Thursday, October 19, 2023

Reflections on Beauty in the Anthropocene

Finding Beauty in the Anthropocene

What does it mean to live the good life in the Anthropocene? There is something very personal about this particular topic, something that rips one from the tender comforting hold of objectivity. This question naturally prompts one to self-reflection. This question is not just about the good life. It intrinsically asks, “The good life for who?” Normally, when posed the question of “who?”, my mind begins thinking in terms of populations. This time, however, I found my thinking repeatedly orienting towards a population of one: me.

Yes, the person who unflinchingly crosses out every “I”, “me”, and oh “my" has found herself speaking as, well, myself. After all, isn't that what the Anthropocene is all about, us, humans? It is the result of a world ruled by humans for humans. A world centered around human comfort and human needs. We consume. We develop unabashedly. What is life if not growth? And what is growth without consumption? It doesn't take much deep thought to realize that where there is consumption there is also waste—ugly, hideous, destructive waste. Nevertheless, there is beauty in the Anthropocene. Yes, while the Anthropocene is marked by the devastation of the Earth and the proliferation of a toxic environment, the Anthropocene is also beautiful.

If we want people to change their behavior to protect the environment and their health, we need to see beyond the ugliness and destruction. We also need to see the beauty that lies within the Anthropocene. This beauty will look different to everyone depending on their values, but it is an effort worth taking if we want to achieve real change.

Painting in the Sky with Pollution

"Pollution is beautiful," my friend said to me as we sat together sharing a locally sourced organic meal. My friend worked at a small airport, and he was describing the barrage of air contaminants he observed almost daily at his place of employment.  I watched as he sat there for a moment completely enraptured by the image unfurling before his mind's eye, an image so vivid that its very mentioning infected my vision. I was transfixed. These were the same pollutants we knew to be toxic, unhealthy. However, we sat there in silent acknowledgment that the visual signs of their poison—the unnatural mix of colors dancing, flowing, intermixing before a retreating sun—were beautiful. We agreed to this despite knowing that they represented the cost of health and life, a cost that was inequitably distributed among the beings inhabiting this planet. Just by looking into my friend's eyes, I understood that it was a beauty that despite his near daily observance of it never grew old and never tired. Its vitality never waned.

Suddenly, I found my awe twisting and mutating into horror. The once captivating image slowly morphed from a nebula of color to a vacuous all-consuming cloud. Its beauty, its vitality, was based on the consumption of our vitality, our health, and our life.  I suddenly realized that I was not merely vicariously experiencing beauty through my friend's eyes, but also—death.

Confessions of a Middle-Aged Millennial on the Road to Utter Fabulousness

I have decided that 40 will be the year of me. Finally, I am prioritizing self-care and pampering myself. As a young mother, I never gave myself time for such things. There was always something that I foolishly prioritized over myself. My well-being somehow always seemed to take a back seat to my son and career, but not anymore. Midlife is going to be about me and me with a little more me. The first thing on my list of utter fabulousness is to tend to my appearance. That’s right.

No more secondhand clothing.

Yes, despite the fashion industry’s abysmal impacts on the environment and health.

And I am booking my very first mani-pedi.

Yes, also, despite nail salons’ negative impacts on the environment and health.

The hair will be done.

Now, this is where I can be both green and fabulous.


I have not used chemical straighteners for the past 20 years, and I have no intention of doing so now. I decided this even before the National Institutes of Health study indicated that there is an increased risk of uterine cancer associated with chemical straighteners and the now pending lawsuits against chemical hair straightening companies. I chose the difficult road of going natural.

This time around, I decided to get extensions added to my hair. This was the first challenge to my commitment to green hair fabulousness. As I walked into the beauty supply store, I saw a small section of non-toxic braiding hair. I also noticed that this small selection of hair was bone straight. It looked nothing like the hair growing from my head. Finding a texture similar to my hair led me to modacrylic fiber Kanekalon hair, a product composed of fibers that are toxic to human beings.

I also needed other supplies for maintaining my hair. I picked up a shower cap with an image of a black woman on it, but, when I flipped it over, I saw a California Proposition 65 warning label on the back. I then inspected a shower bonnet with the image of a white woman on the front and noticed no such label. I purchased the product with the white woman on the front. I then used my phone to scan product barcodes to identify Black hair products that I would want to avoid because of toxic ingredients. Scan after scan revealed the same result, “That product isn’t in our database yet….”

Finally, I arrived at my refuge, the beauty salon. Getting my hair done meant spending my entire day at the salon. It was to be a place of peace where a Black woman could find community. However, my peace was quickly disturbed by the sound of a curious visitor. I opened my eyes to see an inquisitive white woman standing over me. I now knew what all those poor animals felt like at the zoo, objectified and examined. The temptation was too strong to observe a Black woman in her natural environment. My stylist later informed me that our visitor had tried to reach out and touch my hair while my head was down. Thankfully, my stylist stopped her. I guess she had confused the salon with a petting zoo.

I observed her eyes darting back and forth nervously as she tried her best not to look uncomfortable surrounded by Black bodies. Of course, we had not surrounded her. It was she who chose to step into the middle of a Black hair salon. Nevertheless, she persisted. She struggled to get her questions and comments out until she got to the one she really meant to say. “Do you do—um—normal hair,” clumsily stumbled out of her mouth.

My mouth fell open. I heard a gasp from my stylist standing behind me and the indignant exclamation of the stylist next to me. Our visitor’s, or rather intruder’s, reaction was to desperately explain that THAT was not what she meant, but I think we all knew what she meant.

Despite all my knowledge, I still struggle with the idea that my natural hair may not be considered “professional” enough. All too often “professional” is code for “white” or “Eurocentric.” Even without hair extensions of chemical hair straighteners, the road is difficult for Black women and our hair. The attitude that our natural hair is somehow unnatural still prevails.

Across the United States, there are efforts to pass legislation known as the CROWN Act (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair Act) to prohibit race-based hair discrimination. However, a law is only as good as its enforcement, and it remains to be seen how much enforcement will happen. One Texas high school celebrated the passage of Texas’s CROWN Act by suspending one of its students for wearing dreadlocks. Apparently, the student’s "outward expression of his Black identity and culture" did not meet the school’s standards of appropriate “grooming.” Perhaps limiting this problem to Black women fails to acknowledge the importance of hair to Black identity and culture. It is all too easy to limit this issue to a single gender. There will be no divide and conquer today.

No, there is no such thing as an easy road when it comes to Black hair, no matter how utterly fabulous one may be.

--Michele Okoh

| Permalink