I’m Revolted: My Oldest Step-Daughter has Straightened Her Wavy Hair
In music videos, television news casts, and at school, my two step-daughters perceive that virtually every Black woman they see and/or know has chemically or mechanically straightened her hair. So, it ought not surprise me that my sixteen year-old step daughter, graduating from high school in three months, has taken advantage of her new decision-making authority not to choose a university or search for scholarships that suit her interests, but rather to pass an electric iron through her naturally long and wavy hair.
The desire and basic ability to maintain one's personal appearance is a sign of healthy self-esteem and a threshold indication of basic mental health. However, the compulsion to look like someone in a music video or to look just like white people is a psychological illness and a physical health risk and health hazard, as Michael Jackson clearly demonstrated.
Like too many teenagers, she doesn't value what makes her unique, but wishes she could be “just like everybody else.” My wife and I have expressed our opinions to her since before she was an adolescent – that the pressure for Black women to straighten their hair is part of a determined effort by whites – in the media and even in job interviews – to assert that their hair, like everything else about them, is inherently better than Blacks' natural superficial physical characteristics.
(I know that many Black women and men were born with naturally straight hair and I am not talking about them, so let's not distract ourselves with questions that are irrelevant to this particular discussion.)
I'm talking about the tremendous pressure Black women feel to straighten their hair – at any cost – in order, effectively, to look more like white girls. (Some Black women, like my step-daughters, are born looking more like white girls because they have DNA from white people in their family genetic heritages.) However, long and wavy hair has not been enough for them. They want their hair to be perfectly straight.
This issue is not merely one of aesthetics. Here in Brazil, women use a process called “permanent progressive” wherein formaldehyde (a known carcinogen) is placed in the hair and then washed out. If two much formaldehyde is used or it is not washed out soon enough, Black women can literally die for straight hair. I reported such a case at the American Journal of Color Arousal (AMJCA) on August 14, 2009:
The television news report in this YouTube video says that 150 children per year die in Brazil while styling their hair, with 49% dying as the result of electrical shocks. “Parents should not allow their children to use these electrical mechanisms because of the risk of electrical shocks” says one professional interviewed on the news.
One of Brasil's top media outlets reported:
Women never stop efforts to become more beautiful. For centuries, they have been squeezing into corsets to keep their waists thin. In China and Japan, women bandaged their feet to make them smaller. Now the madness has gone beyond hair removal. Many women are putting their health (and their lives) in danger to keep the hair smooth and voluminous.
The death of a 33 year-old housewife in Missouri, this week raised the controversy over the new hair straightening techniques. Maria Ení da Silva died after undergoing a escova progressiva (permanent straigtening). According to her family, she applied a mixture of cream and formaldehyde at a hairdressing salon on Saturday, March 17, and was directed not to wash her hair for three days. During this period, she complained of headaches, shortness of breath and itching. On Tuesday, March 20, she fell ill, was taken to two hospitals and died. Globo.Com
This story is particularly maddening for my wife and me. Last year, disobeying my wife’s firm and repeated decision, our youngest daughter went to a local store and bought an electrical hair straightener, because virtually all of the girls at her school electrically or chemically straighten their hair. The social pressure she feels to straighten hair is intense. When girls straighten their hair, their peers, boys, parents and community suddenly begin to say, “You look beautiful. You look so pretty with your hair straight.”
Since my wife and I are unable to convince our daughters that their hair is beautiful in its natural Black state, I have warned them not to straighten their hair in the bathroom, where the electric iron can fall on the floor and transmit 120 volts or 240 volts of electricity to girls' (and boys') wet feet, freeze them in their tracks and electrocute them, causing them to fall on the floor where the electricity burns their bodies in a different place every time they twist and turn, trying to free themselves from the force of their store-bought electric chairs.
What Black girls don't realize is that white girls have this hair without endangering their lives, while for Black girls there is danger, expense and time wasted that could otherwise be spent choosing a college and getting better grades that would lead to full scholarships. While white girls prepare for professions, Black girls strain to look like white girls or like Black girls with white genetic heritage.
Sad, but true.