In this reflective and personal episode, Professor Cheryl Thompson of Toronto Metropolitan University and author of “Beauty in a Box” untangles the complicated history of hair relaxers for Black women - and the health risks now linked to them.
For decades, North American Black women have been using hair relaxers to help them fit into mainstream workplaces and the European standards of beauty that continue to dominate them. More recently, research has linked these relaxers to cancer and reproductive health issues - and a spate of lawsuits across the United States, and at least one in Canada, have been brought by Black women against the makers of these relaxants. Cheryl Thompson, a professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and author of "Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada's Black Beauty Culture," joins Vinita to untangle the complicated history Black women like herself have with hair relaxants - and where these lawsuits might lead.
This is an unedited and uncorrected transcript of the episode:
From The Conversation, this is Don't Call Me Resilient. I'm Vinita Srivastava. Black women, if you decide to wear your hair in locks in particular,
there's a certain emotional roller coaster that you're going to go through. It's a texture that no one's going to relate to that texture unless they have it. So then you have to address the fact of that loneliness.
It's very real. Deanna Denham Hughes, Jenny Mitchell, and Sierra Claiborne. These are three black women in the United States who are facing long uphill battles with cancer and reproductive problems.
Problems that are now linked to their decades -long use of hair relaxers. Well, these women are now fighting back and seeking justice. There are among the roughly 1 ,200 people in the United States suing dozens of cosmetic companies,
alleging their hair care products made them sick. And now two Canadian women, Shamara Hutchinson and Elle Wayara, have added their names to that list.
The pressure to straighten their hair, to comply with European standards of beauty for work and school, is an issue that many black women are familiar with. It's an issue Cheryl Thompson has spent a lot of time researching.
She is the author of Beauty in a Box, Detangling the Roots of Canada's Black Beauty Culture. And she is a professor of performance in the creative school at Toronto Metropolitan University.
Thanks so much for joining me, Cheryl. It's so good to speak with you again. It's good to talk to you as well. More than 1 ,000 women in North America have now filed lawsuits against cosmetic companies,
alleging that their hair relaxers caused cancer and fibroids. And you've been writing about black women's beauty and beauty products for a long time. How surprised were you by these lawsuits?
Oh, not surprised. Excited. To be honest, excited by them that people are finally going to be holding these corporate companies to account for what has actually been known since around 2008 -9.
Oh, that long, 2008 -9? Yeah. Yeah. Like the first dermatological studies really started to be published around 2008 and 2009. And at that time,
they were only saying that there was a causal effect. They were not saying it was a direct cause and effect. It was like, maybe there is some association between using chemical relaxers and uterine fibroids and other certain types of baldness,
alopecia, right? They were making little correlations. But by the mid, I would say mid 2010s, they stopped making those correlations and they started saying, no,
we pretty much can say cause and effect using these products will cause uterine fibroids and alopecia. I saw one lawsuit that you mentioned in your book about the Brazilian company,
I think Rio, you talked about that. It was like, that was crazy. Yeah. That was what in the early 90s. And it was this product that was essentially branding itself as all natural from the rainforest of Brazil,
basically, and come to find out it was like 10 times more toxic than even a standard chemical relaxer. And the scariest thing about Rio is that they had a lot of celebrity endorsers,
right? And it was on back then, young kids won't remember this, but infomercials. So it was an infomercial lit on at night. Yeah. Right. So back then it was like, it would be like 20 minutes of all of this content of their,
and then they would have all these like testimonials of how great the product was. And it was literally, I think there was one case where it burned a portion of someone's scalp off. It was extremely toxic.
You can imagine and you're sitting to yourself and you're thinking, how could they allow a product like that to be sold? That's a really good question. How could they allow a product like that to be sold? You got Health Canada in Canada,
and you've got the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration in the US, but they actually don't regulate these products. - No, and often when it comes to, especially the demographic who is mostly using the products,
which are black women and some men as well, it's just an uncared for population. - How long have these products been around? We're talking about hair relaxers,
and what made them so popular among black women? - Well, I feel like popular needs to put in air quotes. Like most things as it relates to,
especially the black population in what is essentially the Atlantic world, we do have to go back to transatlantic slavery. So we do have to go back to a moment of black people actually being in really acts of deprivation,
I would say, as it relates to self -care, because you're just not able to self -care, right? And you're having to use what's in your environment. And so in the,
you could go back to, there's early examples of lye, for example, like the product, that idea of lye has been around for hundreds of years. So you will have cases in,
especially during in the US Southern plantation, where they would mix lye with potatoes and other kinds of things, because it was a known kind of caustic chemical that could straighten the hair.
So they realized that. And during slavery to speed up this story, you had a division of labor. So if you worked in the house, you were a house slave as opposed to a field slave, the house slaves,
after a while, the plantation master was like, we want you to look more like us. So there was more of an imperative to straighten or wear a wig so that they felt more comfortable with you in their home,
essentially. Now we can flash forward and think now, 20th century, you're a black person. If you want a good job, it's now generations that pathology of hair has to look mirror the employer who is white.
And in the 1910s, the 1920s, you have a lot of people experimenting with chemical relaxers. - So you say popular in quotes, can we go back to that for a minute?
What is, you talked about the pressure, we talked about the slavery era, and you said that it goes back all the way to that time period where I'm sure it's upward mobility.
Yeah, of course. If you live in a world where every message you're getting, that the symbol of beauty is straight hair, a certain even skin tone,
because the same time with the chemical relaxers, there's obviously the skin bleaching is going in tandem. And in fact, in the early days of skin bleaching ads and hair straightening and skin bleaching ads were seen as the two necessities for black mobility,
especially in the post World War II era. If you didn't straighten your hair and bleach your skin, it's almost like you were left out of a conversation on the new black in America, right? And I think when you don't understand that,
you take it out of context and you think, oh, those people hated themselves. Actually, no, they were doing that for self love at that time, because that's what it looked like at that time. Can I ask you a personal question as a black woman yourself and as someone who's written this entire book?
Sure. Have you felt that pressure yourself? Oh, yeah, when I was younger. Yeah, when I was younger, especially most black women of a certain age can remember gym class and swimming in gym class and the awkwardness of that moment of,
if I go in this pool, what my hair going to look like, and then I got to go back to class after this, like that just the anxiety of that and then having white teachers who really didn't understand and would almost make a joke of it.
Like, why are the black girls don't know how to swim? Aren't you from Africa? Like, I remember a teacher actually said that and I was like, okay, I don't know what to deal with that. So I felt that pressure of if you use a straightener and you chemically straighten your hair you actually don't have that worry anymore going into the pool is not a problem anymore like your hair won't change or revert back is what they
used to call it right or turning back it won't do that so in my mind I thought at the time I'm just doing this for function but I was also doing it to avoid like being teased or bullied and other things that I felt like might have happened if I'd followed that pattern to fit in basically to fit into a Canadian mainstream classroom white classroom yeah it's the same thing when I started working full time I haven't
always been an academic I worked in the business world and in industry and I definitely straightened my hair because I felt like that was just more appropriate for appropriate again air quotes yeah for the setting and I use the chemical relaxer from the age of 13 to 30 oh so 17 years I use one yeah it's a long time that is a long time so there's a lot of money that you've also spent on this every every six to
eight weeks yeah gotta get the kit you gotta get the neutralizing shampoo you gotta get the aftercare conditioner the spritz I was probably spending at least $100 a month at least so you have written about the companies like the how the companies have profited from black women and black women's hair in North America can you tell us a little bit about that yeah I mean just to keep it digestible it really is in the
2000s the first decade of the 2000s was a really a shift a major shift in the beauty culture industry before then you had established African -American owned companies Johnson products you had Carson products you had soft sheen products they were like all these mate like really big companies and they were all offering different like hitting different segments then in the 2000s it was just a mergers and acquisitions frenzy,
as I explained in my book, where suddenly the sort of the transnational consumer goods company, they started to realize, and it was really Revlon who started this trend,
the lipstick company, they started the trend in the 70s, but it really didn't pick up until the 2000s, where they're like, we need to diversify. And look at all these African American beauty companies,
their profits are only ever going up. They have a growing and loyal consumer base. So the proctor and gambles. L 'Oreal, you talk about. L 'Oreal is an interesting one,
because L 'Oreal bought two companies, softsheen and Carson, and then they merged them into their softsheen, Carson division that still exists.
So there are people who are loyal to that brand, and they didn't change the brand name, they just merged them together softsheen, Carson. So if you were a black consumer, you would have recognized either one of those brand names that you would have been using.
So you're thinking, oh great, softsheen and Carson merged. But what you don't realize is that behind that is the parent company, L 'Oreal, because L 'Oreal doesn't put its name on these products.
That's the other thing that I've always felt was so stealth about the chemical relaxer product industry. If you go and look at those products, you have to look at the fine print to see who the parent company is.
Whereas when you look at the other products that are quote unquote for everyone, you know exactly who the parent company is. So one of the things my book has always said is why are they hiding? Yeah,
yeah. What is it that they don't want to admit to when they're making so much money off of us? Yeah. You're talking about it like so many black women, including yourself are now are wearing their hair in natural ways and using natural products.
I read a story probably every month, especially in the New York Times and coming out of the US about black folks getting pushed back for wearing their hair naturally. There's a story in Texas about a young man or in braids or locks at work or at school.
Him and his mom is suing the school because he's been asked to cut his hair. So how much are we hearing about this? Do you think in Canada? Are we talking about this here in Canada? No,
this doesn't get talked about at all in Canada. But I think what it is, again, what is the origin, the association with black people and our natural hair is a political association.
So the way you're talking about the black is beautiful. That was a rallying call at the protests during the civil rights era, right? Yeah. That's what we said as part of demanding rights,
like civil rights, social rights, and economic rights, right? And that's what we look like. So in the psyche remains this association of, oh, if you wear your hair like that,
you're going to bring a certain politics. And then let's bifurcate that. And there's also the idea of, especially in the US context, a lot of black men who go to prison come out of prison with locks.
And so now there's association with locks and criminality or law. And meanwhile, maybe when they went to prison, they actually grew a consciousness. And that's the reason,
right? We're not associating it with a positive thing. They're associating it with a negative. You're going to be involved in criminal behavior, especially when you see black boys being punished for wearing their hair in locks or natural.
A lot of it has to do with that. I think of that case several years ago, where that young black boy was wrestling. And in front of all those people, you cut his hair. In what world?
It was just so shocking. It was traumatic to watch. I cannot even just hearing you say the story again. I feel very emotional. It's so awful that you would think that you could actually have any right to do that to someone.
And also, it's really important to understand psychologically. I mean, every person, especially with black women, if you decide to wear your hair in lux in particular, there's a certain emotional rollercoaster that you're going to go through.
You will because, one, it's even more so than wearing it like in an Afro or crop style. One, you are completely disconnected from how most people wear their hair,
like the texture, right? It's a texture that no one's going to relate to that texture unless they have it. So then you have to address the fact of that loneliness. It's very real.
Like I know in my lock journey, I've worn my hair this way now since 2007. So I've gone through all the rollercoaster of emotions of, oh, was this the right decision? I feel like I'm being treated differently now,
like then I was before. To be honest with you, especially it's going to sound really bad, but it's true. I feel as though a lot of black men look at me very negatively.
Almost like, why are you here? Because I don't have this aesthetic that is deemed beautiful. That is a psychological wear that it could take on a person. You can really start to feel like,
oh, I'm just like, you really feel othered is what I'm saying to you. And so it is a process in your life to get to love yourself and to really appreciate the fact that you're wearing your hair like this for a reason and you actually don't have to explain it to anyone.
So when I saw what happened to that boy who was wrestling, I thought to myself, that person who did that literally cut their vocal cords, they didn't just cut their hair.
Yeah. I'm just wondering, have you seen that show that's streaming right now? It's from a book. It's called The Other Black Girl. Yeah, no, I've heard about it though. I have heard about it.
So it's a horror satire. And the whole idea is that it features this magical hair grease that makes black women more complacent in the white corporate workplace.
I mean, when I heard the premise, I'm like, isn't that blue magic? If anyone's old enough, you know what blue magic is all about. What's blue magic? I don't know blue magic. I tell people this story.
I was like addicted to blue magic. Like I would just slick my hair with blue magic. And you'd almost, my ponytail would be shining. And I remember back then I played soccer and sometimes we'd have night games.
And you know what night in the summer, there's something to do with the humidity. Point is I'm not even kidding you. My hair would be steaming. Like my teammates would be like, you have steam coming out of your head.
I'm like, I do. And then it took years before I realized I think that's that blue magic. When that chemical hits the sweat, it just, yeah.
When I heard that premise, I was like, oh my God, that's so funny. But I actually think it's based on true real life. Maybe the writer is around the same generation as you. It's possible that she wrote the book and now it's made into a series.
But it's of course, it's horror satire. It's this whole genre that I'm just wondering what role do you think a book like this or a show like this can play in this conversation?
I think for me, it's like thinking how maybe they're also playing at the fact that depending on the hairstyle and the product, it does engender a kind of docility,
right? A certain behavior modification. It's just real. I used to have a friend. She had what she called a Whitney wig. And sometimes when we would go out to the club,
she would put on that wig. And if she would not be a different person, if she would not have a certain energy and just feel more, in a way, I'm sure that book is written with that kind of understanding of seeing how when people put on certain aesthetics,
they really do change. I had another friend who worked at a certain retail establishment that was higher end. And for whatever reason, same idea, she had to wear a wig.
Even though in her private life, this is not a person who wore a wig. In that context, she chose, they didn't even ask. Oh, she chose, yeah. She chose to wear a wig and I remember going and seeing her at the place and it's like she was a different person.
She was a little more docile. So again, I feel like whoever's writing that book probably has similar experiences that they're tapping into. But this is the idea,
right? You're one person at work and you're another person at home too. That's partly what you're saying too. It's like you step into this mainstream white work environment and you the mask goes on.
To be very honest with you, anybody who is the offspring of especially that generation of Caribbean immigrant who came in the 60s, 50s and 60s and 70s, my parents had to do that.
Yeah, they wore a different face at work and they did that for survival. Yeah, right. And they changed their mother tongue. They changed the way they spoke. Yeah. And I remember as kids,
me and my sister, we would hate it so much when my mother would run into someone that she knew and then she would put on that work voice that was like, you do not talk with that at home.
Right. And we didn't understand it. And we were like, why is she being fake? And why? Obviously, as you grow, you realize that's called work tone because she wants to keep that job.
Okay. And that's called assimilation. That's forced assimilation. Yeah. And that's why it's really hard for me now in my professional life to be in instances where it's almost like I have to do that.
I'm registering. Oh my gosh, it's like I'm living my mother's life, but I was born here. Yeah. Why am I having to assimilate again into a system when this is actually the country of my birth?
and And I know there are thousands of black women Canadian born who experience the exact same thing. I Think what you're also saying is no judgment here like no judgment for those who are on one side of this They are going to continue to straighten or use relaxers and or use particular There's no judgment here because there's an understanding of all of the necessity or all of them Maybe not necessity.
Maybe they don't even see it as necessity. I Don't judge anyone. I Don't judge anyone, but when you know better, you really need to do better.
Yeah. Yeah, that's not me, right? That's my Angela, right? There's a lot of information now Even this semester. I'm teaching a classroom of 135 students It has not been lost on me that there I'm probably the first person to ever send at the front of that classroom with hair like this forget being black Just with hair like this,
right? They probably have never I'm their influence, right of these first year. Yeah That is huge, right and that makes you feel like on some level That's the reason why people should start to be more of who they really are Because that's going to leave such an impression on the young generation The older eras they had to hide.
It was a different time, right? They were facing a lot of different challenges I really believe this every generation should benefit from the struggle of the last generation Yeah,
yeah, but they went through that so we don't have to yes. Yes So for you to continue to do what your parents had to do it just but you're not learning the lesson That's how I feel.
Yeah, even as I don't judge the choice because I really do understand it I also think we live in an era where you can make a different choice Coming back to the lawsuits for a minute and just before we wrap up It's like we have this incredible research team and this made led by this amazing researcher researcher and the study came out last year that really does link a lot of these products to really significant
health issues. So, I'm wondering how do you think these lawsuits are going to impact life in the hair and beauty aisles? Do you think that we're going to see different types of beauty aisles at the pharmacies or the drugstores?
I don't know. I think that's a much more complicated conversation because to me that conversation is about do you think we can let go of the straight hair aesthetic as the standard of beauty?
We live in an era where there's a lot of different hairstyles. If you just go in a city and you see every day, you're going to see people with their hair in plaits or braids or dreads or an afro or maybe someone's wearing a weave,
someone's using a chemical straightener. So, there's so much variety out there that I think what we need to lean into is that we live in a time where there shouldn't be a beauty standard because there's so much variation now and yet there still is a standard and it still is imposed on to people.
And I think if we go back to how we started this conversation with all the lawsuits and the reasons for the lawsuits, I think unfortunately I don't want to be Debbie Downer but I think they will lose because these corporations have great lawyers and they're really great at pointing out the one single fact about the consumer culture industry is that you have a choice.
You have a choice and you chose to repeatedly use that product. We didn't force you. I have to say that I was shocked when I read in your book that Health Canada and the FDA Food and Drug Administration in the US do not regulate beauty products.
I, as a citizen of this, as a person who lives in Canada, who goes to the store, I think if it's something I'm putting on my lips or my face, now I have a teenage daughter, he uses beauty products.
I just have an assumption that these things are going to be safe because they're being sold in the store that we can all go to. - Yeah. - I hope that coming out of these lawsuits,
at least there's a greater awareness. - Remember that these are global companies. These products are being shipped around the globe. So we have no idea what health effects we might be seeing in the Caribbean,
in Africa, in even parts of South Asia. We have no idea, in Europe, these are global conversations that we see manifest in this case in the US and now in Canada,
but I'm sure there are thousands of people around the world who are like having serious health problems, and they have no access to information to know where the problems are coming from.
Other than, and I think the mentality would be, oh, this can't be the chemical relaxer I'm using because this is a brand name product. - Yeah.
- I can see the logic. How can a company be held responsible for these few people who are bringing this suit when we're not hearing from the millions of other people who have bought the product?
That is the logic of the corporation. And I think when we're dealing with that kind of logic, it's like I said at the end of my book, that's why a consciousness movement is actually what's needed.
Everyone has to really wake up. I think we need to get back to forget the look, let's get back to health. And hopefully, even if the claimants in that lawsuit lose,
I hope what comes out of it though is just a more enlightened conversation about the fact that these products products do have a physical impact on your body. There's just no question about it at this point.
Thank you so much, Cheryl, for all of your time. That's it for this episode of Don't Call Me Resilient.
It's always a pleasure to speak with Professor Cheryl Thompson. It's like speaking to an old friend who was also really knowledgeable. To find Cheryl's book and other resources on this issue,
you can go to theconversation .com and look for the podcast section. And let us know what you were thinking after that conversation. I'm @rightvenita on X,
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Don't Call Me Resilient is hosted by me, Vinita Srivastava. The lead producer on this episode is Danielle Piper. Athika Kaki is associate producer,
sound design and mixing by Remitula Shake. Kikachi Meme is assistant producer, our fabulous consulting producer is Jennifer Morose. And Scott White is the CEO of The Conversation Canada.
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