I heard this segment on “Fresh Air” today. It’s about how cancer-fighting efforts tend to focus on detection and treatment rather than figuring out what environmental factors cause cancer. I’ve heard whispers about this before, especially about breast cancer and the way money pours into big companies that make cancer-fighting drugs and also make things like pesticides and fertilizers. But the first thing this doctor discusses on the show is a terribly specific, horrifying thing.
Apparently, in the US, black women under 40 get breast cancer massively more often than white women under 40, despite the fact that if you line up known risk factors and demographic data, young black women should get breast cancer less. Dr. Davis hypothesizes that one environmental factor is beauty products. Many black women in America go into chemical-filled beauty salons often, from a young age, and undergo regular harsh treatments for ‘relaxing’, ‘straightening’, et c. According to Dr. Davis, the US government doesn’t strictly oversee the contents of toiletries well…and of course, as she indicates time and again, we don’t know what chemicals to ban, even if we were overseeing things carefully.
I’ve read about the pressure — some of it economic, not “merely” social and aesthetic — on African-American women about their hair. (If you’re curious, this post is a good intro, and links to many more in-depth blog posts.) This pressure is not ‘mere’ in any way, and extends far beyond hair. (If you click on one link in this blog post, please click on this one: A Girl Like Me, a 7-minute film by Kiri Davis. It is amazing — there’s a part that makes me cry, but also some intelligent young women being devastatingly articulate.) But if Dr. Davis is right and the effect of ‘beauty’ products is sufficient to skew cancer statistics in this way…then America’s beauty culture is killing more people than we thought. More than just people with eating disorders or teens with suicidal self-hatred. The world tells huge numbers of women their natural hair is so hideous it has to be transmogrified, tortured, tamed — and it sells them poison to do it with? How ugly can you get?