not recover.
      He is not ashamed of being Dominican–he’s ashamed of being AFRO-Dominican.
      No one informed Sammy that brown skin, brown hair and brown eyes are normal human traits.
      It is tragic that Sammy worships some weird version of whiteness; he is the poster child for what happens when humans
      internalize a distorted view of beauty, based upon 500 years of Euro-centric “beauty standards.”

  • I’m old enough to similarly remember when Michael Jackson was similarly black.

    • Charity Dell

      REIBSON–I believe Michael’s vitiligo coincided with the extensive
      second and third-degree burns he suffered from filming that
      Pepsi commercial, in which his hair literally caught fire
      from sparks.

      • Please. What difference does it make? That Reibson feels the imprimatur to judge one of the greatest artists of our time speaks volumes about white privilege.

        White privilege does not respond to logic or facts. It retreats to hidey holes, like the sex offender network (fox), where, like children with their fingers plugging their ears while squeezing their eyes shut and reciting ‘nananana’, they can pretend the world is just the way they imagine it was in 1958 in Mayberry RFD.

        Where the bloated orange fraud they voted for isn’t an addled old man who’s entire self image had been funded by Russians since he bankrupted his casinos.

        • RE: Jackson, I also can logically remember his repetitive nose-slimming surgeries. As with Angry Michelle, look up Michael’s Nose (images, and no last name needed) for an astonishing photo spread.
          And he was “one of the greatest artists of our time”? Art, like beauty, is indeed in the eye (ear) of the beholder. This last: the occasional explosively-angry off-topic outbursts here, Luke – you and Trump both might want to think about having someone else look before you post.

          • “Angry Michelle”?

            By any measure, Michael Jackson was one of the greatest artists of our time.

            As far as angry outbursts, %#^* %%}}#%^*€>

          • One man’s dislike of his nose (plastic surgery is a billion dollar business) is the story of one man not liking his nose.

          • Actually, blacks, barring celebs, all of whom rely on their physical appearance, are the least likely group to opt for plastic surgery to alter their appearance.

    • Read better. After all those years of the media accusing MJ of wanting to be white, it was learned he actually had vitiligo. You’ll note (but, of course you willfully refuse to), that one doctor in the article said she prescribes bleaching cremes for those patients.

      Depending on the extent, some people choose to darken the lightened areas. When it extensively spreads, that is no longer possible. Three skin becomes sensitive to sun,hence his using umbrellas in the sun wasn’t “weird”. But in played well in the media.

      You can see the mottled coloring on Michael’s hands in an old interview with Oprah decades ago.

      But believing Michael wanted to be white, gets some white people off – like you.

      Sammy is just sad and looks awful.

  • He’s rich, accomplished, famous and admired but couldn’t escape the legacy of slavery and ethnic/cultural bigotry. It’s sad. I hope that somehow he’s happier, but I don’t think it’s likely.

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