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Beyond Hair Relaxers: Black Girlhood Compromised and the Structural Underpinnings of Reproductive Injustice

Bintou Diarra | Editorial Lead | MS1: Alpert Medical School of Brown University | June 25, 2024

Propped within a society where Eurocentric ideals often shape beauty standards, Black women in the United States are painfully aware of our beauty’s deviation from the ‘norm’. Among these standards are those regarding hair texture and length, which set the foundation for the unique position of our crowns within the realm of beauty. Hair simultaneously stands as a symbol of identity and heritage, and as a sphere where there exists great potential for monitoring and discrimination. In the face of this discrimination, subtle or otherwise, many Black women, at one point or another, feel compelled to use chemical relaxers. 

These products, which promise smooth and straighten hair, have long existed as staples within the beauty routines of many. And while many Black women outgrow or abandon the practice as they get older, many have used chemical relaxers as children. As recent studies of hair relaxers point to heightened risk of uterine cancer, scholars and researchers are engaging in much-needed discourse surrounding the pernicious health implications of unrealistic beauty standards. While this finding renders the sphere of beauty a compelling place to start, this is only one piece of a larger puzzle. A look beyond chemical relaxers unveils an entire landscape that undermines the reproductive health of Black women from the very beginning.

Reproductive Justice & Black Girlhood

In order to understand the structural underpinnings of reproductive injustice, we must first ground in a working definition of what reproductive justice entails. Sitting at the intersection between reproductive rights and social justice, Reproductive Justice refers to the right to 1) control one’s own body, 2) choose to have children, 3) choose to not have children, 4) choose how one will have children, and 5) take care of one’s children in a healthy and safe community. Ultimately, the Reproductive Justice framework hones in on the various factors shaping one’s capacity for making choices about having children and caring for them. A number of conditions surrounding Black girlhood in the United States sets the foundation for reproductive injustice, or circumstances that undermine said capacity long before it is a thought.

Among these conditions is the state of pubertal timing. As with many other issues facing young girls in our society, there exist glaring disparities across socioeconomic and racial lines. According to a study by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, girls from disadvantaged households are twice as likely to hit puberty early. Whereas 15% of young white girls exhibit signs of breast budding, pubic hair, or both by 8 or 9 years old, roughly 50% of Black girls start showing signs of puberty before this time. This has a number of implications for young Black girls and those of low-income status, all of which paint a glaring picture: the issue of early pubertal timing is a missing part of the discourse surrounding health disparities in the United States.

Chemical Relaxers & The Onset of Puberty In Black Girls

It is important to note that current realities are an extension of an ongoing issue. Since the 1970s, the age of pubertal onset has been dropping by a whopping average of three months per decade, a figure that, on its own, warrants investigation. The racial disparities in pubertal timing call for additional exploration. In fact, honing in on Black girls in particular may provide insight about conditions disproportionately facing Black women in the United States at large. 

According to various studies, girls who exhibit puberty earlier are at a higher risk for developing features of metabolic syndrome, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease later in adulthood. There exists a correlation between the demographic breakdown of early pubertal timing and these named conditions. African American women have the highest rates of obesity and are 50% more likely to be obese when compared to non-Hispanic white people. 25% of Black women over the age of 55 have diabetes, which is twice the percentage for white American women. Additionally, Black women are more likely to develop the condition overall. Among Black women ages 20 and older, about 60% have cardiovascular disease. These are all conditions with potential to negatively shape pregnancy and birthing outcomes, which directly undermines the principles of Reproductive Justice.

Black girls’ early pubertal timing, when considered within the context of societal contributors, are an indictment on America’s conditions of living. According to one study, researchers are expressing growing concern about the prevalence of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. These exogenous compounds appear to alter the production, action, and metabolism of endogenous hormones, which can have the effect of triggering early periods in those with heightened levels of exposure. This is where chemical relaxers and the issue of early pubertal timing shake hands.

Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair

Not only are chemical relaxers loosely regulated, but they are also known to contain endocrine disruptors that can be absorbed via inhalation or through the skin of the scalp. In the face of these circumstances, legislation like the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair), which prohibits discrimination on the basis of hair texture and protective hairstyles, are acknowledgments of the structural underpinnings of reproductive injustice. It acknowledges that natural hair is an inherent part of racial identity and culture, ensuring that individuals can express themselves authentically without fear of prejudice or bias. Creating a liberatory future for Black women requires the evaluation and analysis of our nation’s care of Black girls. Not only is this legislation significant in promoting inclusion, safety and equality for Black women, but it is also a major step in uprooting the seemingly unrelated factors that set the stage for negative health outcomes.

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