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Black Hair and the Environment: Hair as a Site for Environmental Justice, Eco Feminism, and Sustainability

Duality of Essays By Dafina Matiku and Victoria St. Martin

Photography By Mic Theory

Currently, we are facing several global crises that include but are not limited to climate change, food insecurity, pollution of the body and environment, as well as racial, gender, and class inequities. It may be an imperative that we all embrace the natural hair movement, which strives to omit toxic chemicals while embracing textured hair, can be a tool of reconnecting to nature. As

humans we are intrinsically part of ecosystems and nature, we must find our niche in it instead of

occupying and destroying our environment entirely.

"Black hair is often seen as undesirable unless it is loose, long, and forms perfect ringlets. With the prevalence of relaxers that destroy the composition of afro hair and that are also toxic to the environment. One could argue that natural hair and by extension Black people are subjected to environmental racism. Hair is an essential part of self-conception and often bonds Black people to their communities."

"The concern of overpopulation as a global crisis, originally theorized by Thomas Malthus, is tied to the idea that as the human population grows, so does the consumption of natural resources. It has since been called into question for its focus on countries in the “Global South” (which are primarily non-white) to reduce their growing populations. However, it does not address how these countries, their societies and the environment, were destabilized by colonialism, capitalism, misogyny, and racism. It also does not address the disproportionate consumption and growing income inequality seen in wealthier, Western countries. In order to find ethical, sustainable solutions to reduce the world population and recover the environment, these intersectional issues must be addressed."

However, the natural hair movement can also be a powerful tool for liberation from these systems of domination because it focuses on lessening exposure to toxic chemicals and simultaneously breaks down the texturism that came into existence because of slavery.

This matters because ensuring the protection and elevation of Black women worldwide will guarantee the protection of all humans when you consider that they are at the bottom of the racial and gendered hierarchy. Humans are intrinsically part of nature and worth protecting. This thesis helps to create a new understanding about the ways in which history informs our present-day realities while also being a solution to our problems. Understanding what was allows us to imagine what can be and this is seen in the examples of how Africans wore and revered their hair and their natural resources. (Matiku 2021)

According to Victoria St. Martin "A new study cites “growing public health concern” around the way that racialized notions of beauty drive women of color to use hazardous hair relaxers, skin lighteners." Societal pressure to conform is a factor in why Black women are twice as likely as those from other groups to use hair relaxers, and Asian women are three times as likely to use skin lighteners, according to a new study that also linked chemicals in such products to adverse health effects. Researchers sought to measure the internalization of racialized beauty standards and said the resulting extensive use of such products by women of color, represents what they called the “environmental injustice of beauty.”

The study, published in the journal Environmental Justice, noted that the prevalence of such products represents “a growing public health concern.” “Elevated levels of harmful beauty-product related chemicals, such as phthalates and certain parabens, among women of color, can be linked to entrenched social and economic systems, such as colonialism and slavery, that have codified a hier-archy of beauty norms,” the researchers wrote. “These beauty norms create material advantages to people with physical traits associated with white femininity, such as light skin and straight hair.

”Phthalates are chemicals often called plasticizers that are used in such products as vinyl flooring, lubricating oil and beauty products, according to the Centers for Disease Control. They have affected the reproductive system in animals and humans and their is currently a massive class action suit against the companies who have caused irreparable harm to thousands. Not these same chemicals were rare in products targeted to white women, the agency reported, but the human health effects from low-level exposure “are crystal clear.” Parabens are chemicals used as preservatives in cosmetics, the CDC said, adding that “human health effects from environmental exposure to low levels of parabens are not being researched.”

“Women of color because of social structural factors, the big ‘isms’ like racism, sexism, classism, they feel compelled to use these products to fit into a certain way of life and look a certain way to achieve certain benefits or that next job or things like that,... “And because of that, they’re using these products that have a lot of chemicals in them.”The harsh chemicals found in relaxers, along with their packaging, do not bode well for the environment. Because of this reality, the decision to stop purchasing and using relaxers in itself is an extremely environmentally-friendly decision for black women to make.


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