Toxic cosmetics marketed to black women

Every International Women’s Day celebration I delight in knowing I’m in a sisterhood with women across the globe fighting for gender justice.

But as lesbian women of African descent, my struggle for justice intersects several fronts. Often times, it’s not only the nationally organized visible and vociferous movements in our country like the gay, or women’s, or black civil rights movements.

Sometimes — like today — my struggle begins in the morning doing battle with the cosmetics and personal care products I use trying to present my best self publicly. I start my morning having to discern if the seemingly innocuous lock and twist gel I’ve been putting in my hair for years and the cocoa butter I’ve been putting on my face to smooth marks and scars and dry skin all my life are not toxic products marketed to black women.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC), a coalition of nonprofit organizations and concerned people like public health, educational, religious, labor, women’s, environmental, and consumer groups, makes it their business securing the corporate, regulatory, and legislative reforms to stop the beauty industry from using toxic chemicals that can cause hormone disruption, reproductive harm, immune system toxicity, and cancer, to name a few.

There exists lead in lipstick, contaminants in bath products, and dibutyl phthalate (DBP), a reproductive and developmental toxin in nail polish. CSC aims to get companies to use safer alternatives and they have had astounding victories.

The CSC consumer campaign began in 2002 with the release of a report, “Not Too Pretty: Phthalates, Beauty Products, and the FDA,” highlighting the deleterious effects of off-the-shelf beauty products with phthalates, a family of industrial chemicals linked to permanent birth defects in the male reproductive system.

Author Stacy Malkan of “Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry,” and co-founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, went knocking on the doors of the world’s largest cosmetics companies to ask these tough questions: “Why do beauty companies market themselves as pink ribbon leaders in the fight against breast cancer, yet use chemicals that may contribute to that very disease? Why do products marketed to women and children contain chemicals and heavy metals linked to reproductive harm?”

Since CSC’s “Not Too Pretty” report they have done several campaigns and informative reports about toxic cosmetics and personal care products women use.

The campaign targeted to black women is titled “Not So Pretty.”

While the intent of the campaign is to reach out to sisters like myself, the title of the campaign is not only a turn-off, but it also dredges up a painful historical and exploitative figure in black women’s lives: The Hottentot Venus.

In May 2002 when the remains of Sarah “Saartjie” Baartman, derogatorily known as the “Hottentot Venus,” were finally repatriated to her homeland of Cape Town, South Africa, a collective sigh of relief could be heard from women of African descent across the globe.

No longer, many of us thought, would black women’s bodies be the spectacle for anthropological curiosities, scientific exploration, or commercial exploitation to satisfy racist agendas or financial greed. From slave to traveling freak show performer, Baartman traveled throughout Europe from 1810 until her death in 1815 as a human exhibition, because of her highly unusual bodily features: large buttocks and elongated labia.

As a human exhibition, Baartman become not only the iconic image to denigrate black women’s beauty — hence, “not so pretty” — but Baartman also became the symbolic vehicle, and commercial accessibility to experiment with any and all part of black women’s bodies.

From “Circus Africanus” to present-day surgical theater and chemical warfare, the assaults on black women’s bodies are unrelenting.

CSC’s “Not So Pretty” report is indeed not so pretty when given the alarming data.

I find out that, as a black woman, I’m disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals not only in my community, but also in my workplace. I am also informed that products specifically marketed to my population, like skin lighteners to smooth out dark marks and scars, and hair relaxers, hair sprays, hair lotions, shampoos, and even lock and twist gel, all contain a higher toxicity, and some of the most toxic chemicals than those marketed to the general population.

According to researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute, the early and life-long exposure to hair products — including heavy conditioners that contain placenta and other hormone-disrupting ingredients — may be contributing to the high rates of breast cancer in young African American women.

Black women’s hair continues to be a contentions topic and tangled in politics. And the question many may have to grapple with about their hair is the issue safety.

Is it better being nappy and natural than taking the risk of having silky straight hair with the various “creamy crack” chemical straighteners?

The most toxic hair relaxer on the store shelves today is Skin Deep called Africa’s Best “Organic” relaxer — for kids! It’s an unregulated product raising another problem: toxic treatments being marketed to very young black girls at a time when their bodies are most vulnerable to harm.

This morning, I wanted to feel pretty and worry-free, so I sprayed nothing on my locks and put nothing on my face.

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