According to a report by a US-based think tank named the Perception Institute, black women feel enormous pressure to choose a style that is anything other than wearing a ‘natural hair’ look. Their study – the ‘Good Hair’ Study: Explicit and Implicit Attitudes Toward Black Women’s Hair – polled 3,475 people of all races to try and understand attitudes to black hair.
Bias against afro hair
Most people who took part – regardless of their race – showed an implicit bias against afro hair. Alexis McGill Johnson, co-founder of the Perception Institute, said that “Many black women will feel affirmed by the study – it is what they have known and experienced: wearing natural hairstyles has deep political and social implications.”
The study found that black women experience higher levels of anxiety about their hair compared to white women; that one in three avoid exercise because of their hair; and that one in five feel social pressure to straighten their hair for work.
All of which paints a depressing societal picture if one considers the fact that tightly woven and heat or chemically straightened hairstyles can frequently lead to problems, including thinning, bald patches and hair breakage.
Straightening is one of the most punishing things a woman can do to her hair. As Afro hair is naturally curly, and more brittle than other hair types, the chemicals and heat styling techniques that are needed to relax the curl are necessarily powerful. This makes straightening methods and treatments potentially much more problematic for Afro hair types in comparison to Asian or Caucasian/European hair.
Like many black women, journalist Jelani Addams Rosa became hooked on the idea that she wanted flat, straight hair, and ultimately paid the price. Writing about her experiences with chemical relaxers and other styling treatments in Seventeen magazine, Rosa said her hair loss problems began when she was just 13. “When I got in the shower and began shampooing, my hair felt a little more tangled than usual, so I moved on to conditioning it,” she said. “Once I had conditioner in my hair, I raked a wide-tooth comb through it to detangle it, pulling a softball size clump of strands out of the middle of my head. I immediately froze with panic… what looked and felt like all of my hair was no longer on my head.”
Hair falling out after treatment
Chemical relaxers are often in the news for all the wrong reasons. There have been numerous cases of women’s hair falling out after treatment, and a report last year found that even administering chemical relaxers could lead to hair loss among hairdressers.
In extreme cases, baldness can be permanent because the hair relaxant chemicals have destroyed the follicles on the scalp (this is known as Cicatricial Alopecia), though often the chemicals cause what’s known as hair breakage. This is not a hair loss condition as such, but it is a sign of unhealthy hair and also has the overall effect of making hair look thinner as it causes the hair to snap in two along the shaft.
Treatment for Cicatricial Alopecia – also known as Scarring Alopecia – is limited. Whilst very few types of the condition – Follicular Degenerative Syndrome (FDS), for example – can sometimes respond well to hair loss treatment, Scarring Alopecia is generally not treatable. This is because the follicles scar over, meaning the only option – which is still not always possible and is decided on a case by case basis – may be a hair transplant.
Another commonly seen condition that mostly affects black hair is Traction Alopecia, which often arises when women choose to frequently style their hair in tight braids or cornrows. Hair extensions and weaves that tug on the scalp can lead to similar problems, too.
Some experts say that FDS is synonymous to Traction Alopecia but FDS, which is also known as ‘hot comb alopecia’, is aggravated by oil which is applied to the scalp and used together with heat as a straightening treatment which then damages the follicles. Despite this, this technique is still commonly used to straighten Afro hair.
The good news is that the hair breakage and thinning that these issues can cause will usually be reduced once a woman changes to a hairstyle that is less punishing on the scalp and allows her follicles to recover. There’s more good news when it comes to Traction Alopecia treatment, too: it is usually possible to encourage hair regrowth in cases where the follicles are still active. Belgravia’s Traction Alopecia success stories show some good examples of this.
The Belgravia Centre is the leader in hair loss treatment in the UK, with two clinics based in Central London. If you are worried about hair loss you can arrange a free consultation with a hair loss expert or complete our Online Consultation Form from anywhere in the UK or the rest of the world. View our Hair Loss Success Stories, which are the largest collection of such success stories in the world and demonstrate the levels of success that so many of Belgravia’s patients achieve. You can also phone 020 7730 6666 any time for our hair loss helpline or to arrange a free consultation.