Straightening and Curling Their Hair.
Yesterday in the northeast of Brazil, a twelve year-old Black girl chemically straigtened her hair and then electrocuted herself as she tried to use her mother’s curling iron called a “babyliss” to make her hair conform to a "straight but curly" style popular in Brazil. This news has made national headlines, and has been featured on the national nightly news, perhaps because the concept of literally “dying” for a hair style seems so tragic.
The girl, Ingrid Regina da Paixão Silva, whose parents are teachers, was alone in the house instead of in school due to swine flue symptoms, while her parents were at work. When Ingrid didn’t answer the telephone, her father went home and found her still alive, rolled up in a towel on the bathroom floor with the hair iron out and with burns to several parts of her body. She was dead on arrival at the local hospital.
The television news report in this YouTube video says that 150 children per year die in Brazil while styling their hair, with 49% dying as the result of electrical shocks. “Parents should not allow their children to use these electrical mechanisms because of the risk of electrical shocks” says one professional interviewed on the news.
One of Brasil's top media outlets reported:
Women never stop efforts to become more beautiful. For centuries, they have been squeezing into corsets to keep their waists thin. In China and Japan, women bandaged their feet to make them smaller. Now the madness has gone beyond hair removal. Many women are putting their health (and their lives) in danger to keep the hair smooth and voluminous.
The death of a 33 year-old housewife in Missouri, this week raised the controversy over the new hair straightening techniques. Maria Ení da Silva died after undergoing a escova progressiva (permanent straigtening). According to her family, she applied a mixture of cream and formaldehyde at a hairdressing salon on Saturday, March 17, and was directed not to wash her hair for three days. During this period, she complained of headaches, shortness of breath and itching. On Tuesday, March 20, she fell ill, was taken to two hospitals and died. Globo.Com
This story is particularly maddening for my wife and me. Last year, disobeying my wife’s firm and repeated decision, our youngest daughter went to a local store and bought an electrical hair straightener, because virtually all of the girls at her school electrically or chemically straighten their hair. The social pressure she feels to straighten hair is intense. When girls straighten their hair, their peers, boys, parents and community suddenly begin to say, “You look beautiful. You look so pretty with your hair straight.”
My wife was furious that our daughter had bought a potentiall dangerous electrical product against her orders not to do so. Instead of letting them keep the styling iron and become victims of style, my wife took our daughters and the styling iron back to the store and insisted upon a refuind. My wife argued successfully that stores should not sell dangerous electrical items to children without their parents' permission. Yesterday's electrocution death only underscores the dangers involved when combining electrical irons will water and hair oil.
Many people will say this shocking report is an extreme and unusual example of the danger that can come from straigtening hair, but Brazilian news includes many other examples. Women in Brazil are using formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, to straighten their hair in a process called “definitive progressive”. The process has become popular because the more formadehyde is used at one time, the more straight the women's hair becomes. Also word "definitive" gives people the obviously false but alluring sense of the process never needing to repeated again to keep Black women's curly hair straight forever.
(Of course anyone who understands the rudiments of genetic and biological science knows that it is our genes that determine of our hair will grow and nothing we can do will change the way that our hair will grow on our heads. Eventually, no matter what we do to the hair we have now, more hair will grow in the future based on our genes and not based on the hair style of the moment, which change from year to year, in any case.)
Yesterday, my step-daughters and I saw a woman on television whose hair they liked, but I said she looked like Michael Jackson or Lionel Ritchie with a Jeri Curl . (See photograph) At one time this hair “style” was so dominant in the Black community that a movie mocked the style by showing a man who sat down on a beige couch and left a greasy stain on the couch when he got up. Black people will remember the movie to which I’m referring. It might have been “Coming to América”, starring Eddie Murphy.
The issue of chemically straightening and curling hair hit home for my wife and me, raising daughter who are 16 and 14 years old and are desperate to follow the styles that their peers are wearing.
I explained to her that I have no strong feelings against straight hair. I have strong feelings against hair that hás been mechanically or chemically straightened and I likewise have strong feelings against hair that is mechanically or chemically curly. I would like to see humanity accept its genes and wear their hair as the union of their mother and father genetically intended, instead of condemning and trying to browbeat, or whip their hair into “fashion”.
Of course, what others do with and to their hair is ultimately up to them. However, if they burn their children’s heads with hot combs and expose their children to dangerous chemicals that could cause blindness or lung damage in the pursuit of straight hair, I believe that is child abuse and it should stop.
I tried once again to explain my position to my daughter. I asked her, suppose you see a man in the street with one leg. Wouldn’t you feel empathy for him if learned that he had lost his leg in a car accident? He had lost a part of him that his genes had given him when he was in his mother’s womb. But, would you feel the same empathy for him if you learned that he had cut his leg of himself walking with one leg was in style?
If you saw a person with only one eye, surely you would feel sad for them, seeing only half of what the rest of us see in our periferal vision. But if you learned that the person had plucked and pulled his own eye out because it was the fashion in prison wouldn’t your empathy turn to mocking derision and sadness for what our society hás become?
In the 1980’s there was a big muscular Black man on television named “Mr. T” who spoke as if he had not completed grade school. But he was on the side of law and order and his most salient style statement was all of the gold jewelry he had hanging from his neck. If he was born with that those silly gold necklaces, none of us could fault him for wearing them. But since he chose to wear them, I think a lot of us would opine that his money would have been better spent learning to read or putting his children through university.
None of us, I think, could have imagined that this all-on, over-the-top gold necklace fancy would become a national craze in which teenagers shoot one another for gold necklaces. But that is exactly what happened, as the “Mr. T” style morphed into Rapper style and then hit the streets like uncut heroin.
Ladies and gentleman, I encourage all of you to wear your hair the way it was given to you by the genes of your ancestors and not to try to make it look more like White people hair or more like Black people’s hair or more like anyone’s hair. If we learn to accept ourselves as we are, then we will never end up like the girl who yesterday lost her life while trying to make her hair look more stylish.
Here are links to additional stories in Brazilian news about harm and deaths of women from formaldehyde and other hair processes: