‘A Lot of Stuff in the World Isn’t Safe:’ The Black Women Who Still Choose to Relax Hair After Learning its Linked to Cancer

by Xara Aziz
Voiced by Amazon Polly

In October, Shine My Crown reported the NBC News exclusive about chemical hair straighteners and their link to uterine cancer, but that hasn’t stopped some Black women from applying the creamy crack to their natural strands.

Jeanet Stephenson is one of them. The TikTok influencer faced backlash after posting a video to her 31,000 followers showing them how she applies relaxer to her hair.

@jeanettttt

Replying to @earthtoamii Episode 2 | Relaxer Day 💇🏾‍♀️ tried to go a little more in-depth this time! #relaxerhair #permedhair #blackgirlhair #blackgirlhairtutorial #hairgrowth #tutorial #relaxer #relaxersareback

♬ Gbona – Burna Boy

Some commenters will write “Relaxers are damaging, so I don’t see how it’s healthy at all,” or “It’s literally chemicals that make ur hair permanently straight. It doesn’t matter how professionally you do it, it’s still damaging,” she told The Guardian.

But the nursing student based in Alabama doesn’t care. “A lot of stuff in the world isn’t safe.” She argues that relaxers has helped her in managing her tresses and says her hair is still healthy even after she applies relaxer to her hair.

Stephenson, 22, represents a large swath of Black women who are at odds and have been forced to face an arduous choice about whether or not to relax their hair.  

Such is the case for Eris Eady, a former cosmetologist who admitted that she would often apply relaxer to Black women’s hair because most cosmetology schools rarely taught students how to care for natural hair. “It wasn’t a place where natural hair could thrive. It was a tough environment to stay rooted in – no pun intended,” she told CNN.

She also confessed that she straightened her hair as well, and would develop sores on her scalp every time. After deep thought, she cut off all her hair only to face another issue: people would say homophobic slurs to her. Nearly 20 years later, she says she’s alarmed to read about hair relaxers and their link to cancer.

“I had relaxers for a long time, so it could still impact me,” says Eady, who works as a diversity leader at a nonprofit in Cleveland, Ohio. “I’m 38 and I don’t have a child. So when I saw it, I was like ‘damn, could this be the reason’? I’ve not been trying to get pregnant, but I’ve not been trying not to get pregnant either.”

Not only did the new study leave Black women to question whether to use relaxers, it also has led them to decide how to confront mainstream society, which has set straight hair as a more ideal standard of beauty.

“Black women should not have to choose between elevating dominant standards of beauty in order to stay employed and risking their lives to do so,” Nsenga Burton, a cultural critic and co-director of film and media management concentration at Emory University told CNN. “It’s more than a catch-22 – it’s madness and discrimination.”

The study, released by the National Institutes of Health earlier this month, found that Black women are at an increased risk since they are more likely to use the products. Of the 33,000 women who were studied, those who used chemical straighteners at least four times a year were twice as likely to develop uterine cancer. Researchers have long warned consumers that hair products containing parabens, phthalates and fragrances disrupt the endocrine system, which helps regulate hormones. These types of disruptions increase the chance of developing uterine cancer, a common cancer found in 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,” Chandra Jackson, a participant in the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Earl Stadtman Investigators program, told NBC News.

The study’s lead author, Alexandra White, the head of the agency’s 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%, and then when you look at frequent users, the risk goes up to 4.05%. It’s a notable increase in risk.”

This year alone, there have been a reported 65,000 new cases of uterine cancer in the US – roughly three percent of all new cancer cases the study found.

Although Eurocentric standards of beauty have pressured some women to relax their natural hair, a new phenomenon, or the “natural hair movement,” has seen a large swath of women forgoing hair straightening products and embracing their coils.

Before the natural hair era arose during the beginning of social media days, the movement gained traction in the 1960s and 1970s after leading women in Hollywood began wearing their hair in Afros on movie sets and red carpets. Famed actresses like Pam Grier were one of the first women to embrace the natural style, and helped to cement an iconic look that would be remembered for decades to come.

“In the 1970s, natural hair was essentially like a resistance to Eurocentric standards of beauty, kind of in line with the social and racial justice movements that were happening at that time,” said Quani Burnett, an inclusion strategist and creator of beauty4brownskin.

There are parallels between then and now. With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, more women have begun to embrace their natural hair as a symbol to represent Blackness and Black identity.

But there was resistance from some, including Ware, who admitted that the natural hair movement came at an impressionable time in her life. She was in college and wasn’t sure if she was ready to make the transition at the time, she recalled.

“I think once the natural hair movement started, I was in college and I kind of felt a little pressure to go natural,” said Ware. “I was at an HBCU, you know? I would get to see a lot of women who wore their natural curls and all the things and I wanted to, but I was like, ‘college doesn’t feel like a good time to transition.’” When she graduated, she says, “I was like, ‘You know what? I’m gonna go natural.’”

Of course, there are some women who have decided to continue relaxing their hair. The reasons vary, including the time and upkeep that comes with managing natural hair. For others, they simply prefer how looser curl patterns and straight hair frame their faces.

“The past year, I was just like, I do not like being natural. I work out every day. I also have work events every day where I have to have my hair done and all the things, and it just stopped making sense for me,” said Ware, who went back and forth between natural and relaxed throughout her hair journey.

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