The Environmental Injustice of Beauty: A Personal Account

In the heart of Pittsburgh in collaboration with Women for a Healthy Environment, I held a series of speaking engagements focused on women of color and the impact of chemical exposure through personal care. As I spoke, I scanned the faces of my audience…all shades of brown; all ages, youth, elders…women. I saw understanding in their eyes, the nod of their heads as I discussed issues beyond the health and safety aspects of cleaner beauty, beyond the alarming health stats for women of color… higher rates of fibroids, early puberty, lupus and other disorders and diseases that have been linked to chemical exposure.

As I discussed social factors that affect product use, I reflected on my personal journey of growing out my relaxer and how foreign and radical it felt to rock my natural hair. I dug deeper and asked the question…why is that even when we are aware of the negative health impacts that products that contain harmful ingredients may have, some of us continue to use these products?  How does our self-perception and societal expectation weigh on our less healthy choices? 

In order to answer this question, I look at the social factors that affect purchasing. I believe that if we choose to, we can do the internal work to undo mindsets that push us to put our health at risk in our pursuit for what we deem to be beautiful.

What is the environmental injustice of beauty as it relates to women of color?

In The Environmental Injustice of Beauty: Framing Chemical Exposures from Beauty Products as a Health Disparities Concern, Dr. Ami R. Zota discusses social factors that influence product use and the potential adverse health outcomes that may arise from co-occurring environmental exposures. 

Environmental injustice of beauty focuses on social factors that play a key role in product use which in turn puts women of color at a greater risk for disorders and diseases that have been linked to chemical exposure.

What are some of the social factors that influence product use and what are the possible adverse health outcomes?  

When I think of social factors and the influence they hold on product choices here are two examples that are often top of mind.

  1. Colorism and Skin Lighteners – Lisa Raye’s directorial debut in the movie Skinned, a movie that takes a look at skin bleaching and its harmful effects, is receiving attention in the media. It sheds light on colorism, prejudice or discrimination against individuals with a dark skin tone. The internalized concept that lighter is more beautiful has impacted product use and skin lighteners are used in Africa, the Caribbean, India, Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the Americas. Harmful ingredients include hydroquinone and mercury; mercury poisoning can damage kidneys and adversely affect the central nervous system.
  2. Good Hair/Bad Hair Syndrome and Hair Relaxers and Straighteners – the statement of “good hair/bad hair” is still heard in our communities. The belief that straighter hair is “better” and more “manageable” increased the use of hair straighteners and although the natural hair movement has grown, there is still a market for hair straighteners and relaxers. Hair relaxers usually contain “lye”, formaldehyde, high fragrance loads that contain phthalates and other harmful ingredients. A recent study found a relationship between maternal exposure to hair straightening products during pregnancy and early leukemia in the child.

I would like as you think of clean beauty that we think beyond color cosmetics and carefully reflect on the overall choices we make for our appearance and our well-being.

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