Opinion: Relaxers And Generational Trauma Are Linked To Cancer In Black Women

A hair relaxer from the brand Just For Me./Top Hair Wigs

By Jada Simon


   Imagine what it’s like to only have one picture of your curly hair for years. Never knowing what it looks like until 15 years later. That was me. My mother started relaxing my hair at the age of two because back then in the early 2000s, natural hair was still criticized while straight hair continued to be glorified. So from the ages of two to 15, I didn’t even know what natural hair was or what mine would even look like. But it wasn’t her fault. This idea that straight hair is more “put together” and “professional” was something passed down from my grandmother and great grandmother.

   My grandmother was born in the late 1940s, so growing up, all she had was straight hair. I don’t think that there was a single day in her life that she ever saw her natural hair, and that’s because of my great grandmother and the ideals she carried from the era she grew up in. Then, those same ideals got passed down to my mom, and for a while, onto me, until I broke that chain just before I turned 16.

   As I was transitioning from straight hair to curly hair, my mother and grandmother considered my hair to be “wild.” This continued until just recently, as I’ve started learning how to style my hair.

   For the longest time, so many Black parents and guardians have indoctrinated their daughters to believe that their relaxed hair is better than their natural hair, but where did our parents get this idea from? The answer is societal pressures imposed on Black people for generations.

   During slavery, Black women were forced to cover their hair by their oppressors because their hair was thought of as untidy. Even as years have passed, those same racist ideals continue through systemic racism; employers are denying Black people, Black women especially, of opportunities because of their opinions of natural hair.

   Even though we are in sort of a natural hair movement right now and it feels like natural hair is being so adorned, there are still so many cases where Black women get negative comments about their hair and are still excluded from opportunities because their hair is viewed as unkempt. Everyone has feelings, and this could really get to a Black woman. When it does, she could be tempted to chemically straighten her hair or even change it to a protective style like braids, twists, or wearing a wig to avoid negative comments.

   “Approximately 2/3 of Black women (66%) change their hair for a job interview. Among them, 41% changed their hair from curly to straight,” according to the 2023 CROWN Workplace Research Study.

   Though straightening natural hair can seem like a quick fix, recent research has shown that chemical straightening may not be worth the risk.

   According to the National Institutes of Health, in October last year, the Sister Study, a study that identifies risk factors of different cancers such as breast cancer and uterine cancer, found that women who frequently used hair straighteners “were more than twice as likely to go on to develop uterine cancer compared to those who did not use the products,” especially Black women.

   Che-Jung Chang, an author of the study, explained that Black women tend to use relaxers more often and at a younger age than other races and ethnicities, so this finding may be most relevant to them.

   Now, relaxer companies such as L’Oreal, Just For Me (the relaxer I used as a kid), Dark and Lovely, and so many others are being sued for potentially causing many women to suffer from uterine, endometrial, ovarian, and in some cases, breast cancer.

   Though we got the CROWN (Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural hair) Act of 2019 – the first law of its kind – to prohibit any form of hair-based discrimination and, theoretically, stopping employers from telling Black people that their hair is not appropriate for the workplace, that did not stop Black people from straightening their hair because of what they grew up learning.

   If Black women were taught to love their hair while growing up rather than waiting until the late 2010s for wearing your natural hair to become a trend, many women may still be alive today, or would potentially be cancer-free.

   There are so many Black women that may still develop cancer later down the line because of how long they used relaxers for, even if they stop now. But at least now that relaxers have been proven dangerous, less Black girls will be likely to use them, even if they are pressured by their families.

   Now that straightening natural hair is potentially a death sentence, I wonder who’s still going to try to tell us to change our hair anyways.

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