What Does "Good Hair" Really Mean, Anyway?

Illustration for article titled What Does Good Hair Really Mean, Anyway?

"[I]f you had bad hair, what did that say about you?" On Sunday, the Washington Post delved into the thorny ideas of hair politics, holding an open mic for African-American women to talk about their feelings on the subject.

The opening article discusses how loaded the term actually is:

Always the words "good hair" evoke stories, stories containing memories of childhood, memories of being teased, memories of people from a dominant culture touching your hair, asking questions. Stories of sitting in the kitchen near a hot stove on a Saturday night, while your mother pressed your hair for church the next morning, you flinching as she pulled the comb through.

Stories of the time you cut off all your hair and a boy in the back of the school bus said you looked like a boy. And you turned around and punched him. You remember your hair freshly shampooed and flowing in the summer breeze because that was the way you dried it then, before blow dryers, before relaxers.


In the interviews with everyday women, you see an interesting narrative begin to emerge. Namely, no matter what type of hair crowned your head, there were going to be problems.

Queen Aishah, a comedian, shares a painful memory of a friend deeming her hair unkempt:

One day my girlfriend in the seventh grade, she gave me a comb for a present. It broke my heart. To this day it brings tears to my eyes. I didn't cry then but my heart sank in my stomach. She gave me a comb in front of my seventh grade class.

I really wanted to beat her up. She had wrapped the comb like a present. It was wrapped like in Christmas paper. I said, "Oh, I got a gift." Because we didn't have gift exchange in [our] house. [Then] I was like, "Oh my God! What did she get me?"

And then everybody busted out laughing. It was homeroom. It was an embarrassing thing.

Shenee' Harris remembers the influence of pop culture on her hair choices:

I just remember wanting to wear it straight. I thought it would look good. When you look on television and in the media, even the cartoon characters, the women have long, flowing hair. The Smurfette had long hair. Miss Piggy had long hair. I liked my hair to be bone straight.


Avis Jones-DeWeever remembers the pain of conversion:

My earliest hair memory was sitting in front of the oven and dreading the ritual of getting the hair pressed with the two jar tops over my ears [to protect them]. And my mother takes the hot comb and that sound, sizzzzzzzzzzzz! The heat and the pain of getting burned from time to time. The little torture that black girls go through in terms of the first experience — pre-perm — in an attempt to straighten their hair.

Then we eventually graduated to an actual hairdresser, where you still had the hot-comb experience. Hold your ears back. You were on edge all the time. You could feel the heat as the comb approached your scalp. Not only could you feel it, you could hear your hair literally frying as they are pulling the comb through. The heat of your hair touches your face or neck. It's hot. It's not comfortable. It has to be done quite often to maintain the effect.


Sadly, even black girls with straight hair can't catch a break:

They used to call me "black China girl" because they didn't understand why my hair was straight, why it was slick. They would ask me am I biracial. "No," I would say, "both my parents are black!"

Certain people would only like you because of your hair texture. Some girls would want to fight you because of your hair texture. They would never come out and say it but they would do things like pull your hair. Or just not like you because they think you feel you have something better than them. It made me want to cut my hair at about the third or fourth grade, at the stage when you are sensitive to what people think about you.


And yet, despite all the emotions wrapped up in how we wear our hair, there is still hope that we can instill in others the confidence we lacked growing up. Liz Nolan, a 65-year old salon owner, remembers always thinking her hair was never good enough:

When I was growing up, one side of my family was very fair-skinned. As they said in the olden days down South, where I was born . . . if you had straight hair and light complexion, you were pretty. Nice looking. I was born with kinky hair. So I remember going to the beauty salon trying to get my hair straight as possible. They were using all this grease on my hair. I used to have to come home and take a towel and take it out so I could look like my cousin. I wanted to look like my cousin because they told me my cousin was very pretty because she had good hair and I didn't have good hair.


Nolan goes on to discuss how her perception of her hair changed as she grew older, and how she felt called to become a beautician to reinforce to women that they are beautiful - regardless of how they choose to wear their hair. But the most compelling proof of how we can reverse this ideology comes from Nolan's braided seventeen year old daughter, who says, simply:

I always liked my hair.

You Grow, Girl! [Washington Post]
Getting to the Roots of 'Good Hair' - Queen Aishah[Washington Post]
Getting to the Roots of 'Good Hair' - Shenee' Harris [Washington Post]
Getting to the Roots of 'Good Hair' - Avis Jones-DeWeever
Getting to the Roots of 'Good Hair' - Greer Jones [Washington Post]
Getting to the Roots of 'Good Hair' - Liz Nolan [Washington Post]
Getting to the Roots of 'Good Hair' - Phantasia Nolan [Washington Post]

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I don't claim to understand the black good hair/bad hair experience, but I do wonder if it's coming to an end.

I think some of this is generational and society is moving away from a rigid definition of what makes a woman beautiful.

Personally, I know I admire black friends' hair - braids can be really pretty and natural hair can hold shape so well.

I really think we are all moving toward a broader definition of beauty. Think about our biggest celebrities recently. The American beauty ideal is still thin blonde, but there is also a lot more appreciation for "ethnic" or "exotic" looking women. Like, J.Lo and Kim Kardashian made having a curvy ass cool and created a beauty ideal that is non-white (Latina, Armenian). Even Lindsey Lohan made freckled red heads cool.

I'm not sure there is like a natural black hair spokeswoman yet, but I think it's just a matter of time.