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For Black Women, Self-Care Is Essential Care

February is Black History Month, when the U.S. celebrates Black Americans' contributions. February is also when the Non-GMO Project explores […]

For Black Women, Self-Care Is Essential Care

February is Black History Month, when the U.S. celebrates Black Americans' contributions. February is also when the Non-GMO Project explores […]

February is Black History Month, when the U.S. celebrates Black Americans' contributions.

February is also when the Non-GMO Project explores how new GMOs made with emerging and experimental techniques show up in personal care products.

Wellness, personal care and Black people's experiences share more than calendar space. The importance of self-care for Black women, in particular, has gained visibility in recent years, emerging as a tool of empowerment. 

In this article, we'll look at how wellness — or its conspicuous absence — shows up in Black women's lives. 

Isn't wellness for everyone?


However, in the U.S., the wellness baseline differs for Black women. Because they are both Black and women they face forms of discrimination that Black men or white women may not. 

The cumulative impact of racial and gender-based discrimination (also known as "misogynoir') is profound. Black women experience higher rates of severe and chronic disease than other groups. According to ProPublica, "a black woman is 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than a white woman, 71 percent more likely to perish from cervical cancer, but 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes." A recent study reveals wealth and education don't protect Black mothers or their children — even the poorest white women have statistically safer pregnancy outcomes than the wealthiest Black women. 

Wellbeing and weathering

Health disparities between Black and white Americans have been well-documented for decades. During that time, policymakers have pointed fingers at a various culprits, such as lifestyle choices, education levels, poverty or crime — all of which can be manifestations of systemic racism.

The story could be a simpler. 

Since the 1970s, researcher Arline Geronimus has worked to understand some truly bizarre data that underscored young Black women's health issues. She found that expectant mothers who become pregnant in their teens fared better than Black women in their twenties. In theory, the twenty-something mothers should have had better pregnancies. Their slightly more mature bodies would be better able to bear the challenges of carrying and delivering a child, and more education and economic security generally help young families. However, as Geronimus told NPR

"The data spoke for themselves — the risks were higher in black young women the later they waited to have children, and that was not true for whites. Whites, by comparison, had the lowest risks around their mid-twenties and the highest risk in their teens."

Over time, Geronimus developed a theory known as "weathering," which refers to chronic stress's impact on essential bodily functions. Between racism and sexism, Black women face discrimination in many forms — wage disparities, environmental pollution, food insecurity and crime, as well as daily aggressions and microaggressions. Unsurprisingly, it wears them down, causing chronic illness, premature aging and reproductive risks. And because the impact is cumulative, the teens who first caught the researcher's eye had less exposure, and less harm done, by the time they became pregnant.

Giving and taking care

The pressures placed on Black women can also change what they expect of themselves. According to author Oludara Adeeyo, "For so long, racism and sexism (a.k.a. misogynoir) told Black women that we cannot sit down and rest, because we must work twice as hard to be respected and rewarded." The internalized pressure to show strength, to suppress one's own needs while caring for others adds to the weight on Black women's shoulders. It's part of what makes self-care elusive, crucial and revolutionary. "For Black women, self-care isn’t just manicures and massages — though it can include them. It is about activities that aid our self-preservation in a world that is structured to oppress us. It is preventive care."

When self-care is preventative care, its instruments are even more important. This raises the question: In an "notoriously under regulated" field like wellness, are all personal care and beauty products created equally?

Personal care products can contain toxic chemicals, and systemic racism tilts the scales against Black women. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC), products marketed to Black women (think products specifically designed to style Black hair, for example) tend to contain more toxic chemicals than other products, and, influenced by Eurocentric beauty standards, Black women use more of them. "Black women are over-exposed to and under-protected from toxic chemicals in the beauty and personal care products they use every day." The CSC also notes that Black women have a higher mortality rate for breast cancer than any other group, and can experience a host of reproductive disorders.

In 2022, the CSC launched the Non-Toxic Black Beauty Project to address the environmental injustice in the beauty industry. The campaign website offers a database of non-toxic beauty products made by Black-owned companies designed to reduce Black women's and girls' exposure to unsafe ingredients.

Personal care is not a luxury. It's a tool with which we show that we value ourselves. And as Oludara Adeeyo points out, for Black women, self-care is preventative care. To celebrate Black History Month, we hope to move just a little bit closer to a world that shows Black women as much genuine care as they give to others.

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