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.

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