The concepts of “nature” and “natural”

Towards the beginning of my Nature and Humanity course, we ventured into the topic of “nature” and “natural” and what those words mean to us and how they’re used in day to day speech in ways that are effective, problematic, and everywhere in between. Today I am going to share with you my initial post, as well as my final essay which asked us to revisit a previous topic and discuss it more thoroughly.

I hope you enjoy.

The words “nature” and “natural” get thrown around a lot to imply that something is good, regardless of how true that statement may or may not be. This is an especially common issue when it comes to the things we expose ourselves to every day like cleaning chemicals, laundry detergents, and the things that make up our skin and haircare routines. Many companies flat out lie about benefits or use very creative wording to imply a much greener business approach than they actually use, a process commonly known as “greenwashing.” As a cosmetologist I see examples of this left, right, and center when talking with my own guests and when exploring products for myself. 

The first thing we usually think when we see the words “all natural” are that “oh, hey! That’s all natural, so it must be good!” Do you know what else is all natural? Cyanide. Nightshade. Hemlock. Arsenic. Even Asbestos is all natural and ready and willing to kill you in some way. And yet for centuries, lead and arsenic were common components of makeup that aimed to give women a more pale appearance. Stopping your arsenic products altogether tended to result in your skin’s appearance going wild which led many people right back to their arsenic-laced products or to seek out mercury-based blemish cures. Women trying to make their eyes look bigger would dilate their eyes with tinctures of Belladonna, or deadly nightshade. Radium was used as a wrinkle remover and X-ray technology was used for hair removal processes.  

I also see the term “natural hair” thrown around a lot, almost always in reference to “unruly” appearing hair that’s usually coily or kinky. In reality the term “natural hair” would refer simply to hair that hasn’t been processed, since color is a process just like permanent curling or straightening. But given that we also can have varying definitions of what we consider to be “natural” when it comes to hair the argument could also be made that your hair isn’t totally natural if there’s even styling product in it because you’ve still done something to alter the appearance of your hair. This is a good example of how something that’s supposed to be “good” actually ends up being problematic because “natural hair” tends to also be viewed as unrefined and otherwise considered less-than, along with the people it’s attached to. This particular description of hair also tends to be used almost exclusively in reference to hair that’s attached to Black people or other people of color.  

The concepts of “nature” and “natural” are great in theory, but also easily manipulated to change our perception of a product or situation.  

For our final paper, we were encouraged to revisit a previous topic that has come up throughout the class and dive more into it. I chose to revisit the concept of “nature vs natural” because it’s something that is impacted by or has an impact on almost every aspect of our lives. As previously mentioned in my first post, most of the time we see the words “all natural” on packaging and think that “all natural” means “definitely good for us and probably for the planet.”  A lot of emphasis gets placed on the word “natural” and it’s even become weaponized in some cases, which I will also cover.  

My background in cosmetology as well as my interest in true crime have led me down some interesting rabbit holes while learning about new things. For instance, did you know that arsenic and lead were some of the main components in makeup? For like, a really long time? During a time when having a pale complexion was desirable, these cosmetics were widely used and stopping them tended to lead to the skin acting out which resulted in people returning to their original regimen or seeking out mercury-based alternatives. These cosmetics were all made from natural materials, but we know now that interacting with any of those elements leads to severe health complications. Simultaneously, arsenic was also a main component in many pest control products which also led to them being used to commit murder. The symptoms of arsenic poisoning also mimic those of numerous other ailments common throughout history such as food poisoning and diphtheria.  

It’s considered “unnatural” for male presenting people to wear nail polish or cosmetic enhancements or long hair, but almost expected from female presenting people. Some people who give birth are told that their birthing story isn’t valid because they had a cesarean instead of a vaginal birth, yet those who birth vaginally but take advantage of an epidural aren’t told that their delivery isn’t valid even though they had an unnatural addition.  

There’s also a lot to unpack when it comes to “natural” and hair. From a purely technical standpoint, when referring to “natural hair” we should mean the hair as it grows out of the head left in the state in which it does so, with no additional chemicals or products added. However, the term is used most frequently to refer to hair that is kinky or coily and almost exclusively coming out of the head of a Black person. When the same texture grows out of the head of a white-passing person it’s almost always referred to as “curly.” This is rooted in systemic racism and perpetuates to this day. People who aren’t white-passing and choose to wear their hair in its naturally curly state tend to be viewed as “wild, un-tamed, less-than, less intelligent” and a whole host of other extremely inaccurate statements.  

Products labeled as “natural” are considered to be better for your hair, whereas when the hair itself is left “natural” it’s considered to be unrefined and treated as less-than, along with the people that hair is attached to. Some natural things are great for your hair, but others are actually pretty terrible for it. For one example, you can easily make a hair gel out of flax seeds that works amazingly to style curly hair; but on the other hand if you use coconut oil on your hair you’re creating a barrier that no longer allows the hair to absorb the water it needs to stay healthy and leads to your hair actually becoming more dry and brittle (causing breakage) and even in some cases, stretchy due to the other properties in the oil (also causing breakage). 

When it comes to the things we ingest we like to look for things that are “chemical-free” without totally comprehending that in reality everything is a chemical regardless of where it came from. How strict do we want to be when it comes to classifying food products as “natural”? A whole orange would be natural as that’s how it grows, but what about something like flour? Whatever wheat or nut the flour came from had to be altered from its natural state multiple times to create the flour, but the flour is also an ingredient in many things that would be considered “natural.”  

When you step outside, you usually feel as though you’re taking in nature, but how natural is most of the nature you encounter the most frequently? By the purest definition of the word “natural,” defined by Webster as “growing without human care” and “existing in or produced by nature: not artificial,” are there really that many places left that would be considered completely natural? Even forest preserves are, in essence, forms of landscaping as humans determine their boundaries and, even to an extent, the contents of the land.  

At this point in our society, the concepts of “nature” and “natural” are little more than constructs; almost entirely subsisting of being whatever we make them be. The beauty of nature is that it’s a wide and varied spectrum, not a binary, and is something we should embrace and lean into and learn from. 

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