Yakini Horn, owner of Yaya’s Natural Hair Boutique in Atlanta, rolled sections of Akeyla Peele-Tembong’s hair in her hands during a styling visit on Feb. 20, 2023. Horn was creating “starter locs,” the early stage of a natural hairstyle that will take months to root. (Photo for Inside Climate News by Victoria St. Martin)
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t want to.’ She was just, like, ‘I mean, just think about it.’ And that was it,” Peele-Tembong said, while her stylist twisted her natural hair into locs. “I didn’t realize how big of a deal that conversation was at that time.”
Societal pressure to conform is a factor in why Black women are twice as likely as those from other groups to use hair relaxers, and Asian women are three times as likely to use skin lighteners, according to a new study that also linked chemicals in such products to adverse health effects.
Researchers sought to measure the internalization of racialized beauty standards and said the resulting extensive use of such products by women of color, represents what they called the “environmental injustice of beauty.”
Phthalates are chemicals often called plasticizers that are used in such products as vinyl flooring, lubricating oil and beauty products, according to the Centers for Disease Control. They have affected the reproductive system in animals, the agency reported, but the human health effects from low-level exposure “are not as clear.” Parabens are chemicals used as preservatives in cosmetics, the CDC said, adding that “human health effects from environmental exposure to low levels of parabens are unknown.”
“Women of color because of social structural factors, the big ‘isms’ like racism, sexism, classism, they feel compelled to use these products to fit into a certain way of life and look a certain way to achieve certain benefits or that next job or things like that,” said Edwards. “And because of that, they’re using these products that have a lot of chemicals in them.”
For Peele-Tembong, now a 32-year-old education technology specialist, that talk with her professor had a lasting impact. Then there was another conversation with a hiring manager when she sought feedback after an interview for a different job.
“I was told they’re just looking for a certain type, like, they wanted a certain look,” said Peele-Tembong, who is Black. Later, after learning that white students were hired, but she was not, she felt compelled to set aside her concerns about chemicals in hair relaxers, and have her natural coils straightened.
“So I, like, cried, and went on my way to this appointment,” Peele-Tembong said. “It was bad. I felt defeated.”
The study led by Edwards took particular note of the use of skin lighteners as a response to colorism, prejudice or discrimination against people with darker complexions. Skin lighteners can contain corticosteroids, which can lead to metabolic problems, and mercury, which has been linked to kidney and nerve system damage.
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Victoria St. Martin covers health and environmental justice at Inside Climate News. During a 20-year career in journalism, she has worked in a half dozen newsrooms, including The Washington Post where she served as a breaking news and general assignment reporter. Besides The Post, St. Martin has also worked at The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J., The Times-Picayune of New Orleans, The Trentonian, The South Bend Tribune and WNIT, the PBS-member station serving north central Indiana. In addition to her newsroom experience, St. Martin is also a journalism educator who spent four years as a distinguished visiting journalist with the Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy at the University of Notre Dame. She currently teaches at the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University. St. Martin is a graduate of Rutgers University and holds a master’s degree from American University’s School of Communication. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011 and has written extensively about the prevalence of breast cancer in young women. In her work, St. Martin is particularly interested in health care disparities affecting Black women.