When it comes to their hair, Black women face a difficult choice

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CNN
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Eris Eady was scrolling through social media this week when she saw a news headline linking hair-straightening chemical products to an increased risk for uterine cancer. She paused.

In the early 2000s, she worked as a cosmetologist and frequently used the products to straighten her hair and other women’s as well. Back then, she says, cosmetology schools rarely offered lessons in how to take care of Black women’s natural hair – those interested in learning had to teach themselves.

“It wasn’t a place where natural hair could thrive. It was a tough environment to stay rooted in – no pun intended,” she says.

Eris Eady

Eady says that every time she straightened her hair, she developed sores on her scalp. Against her mother’s advice, who feared she’d be discriminated against, she stopped putting chemicals on her hair and went natural. But her short natural hair came at a cost: people would hurl homophobic slurs at her.

Nearly two decades later, Eady says she worries about the health consequences of that hair-straightening period in her life. Her anxiety spiked this week when she read about the new study and how Black women may be more affected due to their higher use of relaxers and other hair-straightening products.

“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.”

The study leaves women who use the products questioning whether to reduce their usage or stop it altogether.

It also reinforces a dilemma facing many Black women, some of whom use hair-straightening products to conform to White standards of beauty. Research has shown Black women with natural hairstyles – including afros, twists, braids and dreadlocks – can face racial discrimination in the workplace.

So what to do? Go natural and potentially harm your career? Or straighten your hair and risk your health?

The research published Monday in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found a connection between using certain hair straighteners, such as chemical relaxers and pressing products, and an increased risk of uterine cancer – the most common cancer of the female reproductive system.

The association between hair-straightening products and uterine cancer cases was most pronounced for Black women, who made up 7.4% of the study participants but almost 60% of those who reported ever using straighteners.

“The bottom line is that the exposure burden appears higher among Black women,” says Chandra Jackson, an author of the study and researcher at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

The findings follow a similar study in 2019 that linked use of permanent hair dye and chemical hair straighteners to a higher risk of breast cancer. The risk was more than six times higher for Black women.

Experts say several factors lead women to use hair-straightening products, including Eurocentric standards of beauty and a desire for versatility in changing hairstyles and self-expression.

Research suggests hair straighteners contain chemicals that may be harmful.

But some Black and Latina women also say they feel social pressure to wear their hair in a style that reduces microaggressions and discrimination in workplace settings.

A 2020 Michigan State University study found about 80% of Black women say they alter their hair from its natural state because they consider it essential to social and economic success.

Studies that same year by researchers at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business found that Black women with natural hairstyles are less likely to get job interviews than White women or Black women with straightened hair. Participants in the studies said they perceived natural Black hairstyles as less professional.

But with the health risks associated with hair-straightening chemicals, the choice for some women comes down to picking the lesser of two evils, says Nsenga Burton, a cultural critic and co-director of film and media management concentration at Emory University.

“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,” Burton says. “It’s more than a catch-22 – it’s madness and discrimination.”

Burton says that while attitudes are shifting and people are becoming more accepting of Black natural hairstyles, bias continues to be an issue in the workplace.

Burton went natural in the 2000s, and wears her hair in locs, a style in which individual strands of natural hair are twisted together. She plans to keep her hair that way.

“If it may save your life, then that’s all the more reason to do it,” she says.

Jasmine Cobb, professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University and author of “New Growth, The Art and Texture of Black Hair,” wonders whether glorifying straight hair is a remnant of a culture that’s long since shifted. Cobb says she stopped putting chemicals on her hair in the 2000s.

“I question whether straightening hair still comes with social benefits in the 21st century, or if we are holding on to ideas about the value of straight hair from more than 50 years ago,” she says.

Either way, one concept has not evolved much, she says: “Society continues to promote long and flowing locks, whether hair is straight or textured.”

The normalization of long, straight hair starts at an early age – even from childhood cartoons, says Keisha L. Bentley-Edwards, an associate professor of medicine at Duke University.

Bentley-Edwards says she cut her hair short years ago and then later switched to dreadlocks. Most people were more comfortable with her locs – because they were long and flowing – than with her short hair, she says.

Many Black women prefer more natural hairstyles -- although those can come with their own pitfalls.

But one thing that has changed since both women started to wear their natural hair about two decades ago is the wealth of resources available now for people who opt to go natural – including new natural products and social media influencers who promote natural beauty.

And in 2019, US legislators drafted the CROWN Act, which prohibits racial discrimination based on hairstyles and hair texture, including braids, locs or twists. At least 18 US states, including New York, California and Maryland, have passed the law, whose name stands for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.

With studies linking hair-straightening products to health risks, the act’s legal protections cannot come fast enough, experts say.

A 2016 study by the Environmental Working Group found that one in 12 beauty and personal care products marketed to African-American women in the US contained “highly hazardous ingredients.” The report cited relaxers, hair colors and bleachers as the most dangerous products.

“The evidence about the chemical impact of straightening is growing and starting to outweigh the presumed social benefits attributed to straightened hair,” Cobb says. “The devastation of cancer outweighs the stress of satisfying shifting societal norms around beauty.”

Some women maintain they straighten their hair for reasons unrelated to conforming to a specific standard of beauty.

Mercy Owusu, an NGO consultant from Ghana based in the Finnish city of Espoo, says she applies relaxer on her hair regularly to make it easier to manage.

“Most times, I love to hold it in a ponytail and I can’t do that with my natural hair – it won’t look as neat since I have very tough hair,” she says.

Mercy Owusu

Owusu says she hasn’t paid much attention in the past to studies linking hair chemicals to cancer. Part of the reason she’s continued straightening her hair is the lack of resources to manage natural hair, she says.

But after hearing of the latest study, Owusu says she plans to reduce the number of times she relaxes her hair. And she will not be using any chemicals on her 8-year-old daughter’s hair, she says.

Cobb, however, disagrees with the notion that Black hair is not manageable without hair-care products.

“Why do we believe Black hair, in its natural state, is unmanageable?” she says. “Straightening hair costs time and money, especially for upkeep. When we say straight hair is more manageable, we are discounting the costs and the physical consequences associated with a regular straightening regimen.”

Bentley-Edwards, the Duke professor, says the recent study should give Black women pause, especially those with additional risk factors such as family history of reproductive cancers. She said that in a 2011 study, researchers also found a relationship between hair relaxers and uterine fibroids, or tumors.

“More needs to be understood in how hair-straightener ingredients interact with the reproductive system, and other aspects of health,” she says. “What are the biological mechanisms at play?”

All the women CNN spoke to say the new study’s findings are a major concern, for many reasons.

And they say the research adds another layer of complication for Black women in America, who sometimes must make compromises just to stay afloat.

“I don’t think we’ve ever not taken these studies seriously,” Eady says. “We’ve just done what we needed to do to survive. And sometimes that means changing who we are to be able to matriculate through life. It’s a survival tool.”