by Bhavna Shamasunder and Janette Robinson Flint
This year at Nappy Wood, a hair expo for Black women, Black Women for Wellness hosted a table to talk with women about their hair stories and give women and girls resources to help them stop using toxic chemicals in their beauty regimens. During the expo, a duo of South Asian women approached BWW’s table, there to sell natural hair products to an audience of primarily Black women. We spoke about this later and mused on how this almost casual encounter repeats in a small way patterns of a beauty industry far flung, global, and deeply integrated into our lives. In 2009, Chris Rock’s documentary Good Hair traced the history, racism, and pressures Black women face surrounding their hair. As one part of that story, Rock traces the wig industry and shows footage of Indian women shaving their heads and selling their hair for wigs, purchased by women around the world but overwhelmingly by Black and African women. Our hair is shared through a global economy that traffics in racism and poverty, and perpetuates false stories of beauty—being tied to straight hair or white skin or something other than the bodies we were born with.
It is an important piece of our interrelated racial herstory. Indeed, India’s hair export market is worth nearly $390 million dollars and largely looks to poor, rural Indian women who don’t use chemical treatments—hair prized for its apparent strength and texture. The Indian hair market profits from poor women’s religious practices (donating hair to temples, which then sell her hair sacrificed to god in worship, often without her knowledge). Relatedly, Africa’s market for weaves, wigs, and extensions is estimated to be worth $6 billion a year and growing. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the intricate ties that bind us—to the beauty industry and to each other. Unraveling the routes and roots of the beauty industry’s working in our lives and revealing its false promises, with a capitalist agenda at its core, is our combined work.
The beauty industry is a multi-billion dollar industry, slated to balloon to nearly $265 billion dollars globally by 2017. This market pushes into our homes, families, lives, and increasingly compromises our health—-with beauty products connected to our daily bodily exposure to myriad of unregulated toxic chemicals that are added to products and linked with our individual and collective struggles with cancers, infertility, reproductive health disorders, and other illness. Massive multinational corporations such as Unilever and L’Oreal are heavily invested in maintaining their profit margins. Strategic marketing efforts are aimed at women of color globally and targeted to “ethnic markets” within the United States. Asian and Black and African women are some of the largest consumers of skin creams, perfumes, and hair products. Latino women represent the fastest growing “ethnic” consumer group. Young women aged 18-35 are also a massive target market as they purchase more products than any other age group, exposing them to phthalates, hormone containing products, and other chemicals associated with reproductive harm during a vulnerable window when these exposures can harm reproductive health. What is driving beauty product sales?
By perpetuating impossible beauty standards combined with peddling toxic and largely unregulated products, the beauty industry contributes to continuing cycles of poverty and racial oppression for women. It also contributes to fractures among us—elevating European beauty norms that have come to serve as a benchmark for value in our communities. White skin and straight hair as standards of beauty can lead us to internalized racism and body shame so that we straighten our hair and lighten our skin by purchasing products that will “help” us achieve these results. Lighter skin can be a form of social capital with real material consequences. Lighter skin and straighter hair can help women get better jobs, higher pay, and reach higher educational levels so beauty norms become perpetuated within a larger hegemonic capitalist culture. They are also connected to toxic chemical exposures. Hair straighteners can contain formaldehyde and skin lightening creams can have mercury, both very toxic chemicals. Skin lightening creams are an enormous business globally, projected at $23 billion by 2020.
Sales of toxic products and unrelenting pressure to meet European beauty norms have not gone without resistance. Last year, a hashtag #unfairandlovely surfaced to combat preferences for lighter skin in South Asian women, targeting the widely used Unilever product Fair&Lovely that has been a staple of Indian women’s beauty diets for decades. There is also a robust natural hair movement in the Black community, generating events such as Nappy Woods and many online blogs and forums that celebrate natural hair, share natural hair care methods, and provide forums for women to swap experiences. When racism is systemic, how can we, as women of color, break these toxic bonds and join together as a multi and cross-racial alliance among women of color?
Call to action – What you can do
- The recent election revealed the deep fissures in our society. We make the simple call to love ourselves, appreciate our inherent beauty, and each other. Affirmations are important, though they can seem cheesy or contrived.
- Increase your knowledge of the products you use. Ask: where do they come from? Are they products that are entrenched in oppression—either for yourself or another woman, however far away? Are the chemical components helpful or harmful to your personal health?
- Learn to read your product labels. If that feels overwhelming to you, connect with organizations doing this work.
- Increase your chance encounters. Meet other women who care about these issues too.
- Work with women entrepreneurs who have pumps on the ground (yes pay a little more) but the poverty you solve may contribute to the education of young girl who solves the problem
- Connect with Black Women for Wellness at www.bwwla.org or the Urban and Environmental Policy Institute at http://www.oxy.edu/urban-environmental-policy-institute. We would love to hear from you!
Bhavna Shamasunder is Assistant Professor in the Urban and Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College in Los Angeles; firstname.lastname@example.org
Janette Robinson Flint is Executive Director of Black Women for Wellness; email@example.com