» BLACK WOMEN AND THEIR HAIR: A Modern Plastic Surgeon’s Perspective
BLACK WOMEN AND THEIR HAIR: A Modern Plastic Surgeon’s Perspective
Submitted by Dr. Monte O. Harris on Fri, 09/02/2011 - 14:50

Black women and their hair made national news last week in a New York Times article entitled – Surgeon General Sees Hair Care as Exercise Barrier for Women. As an African American facial plastic surgeon and hair loss expert, the article spoke directly to an area of personal passion – the intersection of beauty, health, and identity. The hair/fitness conundrum, particularly for women of African descent, is just the tip of a health disparity iceberg. I commend Dr. Regina Benjamin for channeling her unique perspective, expertise, and power of influence in an effort to shine the spotlight on this significant public health issue... Click to read more

This dilemma is particularly disconcerting given that lack of exercise is a contributing factor for obesity and diabetes -- both which disproportionately impair the health and well-being of African American women. So, the conversation is not simply about hair and exercise, but it is much deeper – how modern society's relationship with beauty choices impacts our health.

As an African American facial plastic surgeon and hair loss expert, the article spoke directly to an area of personal passion – the intersection of beauty, health, and identity. At this crossroads, all too often warning signals are disregarded and abused. So much so that I would assert that beauty, health, and identity misalignment is the overlooked disease of the 21st century. As we analyze the ills of humanity, pathology can often be attributed to dysfunction in our sense of "how we look" and "who we perceive ourselves to be", or put simply, beauty and identity. We need look no further than Michael Jackson to see the tragic manifestation of beauty, health, and identity misalignment. However, more subtle examples exists beneath the radar: Naomi Campbell, a beauty icon, with dramatic hair loss hidden under the veil of a synthetic weave or even Beyonce whose most recent album cover had me, despite a well trained eye, struggling to recognize her in the midst of digitally re-mastered skin and chemically treated blonde straight hair. With these unrealistic images etched into our aesthetic consciousness, it's no wonder that women are confused about their own identity and struggling to define authentic self.

Many women unfortunately are mistakenly led to believe that beauty, health, and authentic identity are mutually exclusive when it comes to their hair. The hair/fitness conundrum, particularly for black women, is just the tip of a health disparity iceberg. Hair care decisions impact health on a much more psychologically insidious level than simply a barrier to exercise. Traumatic grooming practices such as weaves, extensions, keratin straightening treatments and relaxers are contributing to alarming rates of hair loss, disproportionately affecting African American women. A recent study undertaken by the Cleveland Clinic showed a high prevalence of hair loss among African American women approaching 30%. The study linked hairstyles such as braids and weaves to more severe forms of hair loss. The catch 22 is that these grooming options are often presented as "fitness-friendly" styling solutions, but unfortunately over time may result in traumatic hair loss. Amongst the medical professionals who treat hair loss in black patients, it is commonly accepted that hair loss is reaching epidemic proportions. With hair loss, as with other health disparities such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease, black women's habits and cultural customs often contribute to onset and severity of disease.

My practice is filled with women who are ultimately seeking health and well-being albeit through an aesthetic doorway and finding success. In her comments, the Surgeon General included "look good" in the health equation. She was quoted as saying "We want to encourage people, and also give women the ability to look good and feel good and to be empowered about their own health". Beauty does matter; it just needs to pursued with health and identity mindfulness. So, I was excited to see in the article that Dr. Rebecca Allyne, a breast cancer surgeon, evolved from ill advised (presumed) "fitness-friendly" extensions to sport her own textured tresses in their natural state. I would strongly encourage all women irrespective of ethnicity to adopt a "less is more" modernist attitude and be more open to transitioning to their authentically beautiful natural hair. For those who currently have hair loss as a barrier to the aesthetic liberation of natural hair, we have wonderful options to restoring your crowning glory -- growing healthy hair is not as challenging as you may think.

Click here if you would like to read article by Anahad O' Connor, "Surgeon General Calls for Health Over Hair"

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