15
Mon, Jul

Juneteenth Has Not Freed Black Women from White Society’s Beauty Standards

VOICES

ACCORDING TO LIZ - This is the week when many people come together to celebrate Juneteenth, blessed as an official federal holiday just three years ago. It commemorates the end of slavery in the United States, and its roots date back to 1866, the first anniversary of the final enforcement of the Emancipation Proclamation at the end of the Civil War. 

However, Americans need to take note that Black women have yet to be freed from a culture of beauty that provides profits to purveyors of products that encourage them to embrace physical suffering to deny their ethnic heritage. 

For decades, the medical, academic, and social sectors of society have acknowledged that Black women are disproportionately health-impacted. The causes are many and growing – childhood poverty, diet, genetics, access to quality healthcare, social stressors. Some of which apply to all Americans, others to all woman or mostly poor people. 

The shockingly high incidence of deaths among African American women is now in the sights of government agencies and politicians. But how much is just talk and how much will lead to concrete action, given poor Black women are not known as major campaign donors? 

But there is one factor that they can address immediately. 

One that is peculiarly targeted at women whose hair does not conform to the white race’s perception of attractive. That has been further perpetrated by Afro-American leaders – heroes and actors alike from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Beyoncé – who adopt WASP-y hairstyles to assimilate. And therefore, encouraged a majority of Black Americans to emulate them. 

A visual representation of systemic racism was built on African hair texture which was derided as woolly and nappy, and deemed ugly, the stigma of a lesser breed of humans. 

Straightening of Afro-textured hair dates back to the early years of slavery when women in bondage attempted to imitate the fine straight hair of their masters using hot irons and lye and severely burning themselves in the process. 

Subsequent tools of torture – hair tongs and aggressive chemical straighteners were marketed to Black women as a way to loosen the natural kink of their hair and attain a more European appearance, often causing irreparable damage to fragile Afro-textured tresses. 

By the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century it was an industry generating close to 1.5 trillion dollars. 

Then a 2022 study published by the National Cancer Institute which followed nearly 34,000 women for over a decade, documented that frequent use of chemical hair-straightening products more than doubled the likelihood of Black women developing uterine cancer. 

Other studies laid out the link between such chemicals and early puberty and resultant reproductive health issues including uterine fibroids, preterm birth, infertility and, reproductive cancers – treatment for which by surgery, chemotherapy and radiation often deny any possibility of bearing a child. 

Even so, profit motives continue to drive an industry that links WASP beauty standards to getting ahead in today’s world. 

And they are not wrong. Study after study shows that success in school, hiring practices, office promotions, opportunity to buy or rent homes, and casting of Black actors are all closely linked to the whiteness of their physical appearance, predominantly their hair. Noses too, but that is a story for another time. 

The exception being when Hollywood is looking for drug dealers, vagrants and homeless people. 

Conforming to white norms are too often written into school and workplace policies and being too Black is perceived as a sign of delinquency or rebellion. 

The dolls that girls played with were white or sometimes raggedy Aunt Jemima dolls recalling the fantasy south as sanitized in Stephen Foster’s songs. Mattel may have introduced a black friend for Barbie in 1967 but she had straight black hair and dunned down skin over Nordic features. 

A version with a conservative Afro appeared on store shelves in 1990, and the face mold was revamped to more African American features but, even today, too many Black dolls depict hair as if it has been treated and tortured to conform to Euro-centric beauty standards. 

Hair relaxers still lack explicit safety warnings, leading consumers to believe these products are safe. In fact, while the European Union regulates over 1,300 ingredients used in cosmetics, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration restricts only nine. High levels of five chemicals prohibited in Europe are primary ingredients of hair straighteners in bright packaging and pictures of cute girls whose hair has lost its African look. 

Given that almost 90 percent of Black women have used a relaxer to straighten their natural hair, some bi-monthly, some starting pre-puberty, is it any wonder that this country now faces an epidemic? 

A U.S. study found hormone-disrupting chemical in widely used products that did not list them on the packaging continuing to fuel what can only be described as a public health crisis. 

Last weekend’s New York Times Magazine cover story by Linda Villarosa detailed the epidemic of “creamy crack” – the chemical relaxers that have become addictive to women constantly in pursuit of permanently straight hair. 

As layers of obfuscation are rolled back and medical impacts become clearer, epidemiologists are revealing the connection between these chemicals and racial reproductive health disparities. 

Between 2000 and 2020, the rate of U.S. maternal and pregnancy related mortality increased by 78%, with non-Hispanic Black women over 24 facing four times the risk of their white counterparts, and college-educated Black women’s risks are five times greater than their peers. 

In a prescient 1900 speech, W.E.B Du Bois pointed out that the visibility of “the color of the skin and the texture of the hair” in the Black race would “be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing to utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization” including equal access to education, jobs, and housing. 

Black people in general live sicker lives and die younger, these numbers dragged down by high incidences of diabetes and heart disease, and infant mortality. And magnified during Covid due to co-morbidities of cancers, obesity, and lack of healthcare since birth. 

A year ago, a Journal of the American Medical Association study revealed that Black Americans’ higher mortality rates resulted in 1.63 million excess deaths between 1999 and 2020 as compared to white Americans, a loss of 80 million life-years. 

I grew up hearing “Black is Beautiful” and while I am, as my friends like to tell me, very white, and I can’t take back the quality of my publicly funded Canadian undergraduate education or my publicly subsidized Canadian healthcare that granted me many advantages, I can still stand up and fight for equal rights for all. 

In this day and age, that Black women still feel they have to deny who they are and present themselves as white as possible to avoid racial discrimination or being chastised as making political statements just for wearing their hair as it naturally grows is sad, sad, sad. 

People should be judged not by their type of hair or color of skin but by how their actions align with what they say. We can only hope that one day all men and women, all races and religions, too, shall truly be free. 

On Juneteenth people and politicians across America need to take a deep breath and commit to both expanding freedoms and ensuring that Black is Beautiful becomes a reality across the country and around the world. 

And while freedom is still a process… Black is beautiful.

(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions.  In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)