Hair Relaxers Pose More Risks For Black Women, Who Still Face Curl Bias

Though relaxer box girls inspire nostalgia for the '90s on Black Twitter, growing up, many Black women felt undercut by beauty expectations. And, now, they worry about cancer risks.

Boxes of popular chemical hair relaxers featuring Black models

Jasmine Purdie

The beauty salon experience was many young Black girls’ one free pass to be in grown folks' business as they listened in on the neighborhood gossip. Salons littered with Jet and Essence magazines and R&B music setting the mood just right was a rite of passage. The 90s saw a boom in Black women straightening their hair and chemical straighteners only recently lost their momentum in the 2010s as the natural hair movement came in with full force.

Like all trends, could the hair relaxer be cycling back around for its renaissance moment? Perhaps. But a recent study by the Journal of the National Cancer Institute warns that chemical straighteners have been linked to uterine cancer, in addition to other well-known risks. Black women, in particular, are at higher risk of the disease “because of the higher prevalence and frequency of hair product use, younger age of initiating use, and harsher chemical formulations than other races and ethnicities.”

Researchers considered frequent users of chemical straighteners to be greater than four times per year, which is the case for most Black women with relaxers who receive “touch-ups” every few weeks to relax their new growth. 

For Briana Robinson, growing up "beauty was pain." She recalls sitting down in her home as early as three years old to have her mom “tame” her naturally coiled tresses with a boxed relaxer. 

“I remember vividly one time I cried and asked my grandfather to come save me from the experience,” says Robinson. “It created a negative relationship between my hair texture and manageability.”

The beauty salon was a luxury not everyone had the privilege of partaking in. As more women opted for chemically straightened hair, boxed relaxers took advantage of the burgeoning demand. The notorious “Dark & Lovely” and “Ors” boxed relaxers plastered with beautiful Black girls and women modeling thick and voluminous straightened hair created access for the many eager Black women that wanted to partake in the fad in the 90s and early 2000s.

The virality of a recent “Where are they now?” tweet prompted many of the young women that modeled on these boxed relaxers to come forward, revealing that their hair was never relaxed, but simply hot combed or flat ironed for those iconic photos.

Robinson would describe her hair as 4C although she doesn’t like to subscribe to the rigidity of the hair type chart that ranks curl patterns based on their tightness. Hairstyling was burdensome for her from the start, as her mom quickly enforced strict guidelines on not sweating out her hair or getting her hair touched up more frequently than her siblings who had looser curl patterns and “easier” to manage hair.

After going natural at the beginning of the natural hair revolution in the early 2010s and being dissatisfied with following Youtube tutorials from women with looser curl patterns that always resulted in a different outcome for her, Robinson traded braid-outs for a buzzcut.

“Going to barber shops with my dad versus the beauty salon with my mom it’s a whole new world that I'm happy to be in. Finally at peace with my scalp and my crown,” says Robinson.

Unlike Robinson, Grace Heskey who was born and raised in the Dominican Republic by her Black dad and white mom doesn’t have support from her dad on her natural hair. At just two years old, her mom buzzcut her curly hair thinking it was “bad” hair. 

“I think she just didn't want to even try to learn how to deal with my kind of hair and she just saw it as the easy way out,” says Heskey. “The Dominican society as a whole is very anti-Black. There's the running joke that if you tell a Dominican person that they're Black, they're just gonna say ‘No, no, no. I'm Dominican,’ as a separate race.”

Heskey’s dad, who she says has his own internalized aggression towards his race, only reinforced her mother’s ideas after she passed away, threatening to cut off the protective box braids Heskey wore in recent years as she grew out her natural hair.

The 24-year-old does find that recent study linking chemical straighteners to uterine cancer concerning, but she hopes that whatever decision a Black woman makes about her hair will be respected by all.

“I would hope that if a Black woman decides to relax her hair, it's not met with disdain from the natural hair community,” says Heskey. “There are so many women that their hair behaves totally differently from the 3C big afro, big poofy curly haired women that we see in the media. So for example, a woman with 4C hair, if she just decides this isn't for me, it's a lot of work and wants a relaxer that it's not seen as ‘Oh, you just have to learn how to work with it.’” 

For far too long Black women haven’t had full autonomy over their hair. For many young Black girls, the choice to chemically alter their hair was already decided for them before they even hit puberty. Anti-Black messaging about hair in the media compounded by outdated ideas of professionalism has backed Black women into a corner for decades, leaving many to feel like they had no choice but to straighten their hair to avoid workplace microaggressions or school bullying.

Zara Amaechi was born and raised in England by her Nigerian mother. Even before moving to the United States, her mom was aware of the stigmatization of Black hair and chose to proactively relax Amaechi and her siblings’ hair for manageability and to avoid teasing in school.

But even with chemically straightened hair, she still received tone-deaf comments and questions from her classmates at her majority-white school.

“Something that really stuck with me was the fact that I said I wish to have white girl hair so that it would just be super easy for me to do my hair, wake up and do all these different styles,” says Amaechi.

By high school she wanted to fully break out of that mindset by going natural, feeling empowered by the natural hair movement. Now, the 24-year-old has transitioned to locs labeling it as the best hairstyle for her.

“It's more versatile than everyone thinks. You could wear a wig or get box braids with locs,” says Amaechi. “It sucks that we have to spend over $200-$300 on a wig to get the same look that you would get with a relaxer, or spend over $100 on a bunch of natural products to take care of your hair, and have to wake up two hours early to do your hair, then get ready for the rest of your morning.”

Whether a Black woman chooses to wear her hair in its natural state or straightened, it’s about having the freedom to choose. The risks that chemical straightening poses emphasizes the need for Black hair to be protected and nurtured, in every state.

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