Chemically relaxing a child’s hair is a form of socially acceptable child abuse.

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Recently, I had a conversation with one of our less densely melaninated cousins about the Chris Rock film ‘Good Hair’. He was intrigued because he didn’t know how much of a massive deal black hair was – kudos to Chris for revealing all our secrets. In fact, despite the levels of top secret information revealed in the film, I still had to break it to him, that no, Beyonce’s hair is not hers, – cue increased levels of shock from him and peals of laughter from me. I also described how I thought Good Hair was frankly, a shallow attempt to investigate what I think is quite a serious issue. Not that it can’t be discussed with humour, but I found Chris’s tone to be somewhat dismissive, as if to say “Sure, a whole race of women have being conditioned to think their natural hair texture is less attractive than everyone else’s, but it’s no big deal’. 

It got me thinking about the segment of the film where Chris, in his usual comedic style, interviews a little girl who is having her hair chemically relaxed at the time. She describes how she had her 1st relaxer age 3, as the hairstylist is comfortably slapping the noxious chemical all over her scalp.  Another little girl tells him that every little girl should have their hair chemically straightened ‘because you’re supposed to’. For those of you outside the black community who might be reading this and don’t know much about relaxers, chemical relaxers are usually made from sodium hydroxide, a strong alkali. The levels of hydroxide used in chemical relaxers are enough to give chemical burns to the scalp, and this isn’t a rare occurrence when people use chemical straighteners.

In an episode of the Tyra Banks show, another little girl, Rayshanisha (I know, I know, pray for her job prospects), is seen crying ‘it burns, it burns’ as her Mum applies the chemical relaxers to her scalp. These chemicals are associated with hair loss, forms of alopecia and possibly an increased risk of uterine fibroids although the correlation is unconfirmed. Erm. This is not ok. In fact, I think one of the worst sights is that of a 4 year old girl with badly relaxed hair hanging on to her follicles on nothing but a prayer of faith and a discoloured scrunchie. It’s an absolute nonsense.

If I bleached my child’s skin (which some people do), I’m pretty sure that most medical professionals would consider this dangerous and possibly a form of child abuse.  Especially if bleaching my child’s skin was liked to the idea that the racial features that are genetically part of that child’s makeup are less attractive than the features of another race. How screwed up are we as a group of people to not see that this is utter insanity? And that being prepared to chemically straighten a child’s hair is exactly the same thing? A 3 year old’s scalp is not mature enough to handle that level  of chemical – heck, an adult’s scalp can barely handle that much sodium hydroxide. 

This would be equivalent to a significant proportion of white people sending their 6 year olds to go on tanning beds in order to become brown, and even then the history of racial insecurity wouldn’t be as the same as it is in the black community. Tanning beds may not have immediate effects, but we know that it carries an increased risk of skin cancer. If an informed adult wishes to play cat and dog with malignant melanoma, then that’s their prerogative, but enforcing that on a non-autonomous child is child abuse. The chemical burns that sometimes come with relaxers can be seen immediately, the cries of a child when it burns their scalp are heard immediately, isn’t that enough to suggest the practice is abusive?

Now let’s be clear, I’m not saying that women who relax their child’s hair should have their kids taken away from them and that they are intentionally being abusive. I know women in my family who are great mother’s to their kids, who have chemically relaxed their child’s hair. This is not coming from a place of malice where the mother is actively trying to harm the child, but in the same way that racism is a learnt unconscious behaviour pattern for many people (i.e. I have white friends who have made racist/ignorant statements, but who I know are not intentionally racist, and whom I would consider ‘nice’ people), relaxing a little girl’s hair in a learnt pattern of abuse in the black community that we need to address.

In fact, I think the first step would be pressuring local officials and governments to ban ‘kiddie perms’ being sold in shops, and ban salons from using hair relaxers on children under a certain age. Additionally, I think teenagers should have to sign forms to show that they understand the implications and risks of a chemical relaxer. Why hasn’t the government done this already? Surprisingly, I’m going to defend them on this one – I think it’s the majority of white people, especially the upper middle classes that run this country, simply have no idea that this is going on, and maybe it’s about time we alerted them to it so that we can hold them accountable for taking action. Ultimately though, the onus is on us to educate ourselves and our community about the dangers of these chemicals, so that parents can make informed decisions about what they subject their children too.

What do you guys think?Am I being too harsh? How young were you when you got your first relaxer? And have any of you chemically relaxed your children’s hair?

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3 Comments

  1. January 31, 2014 / 11:10 am

    I totally agree.. i think it has psychological effects as well. It’s making our children feel that what they have/are naturally is not beautiful enough, which i think is unconsciously damaging. Just my opinion.

  2. February 26, 2014 / 9:31 pm

    Ugh. OhMyGosh the words out of my mouth! This is something I feel so strongly about and genuinely feel sad for my black community because we don’t see how we’re damaging ourselves and reinforcing white supremacy whilst doing so. Who declared natural black hair as ugly? It’s in our minds. Pro fro! (< this should be a t-shirt if it isn't already!)

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