Creamy crack, perms, relaxers — known by many polyonyms, chemical hair straighteners have been a fixture in the Black beauty space since their inception in 1909. But now, with the FDA proposing a ban on hair straighteners with formaldehyde, commonly found in relaxers, our relationship with the beauty treatment is once again being called into question.
It is no secret that Black people have faced unmitigated discrimination regarding the appearance and texture of their hair. At their core, relaxers served as a means of assimilation, allowing us to mirror straighter hair textures at the cost of our natural hair pattern and, as we’d come to find out later, our health.
Present-day relaxers have largely fallen out of favor due to links to endocrine cancers, the digitized natural hair movement of the 2010s, and the introduction of laws like the Crown Act, which make discriminating based on hair texture illegal.
This has sparked considerable debate amongst Black women as those who chose to go back to relaxers were often accused of hating their natural hair and, by proxy, their Blackness. Thus, endless discourse ensued with valid claims on both sides regarding the politicization of Black women’s hair by outsiders and members of our community alike.
Many current fans of relaxers argued that, unlike the heyday of the chemical treatment, the reason Black women are getting relaxers now is less about assimilating to whiteness but more about the convenience afforded by the curl loosening treatment. Conversely, many naturalistas argue you cannot have one without the other, and the very idea that straight hair is “easier” is symbolic of a larger issue regarding the way we view Black hair. But as record-breaking amounts of women are coming forward with cancer diagnoses related to their use of relaxers as children, the dangers of chemical straighteners that include formaldehyde are more glaring than ever.
Our relationship with our hair as Black women is simultaneously deeply personal yet extremely universal in both societal complexities and cultural richness, as can be seen in the vast styling practices we’ve developed over time.
But whether you prefer your hair in its natural glory or find that a buss down middle part best suits you, we cannot ignore the harm relaxers pose to our health as Black women. We shouldn’t have to sacrifice our lives for societal acceptance, and these new FDA guidelines are a step in the right direction.