This is a reposted article from The Gaurdian by Deborah Douglas
Jeanet Stephenson stacks two boxes of hair relaxer on her bathroom sink. She shakes out her long hair before leaning down to reveal wavy roots at her middle part to the camera – straightening this patch of her hair is the purpose of her TikTok video Come Get a Relaxer With Me, Pt 2. A remix of SZA plays in the background as she slicks her hair down with the white chemical concoction from one of the boxes. By the end of the demo clip she is smiling into the camera, glossy-lipped, with an air of satisfaction and shiny, straight, blown-out tresses falling past her shoulders.
The 22-year-old nursing student in Montgomery, Alabama, occasionally gets pushback for posting videos of chemically straightening her hair. Commenters will respond, “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.”
But for Stephenson, “a lot of stuff in the world isn’t safe”. She says her tresses are healthy and more manageable, and refuses to give relaxers up.House votes for fourth time as Republicans fight overspeakership – live
Whether it’s personal preference, tradition, or response to external pressure to have straight hair, relaxers are a habit many Black women just won’t, or can’t, quit. Michelle Obama recently spoke to the pressure to conform to a certain aesthetic while serving as first lady. During an appearance in Washington DC to promote her new book she said, wearing long braids on stage: “As Black women, we deal with it, the whole thing about do you show up with your natural hair? As first lady, I did not wear braids. I thought about it … nope, nope, they’re not ready.”
The problem is that now more than ever, the risks of wearing relaxers has been clearly laid out. In groundbreaking research released in October, a National Institutes of Health study of about 34,000 women ages 35-74 conducted over almost 11 years found the women who reported using chemical straighteners had double the risk of uterine cancer faced by women who didn’t use these products.
“Because Black women use hair-straightening or relaxer products more frequently and tend to initiate use at earlier ages than other races and ethnicities, these findings may be even more relevant for them,” Dr Che-Jung Chang, a co-author of the study, said in a statement.
Just days after the study was released, a 32-year-old Black woman from Missouri, Jenny Mitchell, filed a lawsuit against L’Oréal, Strength of Nature, SoftSheen Carson, Dabur International, and Namaste Laboratories – all makers of chemical straighteners and hair relaxers. She got her first relaxer around age eight, amid social norms about having “sleek, nice, laid hair”, Mitchell said. Now, as a uterine cancer survivor who has undergone a hysterectomy and premature menopause, Mitchell cites relaxers as the reason she will never be able to bear children.
Mitchell learned about her cancer while seeking fertility treatments to fulfill her dream of becoming a mother. “That’s always something that I wanted,” says Mitchell, who has 14 nieces and nephews. “I always wanted my great-aunt to see my kids, see my child. It was a dream that I’ve always had that was just snatched away from me.”
Over the past decade, chemical relaxer sales to hair professionals and salons declined, from $71m in 2011 to $30m in 2021, according to the market research firm the Kline Group; Mitchell is one of many Black women who have foregone relaxers and she wears her hair naturally, cut closely to her head.
The defendants have not yet filed an answer to the lawsuit, according to Mitchell’s attorney, Diandra “Fu” Debrosse Zimmermann. Mitchell’s legal team said they expected many more women to file additional lawsuits against the defendants and would ask for all of them to be handled under one federal judge.
“If Jenny prevails, it will be no less significant than the first case where we discovered that smoking caused cancer and that there had to be repercussions,” says Noliwe Rooks, chair of Africana studies at Brown University, who weaves the story of hair into courses she teaches about Black women because it is a crucial element of the Black experience in America. And, if Mitchell prevails, Black women could be faced with a different kind of conversation about hair and adornment – that of adverse and unequal health consequences.
In addition to the October study, a 2021 Oxford University Carcinogenesis Journal study found that frequent, long-term use of lye-based relaxers could have serious health effects, including breast cancer. And Dr Tamarra James-Todd at Harvard University’s Chan School of Public Health has found hormone-disrupting chemicals in half of hair products marketed to Black women, compared with 7% for white women.
“Estrogen levels are involved in breast cancer, for example, and ovarian cancer, as well as uterine cancer,” James-Todd says. “I don’t want anything that’s sitting on the shelf of a store to up-regulate or down-regulate my hormone levels.”