The first whispers of summer are in the air, foretelling sunny days, sultry nights, and trips to the beach. For better or worse, it also means that many women crowd into salons and spas in a frenzy of pre-summer health and beauty rituals. And it’s no small task to prepare for all the bared skin and exposure to the elements—that’s right, ladies and gents, I’m talking about the Brazilian.
No, not that Brazilian. I’m talking about the Brazilian Blowout (also known as Keratin Treatment), a salon procedure that claims to “improve the health and condition of the hair,” “eliminate frizz,” and “smooth the cuticle.” These are tantalizing promises to a curly-haired woman like me. Between my Irish ringlets and Puerto Rican kink (thanks, Mom and Dad!) my hair can be a handful—and the swampy, sticky DC summers don’t help. Neither do the countless women’s magazines, ugly duckling movies, and makeover TV shows that portray hair like mine as a problem, a “before” picture in desperate need of a stick-straight “after.” So, when I see photos of Jennifer Aniston, Halle Berry, and Nicole Richie rocking smooth, shiny locks, I hear the siren call of hassle-free hair and think, “Why not?”
In a word? Formaldehyde. Yes, that same stinky soup that held the dissecting frogs in 10th grade biology is now available in your local high-end hair salon. Initially, this rather disturbing information came to light late last year when salon workers reported headaches, eye irritation, difficulty breathing, and nose bleeds, all symptoms of short-term formaldehyde exposure. When Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) tested samples of Brazilian Blowout products, they found dangerous levels of the chemical, including in products explicitly labeled “Formaldehyde Free.”
Investigators have concluded that the process of applying the solution to hair, and then using a blow dryer and flatiron, aerosolized the formaldehyde, making it easy for salon workers and clients to inhale. This is a great discovery if you’re looking for an effective biological weapon, but definitely bad news for women’s health. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen, and scientific studies have linked it to miscarriage, stillbirth, menstrual disorders, and female infertility. Just last week, the beauty industry’s own scientists finally acknowledged that they cannot guarantee the safety of formaldehyde-containing hair straighteners. And by the way, this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of toxic cosmetics targeted to women of color.
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Now, you’re probably thinking, Brazilian Blowout products have been recalled, right? Because putting a nasty chemical like formaldehyde into a product that women all over the country use must be illegal, RIGHT? Sadly, this is not the case. While Canada has stopped the distribution of these toxic products, Ireland has issued a recall, and the California Attorney General’s office has filed a lawsuit, there has been no nation-wide recall or federal government action to stop the use of these harmful products. And it’s certainly not for lack of effort by women’s health groups like Women’s Voices for the Earth, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the National Healthy Salon Alliance.
Unfortunately, the laws that are supposed to protect us from toxic cosmetics are 70 years old and badly broken—and the Brazilian Blowout brouhaha is a symptom of a failed system. There are no safeguards in place to prevent dangerous products from coming on the market, and no real labeling requirements—which is exactly how a product touted as “Formaldehyde Free” was found to contain dangerous levels of formaldehyde. There are over 12,000 ingredients used in cosmetics, yet 89 percent of them have not been reviewed for safety. In fact, voluntary recalls and anemic self-regulation are all that stands between American families and toxic chemicals in everyday products—from Brazilian Blowout to body wash, baby bottles to blue jeans.
I checked the Brazilian Blowout website today, and the company is heavily featuring a new product called “ZERO” which, they claim, “releases 0% Formaldehyde.” Given that there’s no real oversight of claims like this, I’m skeptical. The company is also standing behind their original formulation—you know, the one that gave salon workers nosebleeds and could be making clients infertile.
Women and workers deserve better. Fortunately, there is something we can do (besides just pulling our hair out from frustration). In the coming months, Congress is expected to introduce legislation that would update our national chemical policy, ensure that products are safe before allowing them in our homes and workplaces, and provide consumers and federal agencies with the information they need to protect human health. To make sure Congress lives up to this important responsibility, you can sign a petition asking President Obama to create a cancer prevention plan that stops the use of cancer-causing chemicals (like formaldehyde) in products we use every day.
Until we have common-sense regulation of chemicals in cosmetics and everyday products, the status quo—labels that lie and products that poison—will continue. So, until I can trust that a Brazilian Blowout isn’t going to give me cancer or make it hard for me to have kids someday, I’m keeping my curls, thank you very much. And I’ll use some of the time I’m not sitting at the salon to sign that petition to President Obama and send it to 10 women I care about. Because beauty is pain sometimes, but this is ridiculous.
Quick tip: How safe are your cosmetics? Find out here.
“This is not who we are.” “This is not America.” These sentiments have become a common refrain in recent years in the response to everything from mass shootings to police abuse of power and police brutality toward protesters, to blatantly racist acts by members of a fraternity. In response to a CIA report describing the extent of torture and brutality used on prisoners in the “war on terror,” President Barack Obama asserted “this is not who we are,” because torture is “contrary to our values.” And in the wake of the mass shootings last year in San Bernardino, California, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch stated that: “Violence like this has no place in this country. This is not what we stand for, this is not what we do.”
But these statements are at best aspirational for a country in which the leaders of at least one major political party regularly exploit intolerance, fear, and “morality” to win campaigns, and in which the leaders of the other too often hide behind platitudes and half-measures intended to placate specific constituencies, but not fundamentally challenge those realities. They are at best aspirational for a country in which the beliefs of Islamic fundamentalists are condemned, but the same views when espoused by conservative Christian fundamentalists are given legal and social approval by both parties, because … religion. They are at best aspirational for a country in which women’s rights to their own bodies are a subject of ongoing debate, medical professionals are villainized and murdered, and rape and sexual assault are often blamed on the victim. These statements are also aspirational in a country in which we imprison people of color of every age, sex, and gender at rates far higher than whites; actively rip families apart by deporting millions of undocumented persons; and pass laws denying people access to basic human needs, like bathrooms, due to their gender identity.
We are not what we say. We are what we do.
Consider the events of the last 24 hours. A U.S.-born citizen (born in New York, living in Florida) opens fire in a large gay nightclub, killing at least 50 people and injuring at least 53 more. The shooter’s father suggested that the rampage was not due to religion but “may” have been incited by his son’s anger at seeing two men kissing. His former wife described him as being violent and unstable. He allegedly made a call to 9-1-1 to declare himself a supporter of ISIS. He used a military-grade assault rifle to carry out what is being called one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.
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Before any details were shared by the FBI or Florida law enforcement, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), known for scapegoating Muslim Americans and calling for racial and religious profiling, was on CNN claiming that the U.S.-born shooter was “from Afghanistan.”
“If in fact this terrorist attack is one inspired by radical Islamic ideology, it is quite frankly not surprising that they would target this community in this horrifying way, and I think it’s something we’ll have to talk about some more here, across the country,” he said.
Rubio [also] said it’s not yet clear what the shooter’s motivations were, but that if radical Islamic beliefs were behind the shooting, “common sense tells you he specifically targeted the gay community because of the views that exist in the radical Islamic community with regard to the gay community.”
Rubio would appear to share those views “with regard to the gay community.” He is against same-sex marriage and made that opposition a key issue during his recent run for the GOP presidential nomination. He opposes legislation to make employment discrimination on the basis of gender or sexual orientation illegal, supports “conversion therapy,” and is against the rights of gay persons to adopt children.
What, exactly, is the difference between the hatred spewed by radical Islamists and that by conservative Christian fundamentalists in the United States? How can any less responsibility be laid at the feet of the U.S. politicians and their supporters for violence and terror when they espouse the same forms of hatred and marginalization as those they blame for that terror? Why are we so quick to connect the lone gunman in Orlando with Islam and so unwilling to connect the “lone wolves” like Robert Dear, Angel Dillard, and Scott Roeder with the Christian right, or to hold young white star athletes accountable for the violence they commit against women? Why are we so loath to talk about rational limits on an AK-47 assault rifle, a weapon of war, when mass murders have become routine?
It may not be pretty and it may be hard to acknowledge, but as a country we are more like those we rush to condemn than we are willing to admit. We are a country founded on and fed by a strong historical current of patriarchy, white supremacy, systemic racism, misogyny, discrimination, and scapegoating, all of which in turn feeds hatred, violence, and terror. That is part of who we are as a nation. Pretending that is not the case is like pretending that your severely dysfunctional family is just fine, and that the violence you experience daily within it is just an aberration and not a fact of life.
But it is not an aberration. Christian fundamentalist hatred is not “better” than Islamic fundamentalist hatred. White American misogyny is not “better” than Islamic fundamentalist misogyny. Discrimination and the abrogation of rights of undocumented persons, people of color, LGBTQ people, or any other group by U.S. politicians is not different morally or otherwise than that practiced by “other” fundamentalists against marginalized groups in their own country.
We are what we do.
We like to act the victim, but we are the perpetrators. Until we come to grips with our own realities as a country and take responsibility for the ways in which politicians, the media, and corporate backers of both help bring about, excuse, and otherwise foster discrimination and hatred, we can’t even begin to escape the violence, and we certainly can’t blame anyone else. We must aspire to do better, but that won’t happen unless we take responsibility for our own part in the hatred at the start.
Editor’s note: This piece has been updated to clarify the details around the Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick tweet.
Pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding are acts often associated with womanhood. We talk about pregnant women and nursing mothers, but this language—which depends on the male-female gender binary—seems inadequate as trans and nonbinary folks are increasingly visible in the parenting sphere.
With his first book, Where’s the Mother?: Stories From A Transgender Dad, Trevor MacDonald hopes to blow the conversation wide open. MacDonald is a Canadian author who has been blogging about his journey as a nursing man on his blog, Milk Junkies, since 2011. He also facilitates a Facebook group for trans folks who nurse, and he initiated and helped design a University of Ottawa study focusing on the experiences of transmasculine individuals with pregnancy, birth, and infant feeding.
MacDonald’s book explores his transition from living as female to living openly as a man, and how that transition ultimately led to his decision to carry and birth a child with his partner.
By sharing his experiences and documenting the many challenges he faced as a man who planned to give birth and nurse his baby, MacDonald asks readers to reconsider everything they think they know about what it means to be a gestational parent. By the end of the book, readers come away understanding that despite a person’s gender, pregnancy and nursing are universal experiences and valid regardless of how they happen. MacDonald’s voice is an important and necessary one in the birthing community, and there are surely many more people out there like him.
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Rewire: You talk a lot about struggling to find literature that you related to because pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding are typically only associated with women—and motherhood. Can you tell me about the kind of language you’d like to see used to talk about these experiences and why it’s important?
Trevor MacDonald: I think I was a bit naive at first when I was reading those materials. I felt like, “If only the authors knew, I’m sure they would have used different language. They just didn’t know about people like me.” And that’s definitely been the case for some of those authors. Many are starting to change language and using words like “parents” or “pregnant people.” It’s a simple shift, really.
Where I was naive, though, is that there are some people who really don’t want to use inclusive language. Ina May Gaskin is one. I had read her book [Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth] during my first pregnancy and had been so inspired by her writing, and the birth stories are so valuable and needed. I was so hungry for information about what others had experienced. I love that book so dearly, and to realize she really was opposed to including gender-diverse people in her writing was really upsetting. [Gaskin signed this open letter by Woman-Centered Midwifery, a group of “gender-critical” midwives who believe that biological sex determines gender and were concerned about the Midwives Alliance of North America’s use of gender-neutral language to talk about pregnancy and birth.]
It’s also really important to me to point out that no one needs to throw out the words “mother” or “woman”; you just need to include more words. So you could say “women and men and gender-nonconforming people” or “parents.” It’s nice to have more than one word to mix things up a little bit.
Rewire: What was the decision to carry a baby like for you?
TM: It was something I’d never thought I would do until after I transitioned and after getting together with my partner. For me, transitioning in the medical way that I did [through hormone therapy and top surgery involving breast removal] made me comfortable enough with myself to contemplate carrying a baby. Before that, there was so much stress and constant background noise in my thoughts and in my life to do with gender, with bathrooms, and with all the ways I really wasn’t comfortable. When I transitioned and so much of that fell away, I started to consider things I never had before. It helped that I was able to present as male throughout my pregnancies because I had taken testosterone [before pregnancy]. Those things enabled me to express my gender and present myself during pregnancy in ways that were comfortable for me.
Rewire: Did you experience any gender dysphoria—the distress or discomfort that occurs when the gender someone is assigned does not align with their actual gender—during your pregnancy?
TM: For sure, but for me it was more around medical stuff than around everyday living. In my everyday life, I was still presenting as male. But with health-care providers, especially providers who specialize in prenatal care, they’re so used to everything being woman-centered, and it’s really important to some providers to use woman-centered language.
I didn’t have any providers who had worked with an openly trans client before, so people certainly had trouble with the language. One midwife offered a blanket apology that she was going to have trouble remembering to use the right words and that she didn’t mean to be offensive. For me, I think I would have preferred if she had made more of a commitment to trying to change her language—going beyond apologizing, but trying to do something to remember to use my pronouns. I think it must be hard when it’s your first client who has asked you to use new language. It’s a new skill that has to be practiced and learned, like any other.
Another place where I sometimes experienced challenges was when people at work who had previously been using the correct pronouns for me switched to using the word “mom” and female pronouns when they found out I was pregnant.
But for me personally, in my body, I didn’t feel like the experience of being pregnant triggered dysphoria. It was more the way society responded to me that did.
Rewire: Birthing at home was something important to you. Can you talk a bit about why that option felt safest?
TM: I think the difference for me was that care is different. In Canada, we have midwifery care that is part of the health-care system, and it is covered by insurance. We still have a shortage of midwives, so not everyone who wants one can get one. I was fortunate to get midwives for both my births. For me, the continuity of care that they provide and that you get with a home birth is important.
At a hospital birth, there is no way to meet all your providers before you go there and labor, and I felt like there might be a lot of explaining that I might have to do. I did go to a hospital during pregnancy and another time when I had a miscarriage. I had to come out to every provider there, starting with the first nurse and every subsequent person that I saw. Each person needed to hear the same story about how I, a man, was pregnant. One doctor even had a lot of questions about how I could no longer be taking testosterone and still have facial hair. I couldn’t imagine having to explain those things and educate during labor.
Even with midwives, though, it’s not a magical recipe for getting exactly the kind of care that you need. I still had midwives at my first birth that I hadn’t met before.
Rewire: How do you think care providers—whether they’re doctors or midwives, or lactation consultants—can best support families like yours, or people who are not women but may be giving birth or nursing their babies?
TM: I think considering the topic, doing reading and practicing using the language ahead of time, before they ever meet their first trans or gender-nonconforming client is really important. There are more and more resources available now and places to go to read about people’s experiences, and there are a number of different medical associations who have called on their members to do exactly that. This is so they are not asking their individual patients to educate them, particularly when that person needs care and is in a vulnerable position. That’s not the time to be asking questions that they could learn about in other places.
Rewire: Finding donor milk for your son Jacob seemed to be quite a challenge. You mention that you produce about a quarter of the milk your baby needed, and the rest had to come from donors. Can you talk about what some of the challenges to finding donor milk are? Do you think protocols that see milk sharing as “risky” keep babies from being breastfed who might otherwise benefit from receiving breast milk?
TM: I think some of the taboo against milk sharing is really starting to shift in our culture right now. Currently, a lot of regulatory bodies—for example, the Food and Drug Administration and Health Canada—have a position against peer-to-peer milk sharing—like through Facebook groups like Human Milk 4 Human Babies, where we found many of our milk donors.
But La Leche League (LLL) has actually changed their position on it. LLL’s leaders, who facilitate their local support groups, used to not be allowed to discuss peer-to-peer milk sharing in any way, but last year the organization released a statement with a new policy. Leaders are allowed now to share information and can say that these milk sharing websites exist. It would be a great shift if other groups start to take a position more like LLL, where they can provide information. It would be awesome if medical professionals started to tell patients that these networks exist. Karleen Gribble has written papers about the ethics of peer-to-peer milk sharing and the ethical implications of letting patients know about it and how care providers could discuss risks and benefits, not just of peer-to-peer milk sharing, but of using formula.
In pop culture, when people talk about being worried about milk sharing, the fear most often brought up has to do with diseases like HIV. But something we had to consider as well was the medications that people were taking and whether it could be passed through breast milk. Many people who donate milk through peer-to-peer sharing do so because formal milk banks have such strict requirements around who can donate to them. Formal milk banks are not necessarily in competition with peer-to-peer milk sharing, which is important to understand.
Rewire: You talk a lot in the book about milk donation and the community that sprung up around you to help your family achieve your breastfeeding goals. Can you speak about the support you received and how it affected your breastfeeding journey?
TM: We met people that we otherwise never would have met and never would have become friends with. Many of our milk donors are still our friends, and they were such a diverse bunch of people. From a Mormon donor to a military family to a Mennonite family, all these different kinds of families from different backgrounds came together to help us feed our baby. It was amazing to meet these different people and to realize that despite us being a different kind of family in this one particular way, what was most important to all these people was that a baby needed breast milk.
Rewire: It sounds like prior to having your son, you didn’t know any other trans people who had nursed their babies. Has that changed? Are their experiences similar to yours?
TM: Before Jacob, I only knew about the guy, Thomas Beatie, who went on Oprah. I didn’t know anyone in person. I knew a few trans people who had children prior to transition. Through writing my blog, that’s how I first started to connect to a lot of other trans parents and people who were carrying babies while being out as trans. People asked me questions through my blog about how I navigated the medical system and a lot of questions about breastfeeding.
I also got a lot of questions from cisgender women as well, who were grappling with all kinds of different breastfeeding challenges. Many people deal with low milk supply and try to use a supplementer, like I use to nurse my baby (since I only make about a quarter of the milk my baby needs, I use a supplementer to deliver the milk at my chest, which allows me to feed my baby at my chest). So many people can relate to these challenges. A lot of the time, it’s a private struggle that people have, and it’s intense but you don’t necessarily talk about it that much. All kinds of people reached out to me because they could relate to these issues.
Rewire: What do you wish you had known before giving birth to Jacob?
TM: I wish I had trusted my own instincts a little bit more, and given myself more space to just see what my body would want to do in labor. I felt like I was looking to my care providers and my doula for suggestions, and I’m sure a lot of people have that experience when they’re going through something they’ve never been through before.
Rewire: What do you hope people take away from your book?
TM: I really hope that it will open up conversations. I hope it will provide opportunities for people to talk more about gender diversity, not just generally, but in parenthood and related to pregnancy and breastfeeding. If this book contributed to a conversation that way and opened up discussion, that would be amazing. I would be really thrilled.
This interview was conducted by email and by phone. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity.