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My Generation Of Black Girls Got Bamboozled By Relaxers. Here’s Why It Matters.

If I had to sing only one Beyoncé lyric for the rest of my life, that would be “I like my baby heir with baby hair and Afros” from “Formation.”

When the song was released, my 15-year-old self was on her way to celebrate her third natural hair anniversary, absolutely drowned by poor capillary management skills and the consequences of doubtful products’ combinations. Undoubtedly, Queen Bey gave me a much-needed confidence boost.

Truth is, I was never supposed to keep my kinky hair straight for so long. I used relaxers (i.e., harsh chemicals that straighten curls irreversibly) through my childhood and stopped only when the accumulated breakage was too much to handle.

My mom and I had tried every single damage control strategy we could think of, from spacing out the use of relaxers to a biannual basis to reducing the processing time. And still, my hair wasn’t having it.

I reached my peak of hair unhealthiness in eighth grade, when we finally decided on a pause from relaxing. My mom cut my hair to its natural roots so I could grow it back with a healthier base, especially since my plan was to try the new generation of (marketed as) harmless relaxers after a while.

Me in the eighth grade, on the left. My hair was excessively thin and fighting for its life. On the right is me the ninth grade, a few months after getting rid of my damaged hair and wearing a protective hairstyle.
Me in the eighth grade, on the left. My hair was excessively thin and fighting for its life. On the right is me the ninth grade, a few months after getting rid of my damaged hair and wearing a protective hairstyle.
Photo Courtesy Of Cara Doumbe Kingue

My eagerness to relax my hair again was not rooted in the fact that I disliked my curls. Thankfully, I grew up in a family with a sane relationship with natural hair. My problem was that I was chasing a specific aesthetic.

These girls were the absolute goal. Little did I know that it was unreachable.

I didn’t want to look like my other straight-haired classmates at all. I wanted to look like the stylish (but unfortunately often-overlooked) Black girl in all the TV shows and movies I watched. I wasn’t confident as a teenager, and I felt like “fitting” the beauty standards that were the most highlighted for my community would help me.

Since I didn’t have loose curls and wasn’t old enough to wear weaves, in my mother’s eyes, my only solution was to find a way to properly handle and style relaxed hair. Even if it meant being a guinea pig for some chemically engineered products.

But my mind began to change when a bunch of boys from my school started to mock some of the hairstyles my mom created to help protect my hair. I was struggling to keep my head up whenever I wore styles of braids ― that ironically got trendy just a few years later among white social media influencers.

I needed some representation to empower myself, and it got me to learn more about the “nappy” wave, the French version of the natural hair movement whose portmanteau came from “natural” and “happy.”

For me, there was nothing like seeing confident Black women with their natural hair in whichever style they wanted without second-guessing themselves. Inspired by them, I found my new aesthetic: freedom.

Fatou N’diaye, also known online as blackbeautybag, was among the bloggers who played a huge role in my natural hair journey.

However, this was not an easy road at its beginning. I wanted the Afro of Inna Modja (a French singer) and of Solange Knowles, the braid game of my ancestors, and the product lines of my favorite bloggers. All that while still learning new habits, having never dealt with my “real” hair texture myself.

Hours facing the mirror to get something out of my hair sometimes made me frustrated, often tired, but never ashamed. Especially not when Beyoncé was reminding me to stay proud of my heritage.

With more maturity, I learned how to give my hair grace, and from there it became my playground, my unique way of expressing myself.

Whether it’s in natural state in a specific style (left) or between the making of two braid styles (middle), I finally learned how to enjoy my hair to the fullest. However, from time to time and for the fun, I get a wig to completely switch my aesthetic… but without chemicals this time.
Whether it’s in natural state in a specific style (left) or between the making of two braid styles (middle), I finally learned how to enjoy my hair to the fullest. However, from time to time and for the fun, I get a wig to completely switch my aesthetic… but without chemicals this time.
Photo Courtesy Of Cara Doumbe Kingue

Recently, while buying products in my usual beauty supply store, I started to wonder if my hair could have ever looked like what was advertised on the relaxer boxes. Something felt off. Maybe the fact that I always saw nicer results with other hair maintenance methods.

Twitter was quick to give me an answer, and not one I expected: The girls I dreamed of looking like always had natural hair and were literally just having silk press. It’s a simple blow-drying method that my mom knew and that could have prevented years of chemical abuse.

The whole thread explains everything.

And the below tweet was one of the many “hair reveals,” with some wondering in the comments if there could be a lawsuit.

Needless to say, I felt disgusted.

There are plenty of reasons to wear styles linked to the use of relaxers, and I’ll never judge those who prefer it as their main hair management method, but it can’t be denied that many who used relaxers actually were just looking for the advertised results.

Willingly using potentially harmful products to achieve a specific look isn’t a rare experience among women (you must suffer to be beautiful, they say), but the lack of monitoring when it comes to cosmetics primarily used by Black women is astounding.

You may wonder if relaxers are that bad if, like in my case, all you need to do is cut off your relaxed hair when it gets too damaged.

But we still don’t know the extent of the harm. There are some clues, like the high rate of alopecia among Black women, and some recent studies show an increased risk of developing uterine cancer, for instance, when using them. But that’s about it.

Not only did whole generations get bamboozled by relaxers, but they also unknowingly may develop (or have developed) health issues related to their use.

I ask myself if, as a Black woman, you can really be free with your hair when some businesses decide to lie, when the studies of long-term effects of hair products are lacking and when society still struggles to validate a woman’s healthy relationship with beauty.

Despite having stopped relaxers almost 10 years ago, I can’t help but feel uncomfortable when I recall these “hair-wasting” years of my life.

I’ll never blame the child, then the teenage me, who saw no wrong in blindly using suspicious products to look “cool,” but I feel like with more transparency, more representation and more information, I would have made a choice besides relaxing my hair.

And, unfortunately, I’m not the only Black woman feeling that way.

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