This spring, the Pentagon issued Army Regulation 670-1, which included bans on several hairstyles worn mainly by black women, including twists and multiple braids. After a major backlash that included accusations of racial bias, that grooming policy is now under review. Here, researchers at the Connors Center for Women’s Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital argue that this is more than an issue of racial fairness; it could also cause harm to women’s health — and disproportionately impact black women, whose life expectancy is already five years less than white women’s.
By Tamarra James-Todd and Therese Fitzgerald
We are encouraged by the news that the Pentagon is reviewing the Army’s grooming policy, Army Regulation 670-1, which many deemed to be racially biased because it banned hairstyles worn primarily by black women.
Such policies set unreasonable standards for what is appropriate or acceptable in our society, and promote the idea that natural “black” hair is somehow inappropriate and unacceptable.
But perhaps most disturbing is the growing evidence that the process involved in straightening curly hair and maintaining acceptable hairstyles is harmful to women’s health, disproportionately affecting black women and making the pervasive practice of banning “black” hair styles a major health equity issue.
The military’s previous position on this reflects a precedent that unfortunately continues to exist in corporate and private sector settings throughout the country. Labeled as “grooming” issues, companies have fired employees for wearing dreadlocks and a private school in Orlando, Florida, threatened to expel a young girl if she refused to straighten or cut her natural black hair.
The public discourse around these biased policies should not only focus on the racism they perpetuate but also on the potential harmful health outcomes and health disparities they may leave in their wake now and for future generations.
In order to conform to the standards of appearance that these policies demand, black women and girls are often encouraged to straighten or otherwise change the texture of their natural “black” hair. Unfortunately, many of the hair relaxers, oils, creams and other products used to straighten or alter curly hair contain synthetic chemicals that disrupt the normal functioning of the human body’s endocrine system, which regulates and secretes hormones.
Based on hair product labels, nearly half (49 percent) of black women and girls use hair products that contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals compared to just 8 percent of whites, which could leave blacks with higher levels of these chemicals in their bodies compared to whites.
For example, phthalates, a class of endocrine-disrupting chemicals used in hair products, are known to be found at higher levels in blacks than whites. Research led by Dr. Tamarra James-Todd at the Connors Center for Women’s Health at Brigham and Women’s Hospital has revealed that higher phthalate levels are associated with a variety of poor health outcomes that disproportionately impact black women and girls including:
•Type 2 diabetes, a condition twice as common among black women compared to white women, as well as insulin resistance and other associated conditions. Continue reading