Uterine cancer is relatively rare, but this revelation comes from the same group of researchers who have linked hair straighteners, as well as permanent hair dye, to an increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.
In recent years, we have also heard about terrible toll what the fumes of hairsprays and acetones in nail salons have on the human body and how harmful they can be to men and women who regularly breathe in these toxins while working there. Exposure to these chemicals have been linked to asthma, skin disorders, miscarriages and cancer. Other beauty treatments – skin brighteners, skin tighteners, wrinkle reducers – also have known side effects and complications.
And yet, people keep trying to look younger, slimmer…better.
What does it mean to be at our best? There is a narrow definition of beauty that is deeply ingrained in the culture and people are willing to take risks, endure discomfort and even pain, to conform to it. The handsome – not the model, the starlet or the stunner in a million – but the person whose appearance is pleasant, familiar, likeable. They are valued.
People fight for it. Maybe they don’t see themselves as conforming but simply striving to be their best self, to feel good, to silence their inner critic. It has become nearly impossible to determine whether a person subscribes to a particular sensibility due to social pressure, personal preferences, or a complex and frustrating combination of the two.
But this is certain: the greater the distance between one’s natural attributes and the ideal of beauty, the greater the risk of reshaping, retraining and transforming into a more valuable asset. The more you are marginalized; the more difficult it is to consider it relevant. No one has felt this more than black women. They are still struggling to claim their full value.
For generations, the female archetype in the West was long hair, fair skin and a slender physique. The culture has moved away from it. We cast admiring glances in a thousand different ways. But our collective gaze lingers even longer on those who are variations of this rooted ideal.
Black women have embraced their natural hair; shared beauty secrets; revels in skin that is slow to wrinkle. But they also had to negotiate with employers and public spaces that were neither welcoming nor supportive. They may have made strategic decisions about their appearance or they may have made intuitive decisions. But there’s always the understanding that they don’t set the standard. And so they will never meet him. The choice is simply deciding how hard they will try.
One could consider former first lady Michelle Obama as a kind of effort test. At the White House, her hair was blown out elegantly by an on-call hairstylist. Immediately after, she wore a more natural texture. More recently, she adopted braids.
Despite the focus on body positivity, tall women – tall Black women — in the eyes of the public still have to reckon with the politicization of their bodies. Their clothing choices mean something beyond a personal aesthetic gesture. As a culture, we haven’t gotten to the point where looking at their beauty feels natural. For now, it’s an intellectual proposition.
For some, sassiness becomes their armor, their weapon, and their self-care. They use it to fend off insults from people who don’t care to comment on their bodies, but still do it as if it were a whiteboard to lay out an argument about health, fitness and lack of discipline.
What kind of message is fashion trying to send to tall women?
We struggled to broaden our view of beauty. We strive to ensure that fashion shoots and advertising broadcasts reflect a more inclusive vision. We aim to welcome.
In March, the House of Representatives passed the Crown Act which prohibits discrimination based on certain hairstyles, including braids, cornrows and dreadlocks. The law, which is an acronym for Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, reads in part: “Throughout the history of the United States, society has used (in conjunction with the color of skin) hair texture and hairstyle to classify individuals on the basis of race. Like skin color, hair has served as the basis for discrimination based on race and national origin. Discrimination racial and national origin can and does occur due to long-standing racial and national origin prejudices and stereotypes associated with hair texture and style.
It took several attempts to get this bill through the House and it didn’t happen before Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), voting against it, derisively called it the bad hair bill. While President Biden has indicated he will sign it, the bill has yet to pass the Senate.
But it’s hard to imagine that even if a law prohibits someone from being fired because they have tight, coarse curls, no legislation will make that hair look good in the eyes of those who see the world as Boebert does. Frizzy and textured hair is bad according to her. But what makes flat, straight hair better?
The NIH study is a warning. Not just about the risks of hair relaxers and dye jobs, but about the dangers and costs of preaching a doctrine that says a particular kind of person is more beautiful, more capable, more valued just because they look particular. This norm is rooted in whiteness, but the truth is that the norm has become so airbrushed and filtered that no one can actually reach it, even though so many people can’t help but chase after it.
It’s no surprise that the things people do to themselves in the name of beauty are questionable. The cultural pressure to look a certain way is extreme, but so are the rewards. It’s a pressure black women know well. They have borne the brunt of this stress, but no one is immune. Yet if society opened wide to fully embrace the natural beauty of black women, it would also mean that so many others – in big bodies, with an abundance of crow’s feet and perhaps no hair at all – could stop contorting to squeeze through what is now the narrowest opening.