For many Black men, shaving is an ordeal (Part One)
ABOVE PHOTO: Man with razor bumps, which can discolor and disfigure the face.
By Frederick Lowe
Gregory Cooper, a slender 26-year-old, sometimes wears a scraggly beard that detracts from his good looks because he can’t shave every day.
When he does shave with a blade, his face becomes inflamed with razor bumps caused by his naturally curly hair becoming imbedded in his face.
“Eight hours after shaving with a razor blade, my face breaks out in whiteheads,” he says.
Whiteheads are a form of acne filled with sebum and discarded skin cells that are capped and white in appearance.
Twice, his razor bumps became so severe that he was taken to a hospital emergency room because his lips had become infected and swollen.
“I let my beard grow out rather than messing up my face,” Cooper explains. Instead of shaving himself, he lets his barber do the job with hair clippers, not with a blade or razor. His barber trims his Mohawk-style haircut with clippers and uses the same instrument to trim Cooper’s beard every two weeks.
Razor bumps can discolor as well as disfigure Black men’s faces, affecting their self-image. Cooper’s dislike of shaving is common among Black men who dread razor bumps.
“I never let a razor touch my face,” said Kelvin Johnson, who is 24 and grows a beard until he visits a barber who shaves his beard with hair clippers. “Clippers don’t break me out.”
Like Cooper, Johnson also does not like to shave with a blade or a razor.
“I started shaving when I was 16, and razor bumps broke out on my neck,” he said, raising his chin so they could be seen.”
Not everyone relies on barbers and their clippers. Richard Lewis, a 49 year-old Chicago hairstylist, said clippers don’t provide a tight enough shave.
“It’s not baby smooth,” said Lewis, who wears a short, neat beard but uses a blade and sometimes a straight razor to shave after making elaborate preparations to ready his beard for shaving. Lewis points out that Black men must shave following their hair’s growth pattern.
Shaving in Black and White
Television commercials portray the manly art of shaving as a refreshing and simple morning exercise that dispatches hair stubble with a few strokes of a razor before the man splashes on Aqua Velva after shave. The man’s wife then draws the palm of her hand across his smooth face, exclaiming over its softness. But for most Black men this never happens.
Razor or blade shaving works for White men and other men who have straight hair. But for black men with curly hair, shaving with a razor or a blade is an ordeal that can lead to the face being disfigured by razor bumps and skin discoloration, both of which can affect black men’s appearance, self-image and self-esteem.
“Historically, razor bumps remain a significant problem for Black men. Certainly, most Black men have razor bumps, but not all,” explained Dr. Charles E. Crutchfield, III, owner of Crutchfield Dermatology, an Eagan, Minn.-based practice that treats African-American men for razor bumps. Dr. Crutchfield is also a clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Minnesota Medical School.
The Journal of the National Medical Association published a study by a Black physicians group in 1974 titled, Pseudofolliculitis barbae in the Military. Pseudofolliculitis barbae, first described in 1956, is the medical term for razor bumps.
Razor bumps are more common and more severe among African-American men, reported the journal article, which was written by Major Alvin M. Alexander, M.D., chief of Dermatology Service at the U.S. Army Medical Center in Okinawa, Japan, and Walter I. Delph, M.D., a physician at Montefiore Hospital in New York City.
There are two causes of razor bumps, explained Dr. Crutchfield. “One is called extrafollicular penetration and other is called transfollicular penetration. Because Black men tend to have curly hair, the hair curls back into the skin after shaving, causing inflammation. The inflammation can look like pimples. The hair follicles can also become infected.”
Razor bumps can be physically disfiguring, and they can affect Black men’s psychological well-being, Dr. Crutchfield said.
Dr. Crutchfield said he sees patients on a regular basis with razor bumps.
“Their skin is irritated, painful, inflamed and discolored,” he explains. “All of these things together can cause frustration and lower self-esteem.”
Johnson, who lives in Evanston, Ill., adds that many Black men are so self-conscious about their razor bumps that they don’t apply for jobs because they are concerned about how they will be perceived.
[Part two of shaving ordeal, next week in the SUN]
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