There is likely at least one sista-friend in your circle who has done it: stood in front of a bathroom mirror or sat in a salon chair and willingly chopped off her hair. As clumps and strands fell to the floor, sometimes so did emotional pain she’d let grow for years.
For her and countless other Black women, the “big chop” is a form of therapy where emotional healing and a newfound sense of identity can emerge. Scientists also say getting away from the “creamy crack” of chemical relaxers can pose other health benefits too — including potentially lowering your risk of cancer.
Nye Cardoza felt like her world was falling apart when she decided to cut her hair in 2018. After months of contemplation and being “at the end of my emotional rope,” she finally mustered up the courage to do it.
“I went to a local hairdresser I had been eyeing, and asked the hair stylist to cut it all off,” Cardoza told Elle.com. “It was the most liberating yet terrifying moment of my life, but I’m glad I did it.”
“For me, a Black woman, hair is a defining feature,” she continued, “but deciding to cut it off was exactly what I needed to show me I could let go of anything.”
Cardoza’s not alone in making this transition. A 2018 report from market research firm Mintel found that 40% of Black women wear their hair naturally with no chemicals. In addition, the firm found that at-home chemical relaxer sales fell 22.7% between 2016 and 2018.
Big chops remedy chemical damage, but not the cancer risk caused by relaxers
According to the Black Women’s Health Study conducted by Boston University, researchers found a suggested link between frequent and long-term use of lye-based hair straightening products and breast cancer in Black women.
“Black women are more likely than white women to develop highly aggressive breast cancers that have higher mortality rates, but researchers don’t really know why,” Kimberly Betrand, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Boston University, explained to The Conversation.
“However, scientists do know that chemical hair relaxers, more often used by Black women, contain potentially harmful chemicals, including possible carcinogens and chemicals known as endocrine disruptors, which can interfere with hormone function and could raise breast cancer risk,” she continued.
The study followed 59,000 African-American women for a span of 25 years. While a potential connection has been found, Betrand said additional research is needed, especially on current-day products.
“Because the Black Women’s Health Study did not have information on specific brands of hair relaxers, my team and I could not determine which specific ingredients might be most relevant for breast cancer risk,” she said. “In addition, because we asked about hair relaxer use before 1997, the results of this study may not apply to products on the market today.”
However, a separate 2019 study published in the International Journal of Cancer found that the breast cancer risk for women who regularly used chemical hair relaxers increased 31%. More research is needed on the effects of the chemicals found in hair relaxers, but the potential chemical damage to hair from them is something Black women can see in the mirror.
While in graduate school, Kristin Howell found the strength to let go of years of chemical damage from relaxers. Her hair was falling out and it was taking a toll on her self-esteem.
“I felt so ugly,” she shared with BuzzFeed. “I unsuccessfully tried to wait it out and let my hair grow, but soon realized that my only option was to cut all my hair off and start fresh.”
Howell was nervous, but “found inspiration in other women’s liberating big chop stories and photos,” including singer Solange, who’s known for her hair liberation anthem “Don’t Touch My Hair” featuring Sampha.
“Solange had also just done the big chop at the time and looked gorgeous,” she recalled. “So, I found a natural hairstylist and asked her to just shave it all off. I was nervous and excited. When it was over, I looked down at the relaxed pieces of hair on the floor and then looked at myself. Not only did I look different, but I felt different too. I was happy that I made that decision.”