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By Wayne Campbell

Recently, researchers noted that Black women may have a higher risk of uterine cancer than women who reported not using chemical hair straightening products. This ground-breaking research was done by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  A group of researchers with the NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences looked at the hair care habits of more than 33,000 women and found that those who used chemical hair straightening products at least four times a year were more than twice as likely to develop uterine cancer.  

Researchers said chemicals like parabens, phthalates and fragrances in hair care products disrupt the endocrine system, which helps regulate hormones. That could, in turn, raise the risk of uterine cancer, the most common cancer of the female reproductive system.

“Sixty percent of the participants who reported using straighteners were Black women. The

bottom line is that the exposure burden appears to be higher among Black women,” said Chandra Jackson, who co-authored the study as a participant in the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Earl Stadtman Investigators program. 

The study’s lead author, Alexandra White, the head of the agency at the Environment and Cancer Epidemiology group said, “We see a doubling of risk for frequent users, and that’s a very alarming figure. For non-users, the absolute risk is about 1.64 percent, and then when you look at frequent users, the risk goes up to 4.05 percent. It’s a notable increase in risk.”

There have been at least 65,000 new cases of uterine cancer in the U.S. this year, about three percent of all new cancer cases, according to the study. Professor Greene calls the pressure a “straight hair mandate” noting that it can affect Black people’s work, social and educational lives. Hair care products targeted toward Black women seeking to fit such beauty standards are often full of endocrine-disrupting and asthma-associated chemicals, many of which are not listed on product labels, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Environmental Research.

What is uterine cancer

The uterus is part of the female reproductive system where a baby grows and develops during pregnancy.

The well respected Cleveland Clinic states uterine cancer is a general term that describes cancers of your uterus: Endometrial cancer develops in the endometrium, the inner lining of your uterus. It is one of the most common gynecologic cancers affecting the female reproductive system. Uterine sarcoma develops in the myometrium, the muscle wall of the uterus and is very rare. Uterine cancer can refer to either endometrial cancer, uterine sarcoma or other rare forms of cancer that can arise in your uterus. But people often treat the terms “endometrial cancer” and “uterine cancer” the same. That is because endometrial cancers are much more common than other cancers that can form in your uterus. 

Re-defining beauty

Our concept of beauty and self is largely associated with our colonial past. Unfortunately, our

notion of beauty is oftentimes entrenched in a Euro-Centric concept. We have been brainwashed to believe that chemically processed hair is beautiful in comparison to natural unprocessed hair. Regrettably, too many of us have bought into the narrative which says anything too Black is not good. Many Black women are overly eager to process the hair of their pre-teens. This chemical processing of the Black hair is not done in a vacuum. After centuries of enslavement and chattel slavery which resulted in the differentiation regarding the treatment of slaves on the plantation we should not be surprised that this practice, a rather discriminatory practice, persisted over the centuries.

According to Professor Wendy Greene, pressure to adhere to societal beauty standards that

prioritize and glorify hair textures and styles associated with White people have led some Black people to rely on harmful hair care products like chemical relaxers to look the part. Greene is a law professor at Drexel Kline School of Law who studies Black hair discrimination.

We must also be mindful of the advertisements which are not only on traditional media but have been rather popular on many social media platforms. These marketing strategies are craftily devised with messages which appeal to minority groups especially in the United States of America and other parts of the Americas. The pressure to straighten or process Black hair is relentless. We should not expect any changes from the perspective of the beauty industry. It is clearly all about profits and as such the poisons and toxins which are frequently in many beauty products are not a cause for concern for the beauty industry. 

Additionally, our low self esteem plays well into a beauty industry which does not care about our health concerns as people of color. Needless to say Black males also use chemicals in their hair. The conversation surrounding the use of chemicals on the Black hair must also include Black men. 

Many Black men secretly use chemicals in their kinky hair. Older men often use hair dyes to get rid of the gray hairs. Are there any studies regarding the chemical compositions of these products on the health of men? Many of us are unaware of the chemical composition of these products given we use them as a mean of convenience due to years of indoctrination concerning the concept of beauty. 

In many instances the products are not made with the Black hair as a consideration. The narrative that it takes too long a time to comb natural hair is expounded ad nauseam; however, this is a weak excuse for parents to rush to process the Black hair.

Ironically, in Jamaica there is on –going debate regarding hair and what constitutes appropriate hairstyles for schools. Students have been reprimanded for having dreadlocks and locked hair. In one case a female student at a well- known St. Catherine based primary school was barred from attending the institution due to her dreadlock hair. 

The case eventually ended up in the courts.

Messaging is important and as a result we must be cognizant of the messages being sent by the hidden curriculum. We have a far way to go before total emancipation as many of us still have our minds locked in a colonial past. Perhaps with the direct association between uterine cancer and hair straightening products we will look more carefully at our hair care habits. 

As people of color we must become more conscious of our culture, history and indeed of ourselves. We must do our own research and interrogate our colonial past and the skewed interpretations many of us now have of beauty, Black beauty. 

The time has come for us to re-image the taught traditional concept of beauty. We need to affirm ourselves in our Black skin and be aware of the on-going institutional discrimination against natural Black hair and how this violates our sense of self, our dignity and humanity. 

We must embrace the growing natural hair movement and move away from all vestiges of our colonial past which have served to enslave our minds. We should reject all attempts to discriminate against the texture and style of our hair. Discrimination in any form or any space is unacceptable. Natural Black kinky hair is beautiful. The time to affirm and empower our Black sisters is now. Reclaim your natural beauty.

Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues.