Friday, July 9, 2010

Dispatches From Nappyville: I don't have "good" hair

This morning at the doctor's office, a friendly African American nurse became entranced by my hair. She patted it gently while measuring my height. "I love your hair!" She stole glances at my thick chunky 'fro/week-old twist out while taking my blood pressure. Then, peering closely at my head, she asked, "How did you get it that way?

Me: "I just put a few big twists in and took them loose."

Nurse: "Hmmm...What grade of hair do you have? Does it curl naturally? Do you have good hair?"

Me: (pause) "Well, my hair is natural. I don't have any chemicals in it."

Nurse: "Oh, yeah, then you've got that good hair. It's cute!"

Good hair. If there are two more loaded words in the black beauty lexicon, I don't know what they are.

Here is what I find curious every time I have had this discussion since deciding to go natural (and I have had it numerous times): I don't believe in the concept of "good hair," but I know exactly what type of hair black folks are referring to when they invoke that phrase...and it ain't mine.

My hair is not silky. I don't have big, uniform curls. My hair grows out and is thus slow to reveal its true length. It's super thick and not combable when not wet and well-conditioned. No one, back in my hair relaxing days, ever put the words "Tami" and "good hair" together in a sentence. In fact, my stylist used to make a big show of having to go in the back and get the strong stuff to tame my kinks. In its multiple textures, my hair reveals my racial heritage--most especially my African roots. I love my hair. It is great hair. But it is not good hair--not in the way my kindly nurse meant the words.

So, why do I (and so many of natural-headed friends) get accused of having "special" hair, when our manes are really unremarkable? I suspect it is because black women are taught that big, kinky curly, fluffy, non-combable hair can't be pretty--that hair that reveals its African roots isn't "good."

I have written often of my weariness at white people exoticizing my black hair. But what makes me sadder than having my looks marginalized by the majority culture is when my own people, convinced as they are of our hair's deficiency, communicate their conviction that only exceptional black hair can be pretty, when they marvel at my hair for doing precisely what theirs might do without chemicals or weave.

Now, I dig a compliment as much as the next person. If feels good to know someone else thinks my hair rocks as much as I do. But these encounters with other black women often leave me lamenting our collective lack of knowledge about our own natural tresses (this is what happens when you relax, weave and wig from the cradle to the grave) and how good they can look. I am left damning the the Eurocentric beauty standard and the hold the notion of "good hair" has on my people.

Photo credit: Nodlem


navelgazingbajan said...

As a lifelong natural, I think I've had that same conversation a zillion times. It usually ends with the woman telling me that she couldn't do it (go natural) but my hair is cute. Sigh.

I guess it's marginally better than when people used to ask me why I don't relax my hair which was really their way of saying that they preferred me to do so.

jaddadalos said...

Yup. Been there. Been like that since high school (I have only had my hair relaxed for one school year - 11th grade - with a short style. Up until about 8 years ago it was alternating between braids and press 'n curl. Been twistin' and playin' free style for the last 8 or so years)

It's just amazing to me when Black folk (women esp.) wonder why my twists curl up the way they do at the tips. I'm sure they're assuming a certain texture, but my hair is TIGHTLY curled and it can do ANYTHING! But it has made me realize (as they stare in wonderment) that they don't have any idea what their own hair is capable of. I have students who I am sure don't know their curl pattern and have never seen themselves without straight hair or braids or a weave.

All it does is encourage me to try new things with my hair to express the versatility of what comes out my scalp. As much as we don't want our hair to be political, it's something that may be inescapable. I'll just address this by rockin' it as best I can.

Kelly Hogaboom said...

Tami, I really like this post (as usual). I'm sure you're aware that for all the exotification by white folks and the "oh my hair could never do this" or the occasional hints that you should relax or whatever, there is also the fact you are probably inspiring some women to consider natural which can be a journey of self-love and self-care (note I am not saying all black women should go natural). I don't think you owe it to anyone or that your hair SHOULD be political, just that you're doing good work just by being you in the way you're doing it.

As a white woman it's hard for me to understand all the factors at play; I simply can't get it. I do listen and try to understand, and I appreciate your writing.

navelgazingbajan, I liked your blog and added it to my feed reader!

Anonymous said...

Hear! Hear! Tami. This is from a baby boomer who wore her hair natural for many many years! I have a daughter in corporate America who wears her natural as well. She has, however, on occasion undergone the "pressing" procedure from time to time and when she does; the praises are off the hook at work. When she returns to her twists; the looks of disappointment are many and some from her ethnic group have expressed dismay over the "natural look". They cite that it just doesn't look professional. Where does a head full of natural kink go to rest. Apparently, not in corporations!

Kay said...

I can totally understand how the ignorance could be draining. Before I went back to perming, I had a big afro, and I went to the bank and was stared at so hard I could feel the power for their fixation on my hair from behind. However, I do like to look at beautiful natural hair, etcetera. I try to save my stares for the internet. I've been told before that I stare, and I am not sure a smile when I see a cute couple or something is not enough to prevent them from thinking "What the hell are you looking at?" I do at least keep my mouth shut, because no one wants me walking up to their table talking about "You're such a cute interracial couple. How'd you meet.". So, things that I enjoy be it hair, the looks of some random guy, or a cute couple or baby, I try not to over inspect (and definitely not comment).

@ Anonmyous

Yes, it's definitely not at corporations. Lol.

msladydeborah said...

I have been wearing my hair natural for at least 4 decades of my lifetime. I find that it is still a debatable subject among Black and White people.

I do not allow people to put their hands in my hair unless there is something that needs to be removed.

When someone has violated my personal space and touched my hair they are often surprised that the texture isn't like they believed it would be. It is pretty soft and it always has been that way.

The good hair vs. natural hair debate has been raging on since the Seventies. Back then if you didn't have a natural you were the problem. I am not anti-relaxed hair. Before I went natural, I was a child of the hot comb and relaxers.

Your hair has tha look of healthiness. That is a major point in my mind. I see women with natural and relaxed styles whose hair doesn't look well nourished. That's a problem in my mind. No matter what styling method a person goes for-if your hair is not well cared for-it isn't good hair. This is an issue that we really don't discuss a whole lot. But I think it is far more important than an individual's hairstyle.

Given the numbers of Black women who are losing hair due to the lack of proper care-it would seem that this would be the focus more than the good hair/bad hair issue.

TMA said...

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! I've been natural for over ten years now, and I've often had people make similar to statements to me. My hair is a mix of textures, with the tightest coils being present in my crown. If I don't twist or braid my hair down, it will definitely go up and out.

When I was a new natural, I would often not know what to say to women who said, "Well, you can wear your hair like that. You have a good hair texture for being natural." However, after working with my hair and observing many different types and styles natural friends, acquaintances, and passers-by wore, I began to tell women that they may be surprised about what their natural hair would look like or do. I didn't remember my hair being the way it is now when I was little; I bet that many women who think they "can't" go natural would be surprised at what was actually growing out of their scalps.

Thank you for sharing this, Tami.

mistresssparkletoes said...

Hi, Tami! I've arrived here from a link that Renee at womanistmusings left at

I really enjoyed your post. This sentence made my heart fall out on the carpet, though, it's so sad:

our collective lack of knowledge about our own natural tresses (this is what happens when you relax, weave and wig from the cradle to the grave)

I can't imagine. My (white) privilege doesn't want to imagine. But thank you for writing this (and to the commenters for writing their experiences). All I can think to do is just shake my head.

I can't imagine.

PerfectlySkewed said...

I am chiming in with mistresssparkletoes. I was incredibly unaware of my privilege until I was seventeen and met a woman of colour who kindly explained what the scars on the back of her neck were from (hot combing).

I was sent here from Shakesville. Your writing is excellent! Rock on with your bad self, and if I may ask, is the picture at the top of the post of your hair specifically?

Tami said...

Perfectly Skewed,

That's not my hair in the pic, but I chose the shot because it kind of looked like mine.

karinova said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
karinova said...

Tami said: "what makes me sadder than having my looks marginalized by the majority culture is when my own people, convinced as they are of our hair's deficiency... marvel at my hair for doing precisely what theirs might do without chemicals or weave.

Worst of all is when you realize you've been doing it to yourself.

I'm currently transitioning for the first time ever. I never really liked my relaxed hair (so... limp; ugh!) but you know how it is. You just do it. Once I left home, I switched to "tex-laxing," trying to get the Holly Robinson Hair I'd always longed for. Never quite achieved it. Then one day last year it suddenly hit me, as I was hating on my hair as usual, that I literally did.not.know what it actually looked like. 33 years old, NO IDEA. For all I knew, it came out of my head looking like what I'd always wanted. Wouldn't THAT be a kick in the pants!? So I just said fuggit, let's see what this is like.

What an emotional ride. I won't lie; I was afraid. What if it was just... awful? Then, I suddenly really started to SEE black hair— all of it— and realized, wait, I LOVE it! I was delighted by this, but also kinda sad. For years, I couldn't see that black hair really is beautiful. ALL of it.

Anyway, it's been better than I ever expected, what with the horror stories. Wasn't long before I managed my first good braidout and was like, OMGILOVEMYHAIRLIKETHIS!!! Which had never happened before. Like, ever. It actually felt weird to be loving my hair that much. I literally had to get used to the sensation. Which again, made me a little sad, even in the midst of my happy. So much time wasted in that particular corner of the Matrix, you know? That day I first loved my hair, I ecstatically thought, "where have you been all my life?!" And then I busted out crying, because: ON MY HEAD.

karinova said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NakedSha said...

The term 'Good Hair' has been abused. But, in my opinion, 'Good Hair' is healthy hair...whether white, blonde, grey, black, brunette, kinky, nappy, curly, straight, relaxed, straightened, short, long, frizzy, etc.

Good hair is healthy hair. Sadly, that's not what society is teaching us.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this.

On the pop culture end, I get so angry when "makeovers" of black women involve relaxing natural hair. They did this to Biggest Loser semi-finalist Sunshine, who is biracial and has thick, wavy, curly hair. When they did her makeover, they straightened it completely and then added back in those Hollywood Magazine style large rolling waves. I was so pleased to see that after the makeover episode, she went right back to how her hair was before.

AlongCameStacey said...

I have a Dominican co-worker who has curly hair and she would compare my hair to hers. And then she would say that she didn't have "good hair" like her mother. I asked her what good hair was and she said "well, you know, straight hair." Then I asked her, "If your moms hair is good then what is ours?" She seemed so embarrassed.

Now I'm not out to embarrass people but I realize that some folks don't stop and think about what they're saying. So every time someone says the term "Good hair", I have to ask them to explain to me what bad hair is. They almost never want to say. And I walk away hoping that they think twice about using that term in the future.


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