The old idiom “beauty is pain” is truer for no group more than black women. Alongside the other arduous rituals women of all shades are subject to – the plucking, the pushing up, the endless applying – the most damaging are almost entirely black-specific.
In Chris Rock’s documentary about black women’s hair, “Good Hair”, a perplexed white, male scientist asks why black women would willingly douse their hair in sodium hydroxide – one of the ingredients found in hair relaxer. “To look white,” Rock shrugs. But it’s more complex than his quip lets on.
For generations, physical traits prevalent among black women have been negatively juxtaposed against European features. And, for generations, we’ve been encouraged to move as far away from our “undesirable” end of the spectrum as we can. Since the prevailing beauty standard is one that even the majority of white women sit outside of, the lengths gone to, in order to conform, are often extreme and, sometimes, dangerous.
“When I was seven, it kicked off my eczema,” Pam tells me, a former user of the so-called “creamy crack”, or chemical relaxers. “I came out in scars and boils, and had to miss four days of school.”
“Without fail, I would get burnt so badly I’d have open sores on my scalp and get headaches,” Michelle, another friend (and recent natural hair convert), says.
As a teenager, I was (much to my dismay) the only one of my friends who wasn’t allowed to relax their hair. Now, I don’t seem to have a single friend left who still does it. Because, thanks to blogs, YouTubers and Instagram accounts, black women are now basking in the blackness we’ve been advised to escape since birth – and it’s doing a great deal more than simply building self-esteem.
The affirming images of black women with natural hair found online are saving lives – not in the ethereal way Dove campaigns claim to, but literally. Uplifting user-generated images have helped curb trends that have cost black women their health for years. The labels of much black haircare has long read like something out of Homebase. DMDM hydantoin, ammonia and formaldehyde are just a few of the toxic ingredients manufacturers may bother listing (a recent study found they are not obliged to list noxious ingredients on product labels). Effects of popular products range from dermatitis to occupational asthma, and relaxers have even been linked to uterine fibroids, an ailment affecting a staggering 80 per cent of black women over their lifetime. Products made for black women also often contain EDCs (endocrine-disrupting chemicals), which have been linked to various reproductive and birth defects, along with breast cancer and heart disease.
The sleek, shiny-haired black girls on the front of my childhood conditioners and detanglers sold a wholesome, healthy image of haircare I was envious of – no one was to know those products could result in early puberty for users
Thank you for joining The Pool
The sleek, shiny-haired black girls on the front of my childhood conditioners and detanglers sold a wholesome, healthy image of haircare I was envious of – no one was to know those products could result in early puberty for users. But the reclamation of yet another N word – nappy – has seen black women learn to love hair we were taught to hate. The natural hair movement has galvanised women on the internet to ditch painful practices IRL, swapping toxic products for organic oils.
“I can think of at least five girls who are recently natural, who did so because of social media,” Pam tells me. “Without it, we would have still been relaxing breaking tufts of hair.”
Princess, who has been natural for two years, stopped relaxing when it began to damage her hair, and found inspiration from a growing community of natural-hair bloggers. “They made wearing your natural hair look cool, healthy and amazing,” she says. “It was nice to see black females proud of their natural hair, rather than forcing the typical European standard of beauty.”
Along with the acceptance of our God-given hair has come the long-overdue celebration of our skin, too. “Growing up in a time where it felt like ‘light skin was the right skin’ was not easy – I pretty much accepted my fate as the ugly friend,” Princess says. “Sometimes, I look at my younger sister and envy the fact that she is growing up in a time when dark skin is beautiful, braids are a hairstyle of choice and not one that is forced upon you by your mother.”
Hashtags like #BlackOutDay, #UnfairandLovely, #FlexinMyComplexion and #MelaninOnFleek are a catalogue of sublime selfies, featuring flawless skin of all shades. Tumblr dashboards, Instagram pages and Facebook posts are dedicated to all things black and beautiful. Online, women see in droves the types of beauty the mainstream refuses to acknowledge.
As with relaxer, skin bleaching, while still prevalent, is fast falling out of fashion. Its dangers are well documented, causing migraines, high blood pressure and even liver damage in users, along with the eventual thinning of skin.
But seismic shifts can be felt here, too. Ghanaian entrepreneur Grace Amey-Obeng made her fortune promoting products which highlighted the beauty of black skin, during a period which saw many of her competitors stocking products with the promise to lighten, and 2012 saw the launch of Karamel & Brown, a sunless tanning solution specifically formulated for brown and dark skin tones. Women now proudly share sunbathing holiday snaps under the increasingly popular hashtags #TanOnFleek and #SunKissedMelanin, but not too long ago, the idea of black women intentionally getting darker would have blown minds en masse.
Growing up, most beauty treatments were a bid to burn away all traces of blackness by dipping yourself in a vat of harsh chemicals. Nowadays, it’s about enhancing the features that we were taught to sear off. Self-esteem, self-love and self-acceptance are important by-products of black beauty movements. But the rejection of white beauty standards by black women has not only been crucial to our mental health, but our physical health, too.
Accounts to follow
It's #BodyHonestly week on The Pool and all this week, we will be discussing our bodies, and how we feel about them.