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Why do Black Women still Relax their Hair?


According to the Los Angeles Times newspaper article written by Alene Dawson titled Hair in the black community: Roots of a debate nine out of every ten African American women have or has once had a hair relaxer in their lifetime. Many people believe that black women relax their hair for the sole purpose of making it straight, however that is only an answer that scrapes the surface in which it does not critically analyze the true purpose behind chemically altering black hair. Digging deeper scholars will research and examine the common acts from women of color that chemically uncurl their natural hair in order for their hair to appear European.

According to the most visited urban website in the world Jordan Mann, an African American woman, was fired from her job at Trump Towers in New York City. Her natural (afro) hairstyle didn't live up to the "grooming ideals," in Donald Trump’s organization. Thinkers would agree that Afro textured hair is frowned upon in the United States of America. Because kinky hair is a strong characteristic of a black person, it is not accepted in America; thus black women relax their hair in desperate efforts to be acknowledged in Western society.

Black women endure excessive oppression when it comes to their hair. The extreme procedure of relaxing one’s natural hair is dangerous. The key ingredient, for do it yourself and salon oriented relaxers, is either sodium hydroxide or calcium hydroxide, which are powerful chemicals that can burn the scalp. The same chemicals used in a relaxer have the ability to melt metal. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), acknowledges “reports of cancer of the esophagus 15 to 40 years after exposure to the chemicals, caused by decomposition induced by sodium hydroxide.” Black women who use conditioning products containing animal placentas were also shown to have higher rates of breast cancer. Brands such as B&B Super Gro contain hormones. These unsafe hormones are more easily absorbed into the skin. Also chemical relaxers have been proven to have side effects including, but not limited to, “total or spot hair loss, hair breakage at the scalp line, bald spots, scalp rashes, irritation and potential scarring of the scalp.” In some cases, if burns occur on the skin, these can leave eternal scars as well. Relaxers are not only harmful to African American hair but harmful to the human body.

It’s not just the direct application of the relaxer cream on one’s scalp that is toxic, but it is also venomous for people to inhale even in well ventilated beauty salons.During a random study test, I interviewed two random females who were dorm roommates and students at Full Sail University. I began with asking them whether or not they thought relaxers were risky. “Are relaxers bad for African American hair?” Kyra Bell who is 19 years of age relaxes her natural hair once every six weeks asked her roomie. Bell’s roommate, Tina Orr who is a sophomore at Full Sail University does not relax her hair. Orr enlightened her roommate and replies “Yes, it is bad for your hair and bad for your body also. That is why you are not supposed to get them while you are pregnant, because you are exposing yourself and the baby to harmful chemicals. Some of the chemicals are possibly carcinogenic.” Bell surprised Ms. Orr continued and inquired whether or not Ms. Bell had ever noticed that the majority of elderly black women wore wigs. Orr questioned Ms. Bell “Why do you think that is?” Bell was then asked why did she personally relax her hair and she sternly stated, “I don't do it because I am burning with self-hatred inside my heart, but because it is easier to manage. Permed hair can be combed and set in one-tenth of the time it takes to comb/style my natural hair. Also it is less painful….” Orr replied “I don't think keeping your hair natural is a hard task. I think perming it is the hard task. I used to perm my hair, but to maintain it, you have to treat it with conditioner every week, trim it every month, and go to your hairdresser often if you don't want it to break off. Once I actually researched what relaxers contained and how unsafe they were to my body and the environment I went natural.”

On YouTube there is a documentary video of a young African American woman who damaged her hair with a relaxer due to chemical alopecia. As the video began, the young woman showed pictures of her hair while relaxed. She talked about how she loved straightening her hair but hated trimming and washing it. In February 2009 she cut off over four inches of her split ends. She explains how her hair grew back a few months later. She again stated she hated combing her hair so she wore braids to avoid the trouble and so it could grow. In September 2010 she relaxed her edges so that her natural hair could match the new weave she had purchased but the relaxer was six months expired and all her hair fell out. She used bangs and side bangs to cover it. In November 2010, she cut off the pieces that were left from the relaxer and chopped off all the texturized hair and wore a weave. Three months later the relaxer damaged her scalp and it had barely grown a centimeter. It would take another three months before she would be able to get her hair braided. Her hair after a relaxer was completely damaged. She tried to change herself because she thought nappy hair wasn’t pretty and in the end she ended up with no hair. She stated that part of her was cheerful because “that hair had to go and I needed a fresh start.” Now she is staying natural. It will take a while for it to grow the way she wants it but she believes she is still beautiful and always has been. This video is an example that relaxation of black hair should be stopped.

According to Nappturology 101which is a website dedicated to African American women and their hair everyone’s hair has the same structure no matter whose head it’s on. Nappturology explains how human hair consists of three main layers which include the cuticle, the cortex and the medulla. The outer layer of the hair is called the cuticle. It is designed to protect the inner layers of one’s hair shaft. The cuticles can be compared to pebbles on a roof. Cuticles that lay flat against the hair shaft do the best job of providing protection. Cuticles are often damaged by excessive mechanical manipulation such as brushing and/or using heat or chemical processing. Also every day elements, such as the sun or wind can cause wear and tear on one’s hair and damage one’s cuticles as well.

The second layer of hair is called the cortex which is made up of long proteins that twist or are twisted. This is also the part of the hair that is most responsible for its overall strength, elasticity, and color. Hair that is in good condition is full of protein that makes up the cortex. This hair can be stretched and it will recoil back into its natural form. Hair that’s dry and frail does not hold moisture content in its cortex and it lacks these proteins. As a result, it will not be elastic enough to withstand the harshness of mechanical and chemical manipulation and will break very easily.

A severely damaged cortex also causes split ends. The protective cuticle has been worn away and is now exposing the cortex. Once the cortex is exposed, the hair is damaged beyond repair. Since hair isn’t living tissue, it doesn’t have the healing properties that are in skin. Therefore it cannot restore itself. Damaged hair can be covered up at best using various products. However, it can never be fixed. Damaged hair will break by itself, or in the case of split ends, trimming them is ultimately the only choice.

The deepest or center portion of the hair shaft is called the medulla. It is composed of round cells, two to five rows across. Thick or coarse hair usually contains a medulla. Fine hair for the most part lacks a medulla, as does naturally blond hair. According to the authors of Nappturology the purpose of the medulla has not yet been determined. However hair scientist recognizes three types of hair: African, European and Asian.

The authors of Nappturology go on to state that African hair is almost flat or ribbon like in shape, twisting, turning, and bending as it grows. At every twist and turn, the hair tends to be thinner and therefore susceptible to breakage at each of these points along the hair shaft. Because of its shape, the cuticles on nappy hair tend to be raised, and do not lay flat against the hair shaft. As a result, nappy hair absorbs light and does not reflect it. Hence, nappy hair does not shine. Raised cuticles also act like opened doors, causing nappy hair to be very porous. It will suck up moisture like a sponge but will also have a hard time retaining it; hence, nappy hair is inherently dry. Raised cuticles also causes nappy hair to feel coarse to the touch, rub and catch easily on one another leading tangles, knots and even making it more susceptible to damage and breakage if it isn’t cared for properly.” (Nappturology 101)

Awareness of the dissimilarities between African, European and Asian hair is essential. African American women should never conclude that one particular type of hair is better than the other. It’s not better; it’s just different. Learning about these differences can help African American women make better choices when it comes to taking care of and styling their hair. Like Ms. Bell realized after our interview that relaxing her hair was not only damaging it, however it was toxic to her body.

Women of color need to accept what their hair can do and what it cannot do based on its structure and characteristics. Relaxing their hair is temporarily forcing it with chemicals to change its natural form. Countless people believe that black women relax their hair for the sole purpose of making it straight however that is incorrect. They have been brain washed into believing that European hair is an example of what has been considered the ideal image of beauty. Black women continue to endure mechanical and chemical manipulations in efforts to change their natural appearance. Because kinky hair is a strong characteristic of a black person, it is not accepted in America thus black women relax their hair in desperate efforts to be acknowledged in Western society. African American women need to accept their unique heritage and stop conforming to imitations of other cultures example of beauty. Black women should understand that relaxers are not only dangerous to their hair but their body as well.

Atlanta, GA, USA

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