As a black woman, I always say I went through an “unlearning process” when it came to using beauty products. In my teens, I permed my hair. Yes, as a black woman, I wanted curly hair, but not my afro curls that were tight and zigzag-shaped. I wanted loose bouncy curls that were similar to Mel B’s because, even aged seven, I knew that she had the right curl pattern for a black girl. When I got bored of my perm, I moved on to straightening my hair and I knew that straight hair would make me seem more attractive to the world. I thought that despite my dark skin and undeniable black features, straight hair would have this miraculous effect of pushing me closer to society’s ideal image of beauty – the beauty of a white woman.
Now, in my late twenties, I have been on a journey where I have a full-blown afro and embrace my looks as a black woman wholeheartedly. Straightening my hair in an attempt to move my appearance towards the standard of whiteness took its toll on my mental wellbeing throughout my teens. I felt insecure and pressured to try and achieve a standard of beauty that was impossible for someone who looks like me. I used hot-burning chemicals known as a “relaxer” to change my hair texture every eight to 10 weeks. I would sit in a chair for what seemed like an eternity and gritted my teeth while my scalp felt like it was on fire. While I felt in physical pain, to me it was short-term pain for long-term gain. Yet, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
And now there’s research that backs up how I’ve always felt. The American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology has found beauty products targeted towards women of colour, such as skin-bleaching products and hair relaxers, contain toxic chemicals that lead to health problems, and exposes the reality that women of colour are exposed to more lethal chemicals in the beauty products than their white female counterparts. Scientist Ami Zota stated: "Pressure to meet Western standards of beauty means black, Latina and Asian-American women are using more beauty products and thus are exposed to higher levels of chemicals known to be harmful to health.”
Zoe* used hair relaxers since she was aged five and continued to use them for over 12 years.
“Every time I relaxed my hair, I would have terrible migraines and would have to go to sleep afterwards. I remember, one time after relaxing my hair, the pain felt like my hair is being pulled out of my scalp by hand.
Bleaching creams used by women of colour to lighten their skin also contain chemicals such as mercury, which can lead to mercury poisoning and kidney damage
"I stopped using relaxers in 2014 because I had no more than seven strands of hair left. I shaved it all off and went natural and since then I've never had any kind of headaches. Even when I do braided hairstyles, the braids can be really tight, but I still have no headaches.”
However, it is not just the chemicals that women of colour and, in particular, black women put in their hair that can be detrimental to their health. Research has also shown that bleaching creams used by women of colour to lighten their skin also contains chemicals such as mercury, which can lead to mercury poisoning and kidney damage. The Global Industry Analysts estimated that, by 2020, the skin-bleaching industry would be worth nearly £18bn ($23bn). With the skin-bleaching industry proving so lucrative on a global scale, it is clear that women of darker complexions still feel that in order to be beautiful they need to incorporate products that will whiten their skin.
The truth is that the beauty industry is inherently racist. From the women that industry continues to hold up as the ideal standard of beauty to lighter shades of make-up being more easily accessible, the beauty industry needs to make faster progress in making sure non-white women feel like they no longer have to adhere to the European standards of lighter skin and straight hair.
As a young black girl, I had internalised these racist standards of beauty and it was the reason why I felt like having straight hair was the only option. The conversation around the unfair beauty standards placed on women of colour has revolved around the consequences it has on our mental health and rightly so.
However, the beauty industry must now recognise the potential physical consequences these beauty standards can hold for non-white women. If the beauty industry started having a more open dialogue about the harmful ingredients found in such products, maybe more women of colour would unlearn the notion that being beautiful means to chase the white standard of femininity.
*Names have been changed for privacy reasons