Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Dispatches from Nappyville: What is "good hair," anyway?

With the premiere of Chris Rock's documentary "Good Hair" everyone is talking about black women's tresses--about our quest for "good hair." What exactly is "good hair," anyway? I suspect that, until now, many white Americans have not heard hair described in quite these terms. But blacks folks know all too well.

We live in a society where beauty is governed by Eurocentric standards that say the most attractive tresses for women are straight, long, shiny, fine and preferably light in color. To be sure, many, many women of all races fall short of this standard, but none so much as women of African descent, whose crowning glory tends to be, in many ways, the opposite of what is considered beautiful. It would be easier if, despite living in a majority culture different form our own, the black community as a whole was able to embrace the qualities most often associated with our hair, which tends to be highly-textured. But let's face it: We do not, thanks in part to the legacy of slavery and continued racism.

Don't believe me? When was the last time, outside of the natural hair community, that you heard someone use "nappy" as a compliment?

Sharon's new baby is gorgeous! She has a head full of nappy hair!

When was the last time you saw a sister with a TWA in an R&B video?

Man, shawty looks good! She's got a bangin' body and a really short afro!

I think some of the protestations that black people don't covet the appearance of whiteness are dishonest. Black women may not straighten their hair because they wish to look white, per se, but many of us seek to achieve a look that is based on a beauty standard set by white people and more readily achieved by white people. Black women have also been taught that tightly-curled hair is less manageable than straight hair (though this is only true if you are trying to "manage" black hair into something it is not.).I should say here that this isn't about individual choices. Some sisters straighten on occasion simply cause they like to switch up their looks. No problem there. The problem is with thinking you have to straighten, at great cost and sometimes to the detriment of intimacy and health, to be acceptable or to have hair that is manageable. I'm talking about the general view of natural, black hair within our community -- and that view is largely negative.

No one should think this hatred of our physicality is merely a quirk of black character. I worry from the little I have seen of Rock's flick that this is exactly where that story is going. The idea that black hair is unsightly and unmanageable has been reinforced by the majority culture since slavery. Comparing black women and relaxing with white women and the quest for blondeness, as Rock has done, is facile and inaccurate. Black women covet straight hair not just for vanity's sake, but for social and professional acceptance. Brunette hair is not thought unsightly and inappropriate for public view; natural, black hair is. For example, there are many companies that forbid natural black hairstyles, deeming them "extreme." In fact, controversy erupted a few years ago when some historically black colleges decided to ban natural hairstyles in their business schools, caving to the idea that the hair of people of African descent is unacceptable in the workplace. The Baltimore police department banned black, natural hairstyles in 2006, calling them "fads." And most of us on the 'Net recall the Glamour magazine/natural hair controversy. Is it any wonder that black women straighten, weave up and wig? Our very livelihoods often rely on our assimilating our looks.

When most black folks use "good" to describe someone's hair, they invariably mean the person in questions hair is close to the Eurocentric ideal: It is straight or has uniform curls, not kinks. It is long. It is easy to comb. The hair and beauty Web site, Spiced Honey, asked readers what "good hair" meant to them.

Long, thick, with a natural sheen... Sometimes curls up with the first sign of moisture, but always falls straight with a little work

Not nappy, and keeps it presentable

Hair that is shiny and wavy, and can pass through my fingers like silk

It is worth noting that these respondents praise traits commonly associated with white hair not black hair. And this thinking is all too common in our community. Now, I am bound to get comments from women who say that white beauty standards have no impact on why they straighten their hair. I believe you. Again, this is not about personal choices. I am talking about the black community as a whole. When someone checks for a woman with "good hair," you know exactly what they mean, and it ain't short and kinky or locked or twisted. The very idea of "good hair" is a manifestation of self hatred. That's why Rock's film makes me uncomfortable. Rock is a comedian and, thus, his first job is to be funny. Self-hatred isn't funny.

So, as a sister who has been keeping it nappy for three years now, what is my view of "good hair?" (The term, not the movie, since it doesn't seem to be playing in Central Indiana.) Good hair is healthy hair. Period. It took me a while to come to terms with my thick, spirally hair that is shiny and multi-textured and big and dense and hates to be "tamed." But I have come to love it. It doesn't fit under hats very well. Unless it is wet and soaked in conditioner, it really can't be combed. But it is my good hair. I also like Solange's short cut and Rihanna's asymmetrical do and my friend's honey brown locs and my other friend's waist-length locs and my mom's shoulder-length permed tresses and, though I've only seen it in photos, my blogsister AJ Plaid's baldy. I've come to a place where I recognize that there is no one-size-fits-all "good hair." It's about confidently trying looks without being ashamed of what Mother Nature gave you.

What is good hair to you?

Image courtesy of masoesa on Flickr.


Aron Ranen said...

Please take a moment to check out my documentary film BLACK HAIR

It is free at youtube. 6 parts including an update from London, England.

It explores the Korean Take-over of the Black Beauty Supply and Hair biz..

The current situation makes it hard to believe that Madame C.J. Walker once ran the whole thing.

I am not a hater, I am a motivator.

Plus I am a White guy who stumbled upon this, and felt it was so wrong I had to make a film about it.

self-funded film, made from the heart.

Can it be taken back?


Kelly Hogaboom said...

"It's about confidently trying looks without being ashamed of what Mother Nature gave you."

Nicely put!

I'd seen the trailer for Rock's film and I'd looked forward to seeing the movie... I'm hoping your read is incorrect and his position isn't that black hair is bad or undesirable, but that we VIEW it that way... and I'm hoping he blows that perception up in his film. But who knows - I haven't seen it - just the trailer.

I am a white woman who grew up in the Pacific Northwest. The first time I heard the phrase "good hair" and realized its relevance to black women was while reading Rosalind Wiseman's "Queen Bees and Wannabes" (about middle and high school girls). After reading Wiseman's book, surfing on the internet on a few natural hair sites, a bit of reading at Dr. Pilgrim's museum, etc. etc. I now started to really notice the lack of natural hair being represented in the culture around me. And forgive me if I'm incorrect here, but I also started to understand some of the anger directed at whites who grow locs of their own.

The very fact that many white ladies (and men) can go a long time - or most of their life - not knowing what "good hair" means and just what it's meant to so many POC gives strong evidence that no, there isn't really a white equivalent, not in the same way at least. The idea that white women pursue blondeness in the SAME way that WOC might persue Euro-hair? No, this does not at all resonate with me. For me personally - I've been about every color under the sun (in fact, my hair is a deep GREEN right now), but I've always thought of the different styles of hair color or curl as being OPTIONAL but that red, brunette, blonde, etc were all pretty options.

Also - platinum blondeing my hair, when I've done it, has never been much of a fuss. I'd color my hair and then just be me - but blonde.

And anyway... when it comes to the "work" we put into beauty (whatever we're striving for) I think it matters a lot if we feel we HAVE to do it (or else not be deemed socially acceptable, or "clean", or viewed as ghetto or lower class or whatever) or if we feel it's optional.

I appreciate your post, as always!

Halei said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Liberty said...

Amen, sister! Thanks for this. The hair debate never ends, partly because it represents so much about race and identity in this country. Some feel the only way to counteract internalized negativity is to name it and to talk about it. I know I do!

I believe "Good Hair" is supposed to be released nationwide Oct. 23. Look forward to your thoughts on it. I'll be blogging about it for sure!

Always a joy to read your site,


Chi-Chi, The Original Wombman said...

I thoroughly love what you write here on your blog. I'm so happy I found it.

Aiyo said...

From what I have seen of Chris Rock documentary and read from the reviews he does not discuss the "good hair" "bad hair" thing which is weird when calling your movie "Good hair".

The documentary "My nappy roots" is something that I would definetly love to watch in goes more in depth where as chris rock's film only discusses relaxers and weaves and dosen't even have a segment on natural hair.

I live in Lodnon and you a get a mixture of everything (you get more natural hair here, especially in advertising) in fact the style options for teen girls in is to have a band geled to the forehead have your hair tied back in one big ponytail puff and even if the hair was relaxed it still had to be quite big.

I never hated afro-textured hair I relaxed my hair at 13 got bored then went back to natural at 16. I have worn weaves as a protective style and looking back most of them matched my texture. I do remeber one girl who would forever rave about another girl's hair who was mixed race and that always irked the hell out of me and my friends

Sassy J said...

Hi Tami!

Well, you kinda know where I stand on this issue!!! But, I do not think I have the heart to see the movie/financially support this media.

Aiyo said:From what I have seen of Chris Rock documentary and read from the reviews he does not discuss the "good hair" "bad hair" thing which is weird when calling your movie "Good hair".

I was thinking the same thing. In the trailers, he's only highlighting black women that straighten or weave their hair...there's no "other side of the story", so it is betrayed.

And as I put on my FB status, I am one of the many Black women that enjoys having someone run their fingers through my hair. Albeit the right energy is there; not just *anybody* can touch this queendom, but you know what I'm sayin'!

Loving the new commentors and different perspectives!

Anonymous said...

As a white woman in the process of adoptiong a child from Ethiopia, I am slowly realizing there is more to hair than I ever knew. I grew up the straight, shiney light blonde hair. I didn't ever have to do anything and it looked great. As an adult, just about two years ago after pregnancies 1 and 2 my hair changed. It is much darker brown, and it is KINKY. I canNOT run brush through it, it takes 20 minutes to comb out unless I dump a ton of product in it, only wash it once a week, really dry and brittle even though I never blow dry, etc. I know it's not black hair, but all of a sudden I am faced with learning how to deal with my hair, or pay outragous amounts of money to make it more manageable. I feel like I sympathize with anyone who can't deal with intense curls and kinks. I DO feel like I no longer have "good hair" because it is hard to do. I am inspired to embraced the hair I have and learn how to feel beautiful even though it's not easy to do. I hope this change has made me more patient and accepting of hair of all textures. I appreciated that quote frmo the Kelly Commenter. I am still working on being confident with Mother Nature gave me. Because it isn't easy. It isn't about looks for me. It's about it being a freaking pain in the ass. But I realize I can't talk negatively about my kinky hair in front of my kids with even kinkier hair. I have to love and accept my own hair so they will love and accept theirs. It's not easy though.

Lady C said...

Good hair is hair that doesn't "go back" if you sweat too much. That hair, imo, is natural hair.

My hair has been natural for 25+ years. I worked in a bank, for the state, and in the rail industry. I wore my hair straight to get the jobs at the bank and the state and then reverted back to my natural once my foot was in the door. I didn't even bother with the sham when I was hired by the railroad 17 years ago, because my work ethic spoke louder than my hair.

Lemon said...

Good post! I agree with the whole "Good Hair" movie not being what it should be.

But i consider 'good' hair thick and healthy doesn't matter the texture.


Sabrina Messenger said...

I can remember an advertisement around 1972 or 73 for Afro Sheen when they'd show several women with relaxed hair and a male voice-over said, "she's not right." "no, not her" and then they showed a model with a really awesome Afro and the voice over went "ah, there she is the one with the beautiful, NATURAL hair!" Those were the days, no doubt...

Nia said...

Excuse me if I say something silly, I'm reading this out of curiosity. I live in a country with very little African population and I don't think I've ever seen anybody up close with natural African hair. Here in my country there is also a racist connection - as I grew up, big hair or curly hair made people think of gypsies, the only significant minority until recently.

I think that part of the question about what is beautiful hair is the question of eroticism, as in many cultures women's hair is considered erotic.

I was wondering if very textured hair is not soft to the touch (I have no idea, I assume it's not), part of the Western ideal of "good hair" for women includes something that a man will enjoy touching. So, if a woman's hair is not saying "grab me!", she is considered less attractive.

Or maybe nappy hair is lovely to the touch and my theory is a lot of nonsense!

matis said...

But i consider 'good' hair thick and healthy doesn't matter the texture.

That's not really fair, either...Either you're born with thick hair or you aren't. I have really thin hair because both my parents do, I never get sick, when I had my blood tested a few years ago I was perfect on all my vitamin levels, etc. So "thickness" of hair has nothing to do with health in most cases, it's just what you were given by the universe.

Anonymous said...

I'm a white woman from northern Europe and just learned the term "good hair" when I stumbled upon a rant about the Rock film on the internet. To me nappy hair is not good, it's utterly amazingly beautiful. I've always thought it looks stunning. What a sad surprise it was to learn there are all these craptastic reasons why BW relax their hair and wear wigs, I really thought it was all for vanity like dye jobs and everchanging dos. So... I'm an ignoramus. But I do love black hair, and wish much success to you and anyone who's raising awareness about this.

nycweboy said...

I get the impression that a number of people here, including Tami, have not seen Good Hair. I highly recommend the film because, contrary to what some suggest, the question of what black people mean when saying "good hair" of themselves and one another is a key piece of why Rock made the film, and the tensions in the question are really what he explores, at times on the surface, often quite deeply. And the film does not, really, come to any easy answers; it's main flaw may be that it finds no answer at all... but I think that is also true of American culture.

Also, as an aside, Rock doesn't suggest any kind of analogy between how black people view European style hair as desirable and white women wanting to be blonde. He uses Farrah Fawcett as an example of the kind of "good hair" that we describe, which is something I certainly identify with, as I wanted to look like Charlie's Angels long before I understood what it meant to be gay. :)

I read and linked to a post here from a while back, also on this topic, and it's one that I think about a lot, because I have done so much to my hair (I currently have a Japanese thermal straight perm, but I have used relaxer, done braids, and a weave among other things) and as a mixed race person I find myself in a sort of in between place: I don't feel bound to a particular look, I'm fine with wearing my hair in its naturally curly state... but I prefer it straight, and long, and "silky" and I know that, yes, it's part of set of cultural markers I grew up with and internalized. I think the first step to sorting out the cultural pressures, to figuring out what's good, and bad, in how people of color approach something as benign and yet as fraught as our hair is to actually bring this up for discussion... but I'm not sure we have a good answer yet for what comes beyond that. I like the discussion though - and I like what Rock's film adds to it - and I hope it continues.


Edie said...

To Nia:

I find my own (natural) hair extremely fluffy and fun to play in. It definitely has the potential to be erotic. ;)

windy city girl said...

Thanks for another insightful post, Tami.

"Good hair" is, of course, a loaded term for me as a black woman. Growing up, my mother (who's natural hair is straight and waist length) had it. People would look at me and wonder how I ended up with nappy hair (have my dad to thank for that). My sister had less nappy hair that was more amenable to the straightening comb than mine.

The more I see of Chris Rock's film, the more angry I get that he's perpetuating stereotypes about black women and about black hair. A part of me wants to see the film so I can critique it properly; but on the other hand, why should I support this ignorance peddling with my hard earned dollars?

Anonymous said...

After Hurricane Katrina, one predominately white community's police chief in Louisiana admitted that they racially profiled their policing based on the more natural hairstyles of black men:

"if you're going to walk the streets of Saint Tammany Parish with dreadlocks and chee wee hairstyles, then you can expect to be getting a visit from a sheriff's deputy."



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