I grew up on a tiny island in the middle of the Caribbean sea, and it was easy to not love myself. I was too dark and my hair was too nappy. A girl of lighter skin complexion was a prize and me of darker complexion, nothing more than toe jam.
Recess often felt like hierarchy. If a girl was “dark-skinned,” “fat”, and “nappy-headed”, she was a cursed trifecta. ” what are you waiting for, just jump into the ocean and don’t hold your breath.” If a girl was fat,” and “dark-skinned”, she was still deemed a disruption. However, if she had that “good hair” she remained in the comfort zone of the populist.
Needless to say, as my mother applied vaseline to my edges and gloves to protect her hands, health concerns were not a factor in a culture accosted by the relevancy of proper hair texture. Especially when one’s hair has been on trial since antiquity.
So for many of us, a hair relaxer was a pathway to decriminalizing our hair and instead, ushered towards societal approval. The subject may be taboo, but the ugliness driving the need to morph into “a better version of ourselves” has come with a heavy price tag.
The Health Risk
Hair relaxers are associated with an occurrence of early menstruation, higher incidence of fibroids, and increased risk of breast cancer. A 2018 research study published by Environmental Research concludes that endocrine-disrupting chemicals in hair products like hair relaxers, contribute to hormonal mediated diseases. If you’re unfamiliar with endocrine disruptors, you should know that any disturbance in the functioning of hormones due to synthetic chemical exposure is endocrine disruption.
The World Health Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme, categorize endocrine disruptors as a ” major and emerging global health threat.”Is it safe to say we have compromised our health for the sake of societal acceptance? I believe so.
What Hair Means in Society
The truth is we all want to feel beautiful. But to whose standard and is your standard of beauty so narrow that you can’t even include yourself?
We continue to revaluate ourselves when the beauty goal post moves. Although beauty has become more inclusive over the past 20 years, our hair, specifically “Black Hair” is just catching up. Our hair fell into a bottomless bit of comparison amongst ourselves driven by societal and institutional disapproval.
If that last sentence seems stretched, it’s not. California Gov. Gavin Newsom, in July 2019 signed State Bill, SB-188. In essence, SB-188 bans employers and school officials from discriminating against people based on their natural hair. States such as New Jersey and New York have followed suit. Although we see more inclusive ads of black hair, the beauty gods are still not willing to go beyond a particular texture. I have yet to see a tight-coiled Black Beauty gracing social media or mainstream commercial ads.
Have you ever asked yourself, why beauty is in the hands of the personal care and cosmetic industry and disbursed through social media platforms? This industry decides whether the kink, curl, or wave in your hair has fallen short of beauty, not us. Because of the beauty and cosmetic industry profits when beauty is not stagnant. To put it another way, consumers purchase products to quiet inner discontent.
The Toxicity of Hair Relaxers
The study also revealed that hair products targeted to children are not any safer. Researchers found that children’s hair relaxers contained five chemicals regulated by California’s Proposition 65. Proposition 65 requires businesses to provide warnings to Californians about significant exposures to chemicals that cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm. These chemicals were are also prohibited by EU cosmetics regulation.
What’s even more damming is that these chemicals were generally not listed on the product label. But the truth is, there are so many loopholes in the personal care industry that allows the FDA to remain unbothered.
Salons, for instance, use products that are designated, ‘For Professional Use Only. These products are not required to have their chemical ingredients labeled.
Phthalates, a group of chemicals used to make plastic soft, such as food packaging are quite diverse in destroying our health a few times over. These dangerous chemicals also enhance the scent of your personal care products. Phthalates can act like estrogen, which influence the expression of genes that influence the production of thyroid-stimulating hormones and are possible contributors to obesity, metabolic and reproductive effects. Also, higher urinary concentrations of phthalates metabolites have been associated with fibroids.
Our Responsibility Does Not Belong To The FDA
Our refusal to bridge personal care and health and the use of the FDA as a buffer between the two has given us a license to self-mutilate our health. Without question, we have made an error. The FDA is not our savior. Hair relaxers and other personal care and beauty products are under-regulated. Even though the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act explicitly directs the “the label of products to shall bear a warning statement…to prevent hazard that may be associated with a product,” the FDA has taken a bow to manufacturers, which decide whether a product is safe.
The truth is, FDA oversight begins when we become public statistics. OUCH. Even though there are tens of thousands of personal care products being sold in the US, a minimal amount has been assessed for their impact on human health.
What Can We Do To Stop Compromising Our Health
I think Iyanla Vanzant said it best–
Comparison is an act against self.
The first step towards taking your health off the table is to be ok with you. That may mean staying off social media or tighten your circle of friends. Hair should not be our self-worth. The Biblical story of Samson displays a man whose hair was his strength or so he thought, until he was faced with no other option but to find strength within and not through his external fortitude. We must do the same and demand the past due amount of acceptance from ourselves and our communities.
We must also be willing to admit that perhaps societal norms of beauty are driving us towards our own demise?
Yes, while some can plead ignorance, ignorance is considered a choice in the age of information overload, but, it’s also bliss. If we are honest, the perception of beauty does more for our self worth than good health. Health is a small ask in the age of beauty at all costs. Let’s DO Better.