When beauty causes harm

Lissah Johnson_Marissa Chan_Tamarra James-Todd
From left: Lissah Johnson, Marissa Chan, Tamarra James-Todd

New podcast from students and faculty examines how toxic beauty products and unrealistic beauty expectations have led to injustices

December 21, 2022 – Maintaining society’s expected beauty standards can come at a high cost—financially, health-wise, and personally—and those costs fall most often on marginalized groups, according to a new podcast from Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Beauty + Justice looks at the history and context surrounding beauty injustices, the potential impacts on health—from asthma to early menstruation to breast cancer—and the sometimes painful emotional toll of trying to attain a certain beauty standard. The podcast features guests from health care, academia, nonprofits, and clean beauty businesses to discuss, as student host Lissah Johnson says in the series trailer, “what it will take to create a more clean and equitable future of beauty for everyone.” Launched in November, there were three episodes as of mid-December, with plans for about 10 more in the coming months.

The podcast team includes Johnson, a doctoral candidate in the Biological Sciences in Public Health program who works in the lab of Kristopher Sarosiek studying how cell death gets dysregulated in ovarian cancer; Marissa Chan, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Environmental Health studying community- and neighborhood-level drivers of hair product use among Black women; and Tamarra James-Todd, Mark and Catherine Winkler Associate Professor of Environmental Reproductive Epidemiology and director of the Environmental Reproductive Justice Lab.

The idea for a podcast grew out of a desire to translate research results in a way that’s useful for people and policymakers. “There’s a lot of talk about environmental justice and health equity, but we actually need to get the science into the hands of the community members who are most impacted, and also those who are in power and who can affect change,” said James-Todd.

The podcast, she added, highlights the connection between racism and how beauty products are marketed, sold, and used. “The cost isn’t just our health,” she said. “It’s also an economic cost. People of color are paying more money—a ridiculously high amount—to try to achieve Eurocentric beauty standards. Basically, we are paying more money to make ourselves sicker.”

Experts featured in the podcast series delve into various aspects of beauty injustice. Guests have included Lori Tharps, an author, storyteller, and educator best known for a book she co-authored titled “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America”; Tamara Gilkes Borr, U.S. policy correspondent at The Economist, who wrote a May 2021 article about some of the hidden costs of having and maintaining Black hair; Robin Dodson, associate director of research operations and a research scientist at the Silent Spring Institute; and Blair Wylie, director of obstetrics for the 1st region Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit and founding director of The Collaborative for Women’s Environmental Health in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. An episode planned for spring 2023 will explore the role of big business in beauty justice with Boma Brown-West, former director of EDF+Business for the Environmental Defense Fund and currently chief growth officer at the Healthy Building Network.

A tool for ‘othering’

In the series trailer, Johnson says, “The fact is beauty is not harmless, nor frivolous, or only skin deep. It’s also a source of toxic environmental exposures and a tool for othering and excluding specific groups of people.”

The episode featuring Dodson focused on the types of chemicals people are exposed to from beauty products and ways to prevent those exposures. Dodson has been involved in research that has shown that most women use products with fragrance—which can have hundreds of different kinds of chemicals—and she recommended that people choose fragrance-free products instead. Other chemicals to watch out for, she said, include phthalates, parabens, and UV filters such as benzophenone-3, which are endocrine disruptors that affect people’s hormonal systems. She also noted that levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals tend to be higher in products marketed toward and used by Black women than in products for white women.

“The majority of people do not realize that chemicals do not need to be comprehensively evaluated for safety before they are used in products that you would use every day,” said Dodson. “I think people should … start making noise and calling as much attention as we can to these issues so that things will start to change.” She suggested speaking out in support of increased transparency around products, or calling your favorite brand to complain about unsafe ingredients.

Borr discussed the social consequences of being perceived as less beautiful. For instance, she noted, a 2020 study “found that Black women with natural hair, with curly hair, were perceived as less professional and less competent than Black women with straight hair and White women with curly or straight hair.”

And while many women spend a lot of money to have their appearance meet social standards, Black women face even greater hurdles. “Black women buy nine times more products than white women do,” Borr said, noting that the Black hair industry generated $2.5 billion in revenue in 2017. “And you also have to think about the fact that women make less money than men, and on top of that, Black women make much less money than White women do, and they’re spending so much more money to show up and go to work, to have their hair be appropriate for work, for that job. It’s really mind-boggling and kind of twisted when you really think about it.”

Chan said she found the episode featuring Borr very powerful. “She highlighted … that we’re not at the point yet where Black women or Black folks can just walk out the door without considering the impact of institutional and interpersonal racism as it relates to their appearance and Eurocentric beauty standards,” she said. Johnson agreed, noting that the episode made her think about how much time it takes to get ready to leave the house “in order to not get negative comments.” She talked about what Black women call “wash day”—the whole day it takes to wash, detangle, and treat your hair. “You miss out on time for so many other things, like being with friends and family,” she said. “And as a PhD student, I don’t have seven hours to spend every week making my hair in its natural state appear in line with those Eurocentric standards of beauty and professionalism.”

James-Todd spoke of her own struggles regarding her hair. At times, she said, she has worried about wearing her hair in a natural style. “I recognize that there are perceptions of what it looks like to be a Black woman wearing your hair in its natural state, one of which is to be perceived as being militant, or being perceived as not being particularly attractive,” she said. “And that has implications for whether or not I’m taken seriously.”

Borr said that one way to move the needle on societal standards surrounding Black hair is legislation prohibiting discrimination based on someone’s hair texture and hairstyle. In September, Alaska became the 19th state to pass such legislation, known as the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act. Media images of women with natural Black hair can also help, she said.

Learning experience

For Chan, working on the podcast highlighted the importance of framing research toward solutions. “I think a lot of times in environmental justice and environmental health there’s a tendency to document disparities or differences in product use, which is important. But it’s also important to ask: What can people do about it, and what is the path forward in terms of achieving beauty justice? We’re really emphasizing that point through the podcast.”

Johnson, a bench scientist, said that the podcast has taught her how to be a better science communicator. “I’m a basic scientist. I’m really steeped in using technical language and scientific jargon,” she said. “But why I care about what I study are how the people of a community are affected. So really being able to explain … to a diverse audience about research [regarding beauty injustices] has been really helpful and really powerful. It’s making me more of the scientist that I want to be.”

Karen Feldscher

Photo courtesy Tamarra James-Todd