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Dis Tress… African-American Women, Breast Cancer…And Hair Loss

Dis Tress… African-American Women, Breast Cancer"Your head is held high like Mt. Carmel and its plaits are as dark as purple; a king is held captive in your tresses. How beautiful you are, how charming,my love, my delight!" – Song of Songs 7:5

If you want to hear heated, heart-felt opinions, listen carefully when a group of Black women get together and discuss their hair.  Emotions are apt to run the gamut from laughter to anger when this topic is discussed. Words like kinky, difficult, unruly, willful, ugly, and wooly, are often bandied about. African- American hair is viewed as a political statement, a matter of pride, and a way in which to show individuality.

In her article "Black Identity and the Politics of Hair," Stephanie Mason discusses this subject when she says, “There is one thing I don’t politicize. That is, not anymore. Hair. We all know what a firebrand hair can be among African-Americans. I’m not saying that I’m any exception.

I won’t pretend that hair has never been a big issue for me. It’s just that I’ve come to terms with hair. I’ve made peace with my hair and everybody’s emphasis on it.”

Later in the same article Ms. Mason continues, “While some of us are obsessed with hair being too black, others are equally obsessed with hair being black enough. Femininity is always an issue when we deal with hair. I know that appearances form our first impressions of people. I know that we all value our impressions to varying degrees. But I also know that if we’re going to accomplish anything as African-Americans, we need to place more emphasis on achievement and cooperative effort, and less on style.”

In her book Tenderheaded: a Comb-Bending Collection of Hair Stories, Pamela Johnson (who co-edited the book with Juliette Harris) shares an amazing array of stories that provide an up-close and highly personal glimpse into the African-American hair experience. While compiling these stories she wrote an article called "Crown and Glory" which touched upon her own hair dilemmas and as she shares, “Many – if not most – of us obsess about our tresses. I think it’s because we tie a lot of our ‘femaleness’ to our hair. Yet the media messages and societal cues about what constitutes beautiful hair – long, straight or slightly curly, preferably blond – doesn’t remotely resemble the hair God gave most sisters. So we spend big money to camouflage reality. Even as we strain our budgets, we deem that it’s worth it if it gets us noticed and admired, or, like Rapunzel’s, lures the lover of our dreams. In this, Black women are not alone; we stand side by side with our Latina, Native American, and Asian sisters. White women are also taking the heat. Most don’t feel that they can live up to the airbrushed ideal, either.”

Don't let your hair anchor you

The renowned Alice Walker shared her hair experience when she wrote "Oppressed Hair Puts a Ceiling on the Brain," which she presented as a talk at on Founders’ Day at Spelman College in Atlanta. During her presentation she told the audience, “I am going to talk about an issue even closer to home. I am going to talk to you about hair. Don’t give a thought to the state of yours at the moment. Don’t be at all alarmed. This is not an appraisal. I simply want to share with you some of my own experiences with our friend hair, and at the most hope to entertain and amuse you.”

Ms. Walker went on to share a story about how she had been on a quest for self-discovery which caused her to withdraw from the world at large and do some serious contemplating. During this time of self reflection she found that she seemed to have somehow lost her ability to find the escape hatch that allowed her to merge with the infinite, and as she continued her story she said, “One day, after I had asked this question earnestly for half a year, it occurred to me that in my physical self there remained one last barrier to my spiritual liberation, at least in the present phase: my hair. Not my friend hair itself, for I quickly understood that it was innocent. It was the way I related to it that was the problem. I was always thinking about it. So much so that if my spirit had been a balloon eager to soar away and merge with the infinite, my hair would be the rock that anchored it to Earth. I suddenly understood why nuns and monks shaved their heads!”

At the beginning of her quest, Ms. Walker wore long braids made from the hair of Korean women until her own hair was long enough to braid. Her story went on, “When my hair was four inches long, I dispensed with the hair of my Korean sisters and braided my own. It was only then that I became reacquainted with its natural character. I found it to be springy, soft, almost sensually responsive to moisture. As the little braids spun off in all directions but the ones I tried to encourage them to go, I discovered my hair’s willfulness, so like my own! I saw that my friend hair, given its own life, had a sense of humor. I discovered I liked it.”

Walker continued, “Again I stood in front of the mirror and looked at myself and laughed. My hair is one of those odd, amazing, unbelievable, stop-you-in-your-tracks creations – not unlike a zebra’s strips, an armadillo’s ears, or the feet of the electric-blue-footed boobie – that the Universe makes for no reason other than to express its own limitless imagination.”

How we lose it

I am African-American and was diagnosed with cancer a year ago. I was told that chemo would definitely leave me bald. I was one of the lucky ones that did not go completely bald, but my hair shed a lot leaving it fragile and very, very thin. Now that I am cancer free (praise God), I have not had any chemicals on my hair in about seventeen months.

Even without chemotherapy many Black women have been faced with hair loss in part because of the processes they use to maintain their hairstyles. Braiding hair too tightly and keeping it braided for long periods of time can begin to create alopecia (hair loss) for some women. Chemical treatments can be particularly harsh on the hair and cause hair loss. In fact, there is some research being done to determine if any of these commonly used chemicals might be contributing to cancers in humans.

The website www.nappturality.com provides a list of 10 chemicals to avoid. These include:

  • Isopropyl Alcohol which will dry your hair out and break it off
  • Mineral Oil and Petrolatum
  • PEG (polyethylene glycol)
  • Propylene Glycol (PG)
  • Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) & Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
  • Chlorine
  • DEA (diethanolamine), MEA (momoethnanolamine), and TEA (triethanolamine)
  • FD & C Color Pigments
  • Fragrance
  • Imidazolidinyl Urea and DMDM Hydantoin

The site provides a detailed explanation of each of these chemicals and the impact they may have upon your health.

Marion Long’s article in the July 2005 issue of MAMM Magazine entitled "When Your Hair Disappears" provides an African-American voice talking about the issue of hair loss. In the article, Marian C. Bennett, a Federal Attorney in Washington, D.C. states, “I’m an African-American woman, and hair is such an issue for a lot of African-American women. We don’t have the ‘right’ hair to begin with, most of us, and it’s such a pain in the neck to get white hairstyles. You do not know, you cannot imagine, what we go through: the time, the trouble, the trauma, the money we spend. And then to find out you’re going to lose it? And to not have any hair – there’s nothing worse. Nothing worse. I thought: I’ll look like a concentration camp survivor; I’ll look like a cancer patient in treatment. I felt, oh, everyone would know.” Ms. Bennett found that wearing a wig provided her with the ability to not only look as normal as possible, but provided her with additional self-esteem when others would compliment her on how much they liked her ‘hair.’

As soon as my hair started falling out, I had my best friend shave it and started looking for wigs. I went through the scarves, but I wanted a really good wig to go out in. I found this wig that looked just like a haircut I had gotten just before I was diagnosed. If I had been forced to walk around bald all the time, especially in the later stages when you have no eyelashes or eyebrows, it would have really worked on me. It was imperative that I found that wig because it really gave me a boost.

Your style - wig or no wig - is all about you

The website operated by Look Good … Feel Better provides a thorough guide to both choosing and styling a wig that should prove useful to all women. Something you may not have considered that is worth thinking about is the fact that if you purchase a wig before you lose your hair, you need to remember that your head will be a bit smaller once the hair is gone. It is suggested that you shop for wigs by selecting a color and style you like – and then get fitted once your hair is gone. Some women opt for getting a buzz cut before beginning chemo so they won’t have the added trauma of watching longer hair fall out.

It’s no surprise that gender affects how upset people are about their hair loss. According to Dr. Sharon Keene of the Physician’s Hair Institute in Tucson, AZ, “With men, we can accept a certain amount of recession and thinning. With women, no degree of thinning is acceptable.”

Scarves, turbans, and hats are also ways in which women dealing with hair loss can help to create some flair – even if they don’t have hair! Many women learn how to create a look that is both fashionable and majestic just by choosing headgear that compliments their outfit.

I enjoy wigs, I love wigs, I swear by wigs! All I have to do is slip one on my head and I look good. Besides there are a massive variety of them so one can never go wrong. I feel confident and I look cool and people don't really know the difference (Not that I care if they do notice the difference!) Wigs are very economical and easy to handle and one does not need a hair dresser. I am the proud owner of at least 15 different wigs and counting. They serve me well and I look different with every wig. In the words of a well known restaurant chain, I'm loving it!

Don't forget that women going through cancer treatment can still benefit by caring for their hair and scalp. It’s important to remember that cleansing and moisturizing is helpful in keeping follicles in good shape for future re-growth. This will also help to nourish newly exposed skin on the scalp. Using a mild, pH balanced shampoo is essential, and choosing a mild moisturizer is also beneficial. Chemotherapy can dry your skin and scalp, so you may need to use creams and lotions that are more hydrating than is the norm.

For women of color, hair loss has the potential to make an already sensitive issue hypersensitive, but it can also be a time for self-reflection, acceptance, and new growth both spiritually and physically. Some things truly do transcend the color of our skin and the texture of our hair. It’s amazing how losing your hair due to chemotherapy can make you love and appreciate it when it decides to grow back!

Women of African descent have or can have a love hate relationship with their hair. When I first cut my hair I went through a spiritual metamorphosis that I was unprepared for. I looked in the mirror and an ancient Egyptian looked back. I was mesmerized by the sudden glow I emitted. I saw my cheekbones, the flare of my nose, and the fullness of my lips in a way I’d never seen before. I examined the intricate pattern of my hair the way it twisted and turned, the way it looped this way here and another way there – the way it waved at the nape of my neck. This had been quite a spiritual connection for me – a road back to myself, a road of self-discovery, self-respect, and self-confidence.