Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Dispatches from Nappyville: Adding herbs and berries to your sodium hydroxide doesn't make it good for you

(Hat tip to Racialicious)
The problem ain't the chemicals, it's the pathology that says we need them no matter the price to our health. From the Washington Post:
Julia Coney, 36, can still remember her first chemical burn. She was a teenager, and she'd been getting her hair straightened since she was 8. In the early days, her mother used to take her to a hairdresser, who would gently spread a relaxer on her thick hair to tame its tight coils. The sodium-hydroxide-based paste was a creamy white color and had a harsh smell, but it left Coney with fine, silky, straight hair that was easy to manage.

The burns came later, when Coney went to sloppy hair stylists or disobeyed the cardinal rules of relaxing, which include not scratching the scalp or washing the hair too soon before the application. During those teenage years, when vanity often trumped safety, Coney once got a burn so bad that it left the area behind her right ear raw. "I was like, 'Why am I doing this?' " she recalled.

With a pH of about 12, similar to that of household ammonia or soap, chemical relaxers are among the most caustic cosmetics products on the market, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental organization. Along with hair dyes, hair straighteners are the source of more complaints to the Food and Drug Administration's Office of Cosmetics and Colors than almost any other product.

Though millions of African American women have used relaxers, often for many years, there is a growing push among consumer advocates and some consumers for gentler products that are no less effective. Read more...


Rebecca said...

This may be more prevalent with black women, but it's by no means limited by race. I've had my hair chemically relaxed twice (total waste of money - the stuff barely made it less curly, but certainly damaged it), and I've spent a lot of time and money on flat irons and straightening balms and creams.

Maybe it's a different motivation than black women, or maybe it's not - I really have no idea (never thought about it before, to be honest). I just know I like my hair straight because 1) it's SO much easier to deal with, and 2) it looks shinier and neater and nicer.

So, questions - do you think this is specifically a race thing, or is it a woman/beauty culture thing? Do you think there are different motivations behind white girls and black girls straightening their hair?

(After being misunderstood on another blog, I want to add - I'm NOT trying to be snarky! I'm honestly wondering.)

Tami said...

Thanks for the comment, Rebecca. To answer your question: Yes and no. Yes, I think all women--regardless of race--are chasing a similar beauty standard. The problem for black women (and other women of color) is that the beauty standard is a solely Eurocentric one that prizes Anglo physical features to the exclusion of others.

The idea that straighter "shinier and neater" hair is superior is in itself an arbitrary reflection of Western Anglo culture. Most hair of African descendants is some variation of kinky and curly. It often does not naturally shine. It may not be easily combed. It may be coarse. It may not be easily restrained. To make the average black woman's hair into anything approximating the beauty ideal takes considerable money and effort, yet more than 80 percent of black women straighten from cradle to the grave, because otherwise our hair is deemed ugly or unprofessional or unacceptable.

Think of it like: What if straight, light brown hair was deemed unacceptable, and millions of white women had to go to great lengths to cover what normally grows out of their heads with kinky perms in order to gain employment, maintain social status, etc.? What if wearing your hair straight with bangs was considered unprofessional, in the way dred locks sometimes are? One style is a natural style for Anglo hair. The other is a natural style for kinky, African hair. But only the former would be okay in some conservative business settings.

For more on this, check out my post and the discussion at: http://www.racialicious.com/2008/12/17/nappy-love-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-embrace-the-kinks/

I think that may give you an idea of what I'm trying to say.

Rebecca said...

Ok, yeah, the Eurocentric thing makes total sense. Another example: I remember when I was in junior high this boy got really angry that I wouldn't let him copy off my test. His response was to make fun of me. His insult of choice? My nose. He said it was too wide - that only black people have noses that wide. As if that's a bad thing; but in a culture that prizes European features... (Incidentally, he was black. Also, it took me a long time to make peace with my wide nose. I'm still working on my peace with kinky hair.:) )

Tiffany In Houston said...

I've been following the commentary on Racialicious and here about relaxing vs natural and frankly I'm getting annoyed. I relax my hair and absolutely love natural hair on other folks. If it's not for me, it's just not for me. Maybe it will be later on but not right now.

I don't hate myself. I'm not out of tune with my blackness. I don't think natural hair is odd or unprofessional. I just don't want to do that and I don't have to and I'm tired of all the commentary saying I should go natural, cut off all my hair off my peanut shaped head and "free my mind." Dammit, how about you do you and let me do me!

And for what it's worth, maintaining natural hair may be easier but costwise it can be every bit as expensive as relaxed hair if you are buying high quality products for natural hair.

Thanks for letting me say my piece.

Tami said...


Please understand, I think black women should be free to make whatever decisions they want to make about their hair. I wore my hair straight for most of my life and many of the women closest to me still do. What frustrates a lot of natural women, including me, is the reasons we hear from our permed sisters for not wearing natural hair. They often add up to typical demonizing of natural hair on black women:

It's ugly
It's unfeminine
It's unprofessional
It's hard to maintain
It's expensive
It only works on certain types of heads with certain grades of hair

...and so and so on

Natural hair is none of the things above. No matter what your race, the easiest, cheapest, most adaptable thing to do is to wear your hair as it naturally is. That doesn't mean you have to do it. You SHOULD do you. For instance, lots of dark-haired white women choose to lighten their hair. The difference is, I don't hear those women claiming they do it because maintaining blonde hair is easier, cheaper, more professional or that the brown hair they were born with doesn't look right with their face shape. They don't pretend that putting peroxide on their roots isn't damaging. They generally agree that blonde is beautiful is the mainstream American ideal; they like it and go with it.

I'm not saying that you believe the things above, but I would venture to guess that the majority of black women do. And I think that is sad.

The linked article annoyed me, because once again it made it seem like black women HAVE to straighten their hair, and it minimized the damage that the chemicals in perms can do.

My hope is that one day, all black women can wear their hair naturally without explanation and fuss, ot they can wear their hair permed--not because something is wrong with their natural hair, but because they like the look or want a change or whatever.

Again, not saying that your choice has anything to do with bad feelings about natural hair. But in my experience, most black people DO have negative feelings about natural hair.

BTW, I disagree with you about wearing natural hair being costly. I have always used premium products on my hair. That hasn't changed now that I am natural. In fact, by choice, I buy more expensive products. I still come out to the good, because my natural hair requires fewer products and fewer trips to the salon.)


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