There’s a word for the societal pressure that encourages women of colour to alter their appearances to better fit Western beauty standards: racism. Perpetuating the idea that there is a single acceptable definition of beauty that people should strive to achieve by lightening their skin or straightening their hair is a dangerous and psychologically damaging form of discrimination in and of itself, but those pressures are doing more than just hurting women’s self-esteem and leading them to feel ashamed in their own skin. They’re also putting their physical health at risk.
In a commentary published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology this week, researchers stated that the pressure to meet European beauty norms means black, Latina, and Asian American women often have more exposure to product-related environmental chemicals than white women. (This comes months after an advocacy group raised a similar warning, according to The Cut.) “Beauty product use is a critical but underappreciated source of reproductive harm and environmental injustice,” co-author Ami Zota, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the George Washington University, said in a statement.
The research indicates that the types of beauty products marketed towards women of colour, in addition to the quantity, play a significant role. Skin-lightening creams have been known to contain mercury, a neurotoxin that can cause poisoning and kidney damage. The FDA has limited the maximum allowable level of mercury in skin products but, because they’re still largely unregulated and readily available outside of the US, they’re still in use. Hair relaxing and straightening products often contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals and can even cause uterine tumours, the commentary adds.
The burden felt by women of colour to bend to mainstream beauty ideals is structurally embedded, with advertisers taking advantage of the image of idealised whiteness to sell products with harmful ingredients. Because of the prevalence of “hidden” chemicals and inadequate data on health and safety, the commentary states, many women who are vulnerable aren’t even aware of the health hazards. The authors urge doctors to better counsel their patients about the risks, and for healthcare providers and researchers to push for improved testing policies and better disclosure in the market. Because the way it is now is simply unacceptable.