The Plight of the Black Woman: Attaining Curly Wigs

2021 Livestrong Solution Grant Partner Highlight: Coils to Locs

One of the first questions a woman asks her oncologist when receiving a cancer diagnosis is if she will lose her hair (Whitten). Out of the 930,000 women diagnosed with cancer each year, 105,000 of these women are black [1]. A copious number of women must also undergo a variety of treatments, like chemotherapy, to remove the cancerous cells from their bodies. One of the side effects for this aggressive treatment is loss of hair [2]. As a result, hospitals and cancer treatment facilities have adapted to this outcome by providing synthetic hair wigs for cancer patients. Although there is a wide variety of options for straight-haired wigs, there is a lack of representation for women with curly and coily hair. The Livestrong team interviewed Breast Oncologist Melanie Crutchfield Whitten in order to dive deeper into this topic.

The Significance of Wigs for Women

Why are wigs so vital for women experiencing cancer? According to Dr. Whitten, there are three common reasons as to why having the “right” wig can significantly impact a patient’s life. First, a shaved head can be seen as an “indicator of illness” (Whitten). This indicator could lead to undesirable conversations about the individual’s health. However, the option of a wig can bypass many of these potentially awkward interactions.

Second, having a wig can help many women maintain a sense of normalcy. A cancer diagnosis can be disorienting and inevitably leave the individual stressed and overwhelmed. Therefore, having the option to maintain one’s physical appearance could ease some anxiety.

Lastly, these women may feel as though their “femininity is being attacked” due to them losing hair and potentially their breast(s) (Whitten). Because society tends to classify women by physical characteristics, lacking both of these “traditional” features can make women feel inferior. Therefore, the use of synthetic wigs plays a vital role for the individual during their treatment journey. Unfortunately, the lack of available options for black women can be an additional stressor and can cause many women to turn away from wigs.

Hair and its Cultural Attachments

Dr. Whitten is familiar with black women struggling to find curly hair wigs that match their own hair texture. Oftentimes, she has caught herself sneaking off to the beauty supply store in order to find a wig with semblance to the cancer patient’s real hair. She goes out of her way to do so because curly hair is so significant for women, particularly in the black community. Dr. Whitten classifies hair as a women’s “crown and glory.” Hair has significant ties to a black woman’s identity because of its distinguishable textures including its ability to spring up, and the ways in which it grows.

Nevertheless, curly hair has become more than just a physical attribute. It is a tie to one’s racial and cultural identity, which explains why advocating for these black women to have this extension of themselves is essential.

Another topic that Dr. Whitten emphasized throughout the interview was a lack of control. When patients experience breast cancer, it is as if their body is betraying them. This makes it even more important to focus on the aspects of treatment that can be managed. Being able to obtain a wig that retains a resemblance of the person the patient was before the diagnosis can make them feel more comfortable and secure. In summary, the absence of curly-haired wigs leaves black women vulnerable in a multitude of ways.

Black Americans and Health

Historically, African Americans have been misunderstood by the professionals designated to treat them. For example, a 2016 study showed that medical students believed black people had thicker skin and did not feel as much pain as other non-black individuals [3]. These misconceptions have continued to impact the black community and their views on medical care. In particular, these misconceptions have contributed to a lack of trust in medical professionals.

Although these issues of trust cannot be solved all at once, the addition of open conversations between medical professionals and patients of different races is a great starting point. This open-minded approach will encourage patients to begin a dialogue with their doctor. In particular, this channel of open dialogue could lead to conversations about gaps in care for black patients, like the need for texturized wigs.

Overall, the creation of wigs catered to black individuals serves two purposes: 1) developing a bridge for the formation of trust within the black community, and 2) providing black women with needed socio-emotional support.

The Mission of Coils to Locs

The organization known as Coils to Locs was formed after CEO Dianne Austin had her own experience with breast cancer and was unable to find a wig with her hair texture. The mission of the organization is to provide medical wigs for black women experiencing hair loss in a variety of curly and coily textures. As a 2021 Solutions Grants Recipient, Livestrong is partnered with Coils to Locs to expand the organization’s impact. In particular, Livestrong wants to address racial disparities in cancer care and would like to help specifically address the socio-emotional health disparity black women face within cancer care. However, Coils to Locs does not limit their services simply to cancer patients but helps all women experiencing medical hair loss. That way, these women never have to face this problem alone.

In the future, Coils to Locs hopes to supply their wigs to cancer wellness centers all over the country. As an organization, Livestrong identifies with this mission and hopes that our continued funding and spread of awareness will positively impact the black cancer community and bring the organization’s goals into reality.

Written By: Gabriela M Gantt, Livestrong Intern

References:

  1. American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts and Figures for African Americans 2019–2021. Atlanta: American Cancer Society, 2019.
  2. Anderson MK, Matey L. Overview of cancer and cancer treatment. In Olsen MM, LeFebvre KB, Brassil KJ, eds. Chemotherapy and Immunotherapy Guidelines and Recommendations for Practice. Pittsburgh, PA: Oncology Nursing Society; 2019.
  3. Hoffman, K. M., Trawalter, S., Axt, J. R., & Oliver, M. N. (2016). Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 113(16), 4296–4301; 2016.

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